Reptiles think differently from you and me.
Mammals are still reptiles, deep down. We call that part of our brain our lizard brains, that older piece of gray matter that the mammalian brain grew on top of. The reptile brain is what we talk about when we talk about the part of our brain that thinks of nothing but food and sex and death.
For the last few months I’ve owned a small lizard. One day, with care, he will be large lizard. He is a bearded dragon. He has a crown of spikes around his face that make him look like a dinosaur. He looks like something that shouldn’t really exist in the modern world. We named him King Ghidorah. The lizard doesn’t care what his name is. Sometimes we call him King. Sometimes Ghidorah. Sometimes we just call him lizard.
Lizards have very few facial expressions, because very few parts of their face move. Unlike snakes, most lizards have eyelids. They blink. They close their eyes to sleep. These are recognizable things.
Sometimes the lizard sits with his mouth open. It’s cute. He looks like he’s smiling. He’s not. He’s regulating his body temperature.
He can also inflate the loose, spiky skin at this throat into a collar beneath his chin. This is why he is called a bearded dragon. When they are older, bearded dragons do this as a threat display. It makes them look bigger than they are, and fiercer. When they are babies, they do this seemingly at random. Nobody really knows why. They are practicing.
When he is cold or scared he flattens himself to any available surface and lies very still. He can become very flat when he does this. There is little difference to a lizard between being cold and being scared. Maybe they feel neither. Maybe they just feel flat.
Inside Ghidorah’s terrarium, it is a hundred and ten degrees and the glass walls are covered in plastic greenery. The greenery looks nice, but it is mostly there to keep the lizard from seeing his reflection. He is obsessed with his reflection. If he sees it, he becomes instantly mesmerized, like Narcissus. He performs acts of communication meant only for other lizards. He bobs his head. He waves his front legs. Sometimes he puffs his beard and charges at his image. I am not sure if he thinks it is the same lizard or a different lizard each time. It is the lizard that does everything he does as he does it. Perhaps he sees his reflection as his soul mate, and is distressed that he can’t enter the world in the other side of the glass.
Psychologists don’t perform learning experiments with lizards. They use mammals and birds, mostly. It’s hard to tell if or how lizards learn. If they do learn, they probably learn like someone with anterograde amnesia. They learn something, but they don’t remember learning it. It becomes something they already know.
Ghidorah knows that I will not eat him. He knows that I am warm. When he is tired, he crawls into the collar of my coat to sleep. He knows that he is fed crickets at about 5 o’clock each day. He knows that if I come into the room and he paces at the glass in front of his cage, that I will let him out and he can climb through the larger world. He sits on my knee while I read and I stroke his pebbly back until my blood pressure drops. I don’t know if he likes this or simply tolerates it.
If my lizard had been born in the wild, in Australia, in the desert, as is proper, he might survive to adulthood. If he did, he wouldn’t need someone like me to take care of him. Bearded dragons are a hardy species. A man told me on every fencepost in the Australian outback there is a bearded dragon basking. He may have been exaggerating.
I love this lizard. I want to make him happy in the ways that lizards may be happy. I keep him warm and give him nice things to eat. In the summer I will take him outside and show him what sunshine looks like. It is an unrequited sort of love. The lizard doesn’t care whether I love him or not.
I hadn’t posted anything in ages, so I decided to write up some of the thoughts I’ve been having about pet ownership. Reptiles are weird, but also wonderful. For the song that this post was titled after, click here. Everyone loves my little gargoyle.