Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Daddy, Hero, Lizard Rescuer

Yesterday, while standing in what would normally be the living room but in our house is an office/mound-of-papers-and-computer-parts and talking on the phone to our neighbor about the fire engine and three police cars that appeared the previous night around 4am across the street, I noticed a small lizard entangled in a large spider web just outside of the window. It was a little blue-tailed skink, and it was thrashing about desperately trying to escape.
Skink Image courtesy of Google Image Search
The kids and the wife were in the kitchen, explaining to our other neighbors exactly how we'd managed to kill two of their three fish while fish-sitting. I thought that I'd surprise the kids with a chance to see a real, live lizard plus get some brownie points for saving a poor helpless animal. So after hanging up the phone, I got a plastic container from the kitchen, put on my shoes, and ventured into the wild outdoor front yard to rescue the little guy.

For those who have never attempted to remove a small animal from a spiderweb, let me tell you that a web can be very, very tough to break. Especially when you're constantly on the lookout for what must have been - based on the size of the web and my overactive imagination - a 12-inch wide spider with nasty, sharp teeth. I did finally pull the skink loose, but I was seriously concerned that I had broken something vital in the process.

I was also worried that I'd harmed the skink.

In my mind, I imagined that I'd bring the lizard inside, show him off to the kiddos, and gently and easily remove the webbing. Then we'd all go outside and let him go in the flower bed. Happy days for everyone and the kids head off to bed with songs in their hearts. However, I understimated how entagled in web the skink had become and, as mentioned before, the relative strength of webbing produced by a foot-long spider.

The poor little guy was nearly mummified. His legs were strapped to his body, his mouth was wired shut, and one eye was glued closed. Even his tail was stuck, curled up in a loop. He struggled occasionally, but really wasn't able to move. The only evidence that he hadn't already died was his rapid breathing. I picked a bit at the webbing and found that it was not going to come off easily. I considered just giving up and telling the kids that he hadn't survived when my son said two things that sealed my fate for the rest of the evening.

With all of the heartfelt emotion that a 5-year-old can manage, he cried "Daddy we've got to save him!" Then, after I managed to free a single little lizard leg, "Daddy! You're a hero!"

I defy any father with a soul to withstand such a brutal and targeted assault from their offspring. It was now my number one job to save this little visitor to our house. The kids named him "Crawly".

I started by trying to remove the web from Crawly's back legs. They were the largest parts that I could easily grab onto and pull away from the body. My wife contributed some nail scissors, which we used to cut away the web between the body and the legs. After much careful stretching and cutting, both legs were freed. Crawly was unappreciative, and tried to run. Unfortunately, webbing is sticky as well as strong, and his back legs were immediately re-attached to his body. It felt like I was making no progress at all, and I starting trying to think of ways to explain the death of little Crawly to the kids.

Next I moved to the front legs. The front legs of a small lizard are very tiny, and his little ties are even smaller. Not being a herpetologiest, I was unsure of the relative strengths of lizard toes and spider webs. I was seriously concerned that, in pulling off the webbing I would also pull off a toe or two. That was also not something that I wanted to have to explain to the kids. Using a toothpick, I gently pried the legs away from the body, and my wife managed to cut away the stronger of the web strands. Of course, the legs nearly immediately re-stuck to the webbing on Crawly's body, but at least some of the stronger cords were being eliminated.

Crawly expressed his gratitude by pooping on my hands.

Afer vigorously washing my hands, I was worried that our lizard friend was getting overheated and dehydrated, so I tried to drop some water in front of him and on his body. With his mouth wired shut, he couldn't drink anything, but I did discover that the water made the webbing less sticky. His legs were starting to stay apart from him body for longer periods of time after I'd pry them apart. I decided to concentrate on opening his mouth before he got too mobile.

Crawly's head was nearly completely encased in spider webbing. I started on the side with the open eye and began rubbing at the web around his mouth. I surmised that I'd be able to roll the webbing off of the tip of his head and around, allowing him to at least drink and, perhaps, bite his rescuer. However, the webbing wouldn't budge. I moved on to using my fingernail to pick at the webbing, also to no avail. Next, I tried using a toothpick, which seemed to make some progress but quickly showed itself to also be a worthless web-removal technique. I considered using a sharp blade to cut the web away, but was in no way certain that I could avoid doing more damage than good to little Crawly. I was starting to get frustrated. I was starting to get discouraged. I decided to try again with the back legs.

Poor little Crawly was struggling much less vigorously at this point. We were all worried that we'd have to perform a funeral service before the night was over. My wife cleverly moved the kids out of the room to prepare for bed while I continued to pick and prod at our little lizard friend.

Concerned that Crawly was again overheating, I again rubbed water on his skin. This time, some of the web detached from his body in a large sheet. True, it was still strong - perhaps stronger than little lizard bones - but it was coming off, at least in one place.

Like peeling a sheet of wallpaper, where you try desperately to keep it from tearing as it comes off of the wall, I worked that sheet of webbing off of Crawly's torso. I'd press against his body with the toothpick while tugging on the webbing. When the pressure got too great and I worried about internal lizard damage or broken lizard ribs, I'd change positions and try pulling from another direction. Gradually, the web sheath came away from his abdomen, from one front leg, from over his eye, and slowly - very slowly - from over his mouth. Finally, the only remaining webbing was a large piece attached to his other front leg.

Crawly nearly undid all of my work at that point by thrashing around and forcing me to grab him around the middle while he hit me with every movable extremety. I was determined to keep the web from re-attaching, even if it meant negligible bodily harm to portions of my right hand and fingers. The last piece of webbing finally let go, and I put Crawly into a plastic container to see how he'd come through the ordeal. Would all four legs work? Would he roll over on one side? Would I be forced to hide him from the kids and come up with some fanciful, fictional tale of Crawly running away with his Lizard buddies?

Crawly sat still for what seemed like several minutes but was probably only a few seconds. His front feet were still curled underneath his body, and I was concerned that they'd re-attached to some sticky webbing that I'd missed. I reached in to pick him up again ... and he ran full-speed to the other side of the container and started trying to climb out.

You may never understand the happiness that can be conveyed by such a small thing as a lizard crawling across a plastic container. For those who have experienced it, there are few things more uplifting. But there is one. And that is your son coming downstairs, petting the lizard gently, and looking at you with awe, wonderment, joy, and love. And telling you that you are a hero.

We let Crawly go in the front yard. He didn't even look back. He just scrambled away into the flowers. We don't have any pictures, and the plastic and tools have all been cleaned up. But deep inside, I'll always have the memory of the day that I rescued a little lizard name Crawly and became, just for a while, a hero to my children.

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Anonymous said...

Good work, Scott!

Anonymous said...

My 6-year-old daughter and a lizard named "Mr. Blue Butt" greatly appreciate your post! I was despirately googl-ing "How to save a lizard from a spider web" and your blog popped up! You never imagine you are going to be excited when a lizard bites you! The tooth pick worked!

playful_artist said...

Okay, one more nut for the lizzard in a spider web dilemma. I'm sitting here beside a jar with a tiny - TINY - blue tailed skink that I just "rescued" from a spider web. I say rescued in quotes because the verdict is still out on how much help I'm going to be. Unfortunately, my little glued up skink is smaller than a toothpick. Head to end of tail, he's only about 2 inches long. I've tried water, oil, solvent (not my idea) and dish detergent on the spider web, but nothing has made a dent in it's strength or stickiness. I did manage to peel most of the web off his toes (they were glued together) but I imagine that part of the webbing was dusty, so didn't stick. The worst part of the web is wrapped around and around and around in layers over his tiny itty-bitty tail. The final half inch of his 1 inch tail is completely coated. I did cut the dangly strings off, but every time he tries to move, his tail gets stuck to whatever he's crawling on. I'm afraid if I just let him go, he will get stuck to the first leaf or piece of bark he skitters across and just die there. I've tried using a small needle to get between his tail and the web, but it's just too tiny. The end of his tail is as small as the needle. Even with a magnifying glass, it's too tiny to really see. I have no idea what to do. I don't want to keep him overnight for fear he'll starve and I don't want to just chop off the end of his tail because he may be so stressed after all this that it would be the last straw. He's so gorgeous and so cute, I just want to save him. I'm amazed to find you went through this same situation and so did the person who commented on your post. It's also amazing that all of us were dealing with blue tailed skinks. Ah, well. Truth is stranger than fiction. I'm going to take another try at it tonight and then either let him go in the woods or chop the end of his tail off, or bed him down in some moss and wait till morning when I can call the nature center for advice. He's so tiny that I can't possibly keep him or feed him. At his diminutive size, he's eating gnats or less. I wish I could find an ant. Poor little guy! At least now I know we're not alone. Thanks for your post. :)