I come into the reptile section of the RSPCA Rescue Centre, a little early. Cat, Fred, Tom and four volunteers (only one of whom I recognise) are sitting or leaning against the desk of what we call the shop. This is the bit that everyone sees, where the animals that are healthy and ready for new homes are on display, sitting peacefully in their vivarium, sleeping under their hides or (in the case of one bearded dragon), scrabbling at the glass.
I put my bag and hoodie in the tiny kitchen behind the desk and lean against the wall next to Cat. I am by far the youngest volunteer there. The four other volunteers go off in pairs to the rooms they’ve been asked to do. Fred and Tom go to do Venomous, which only the staff are allowed to go into. Me and Cat stay behind, as we are going to do the shop today. Cat unlocks all the vivariums, and I go around with a temperature gun, checking both the hot and the cold ends of the vivs, while Cat writes the numbers down in the folder. I also check which creatures need more food, a full clean, or just a paper change.
When we’ve done the whole room, we decide which end to start cleaning at. I start with the far end nearest the door, on the leopard gecko with the dropped tail. It has grown back, but it is now almost round and smooth. When a leopard gecko drops its tail, it almost always grows back shaped more like a head, to reduce the risk of a predator attacking its actual head.
It takes almost all morning to clean, water and feed everybody, including the grumpy crested gecko in the corner. When we have finished, I sweep the floor and Cat mops after me. After that we lock up the shop and go out to do Isolation. It is a tiny room, no bigger than a cupboard really. At the moment it has only four snakes in it, all of which need feeding. After we have cleaned and watered them all, Cat brings in four large mice. I pick one up with the feeding tongs and wave it in front of the first snake’s face (I have to stand on a box because he is at the top). He takes it, and I put his hide back on top of him. Next is the anery corn snake, who is in shed. He takes it too, and I leave him with it. The third one is a king snake, well renowned for being sassy little biters. I wave the mouse in front of him and he grabs it, quickly wrapping his coils around it and squeezing, trying to crush the life out of it. Dramatic little snake. Its already dead! The last one’s the milk snake, who is also in shed, so can’t see very well. She doesn’t seem to recognise the mouse as food, and shies away from it. I drop it next to her. She’ll take it in her own time.
When we have finished Iso we walk back to the shop where most of the volunteers (and Tom and Fred) have gathered for lunch. I sit cross-legged on the floor and listen to everyone else chatting while I eat my lunch. When I am finished I ask Tom whether I can hold the Burmese python (Cat and Fred had gone out for lunch), but Tom says that he’s been fed, so I ask if I can get out Grandpa, the yemen chameleon, and Tom says yes.
I gently tease Grandpa off his branch (he doesn’t want to come!) and put him on my hand. He calms down after that, and starts to climb up my arm. I watch him as he makes his way to my shoulder, and there he stops. I let him sit there for a while before gently shifting my hoodie off my shoulder so I can put him back on my arm.
Soon I am joined by a couple of other volunteers – two girls whom I haven’t met before, but seem nice, and who ask to hold Grandpa. I gently nudge him forwards onto one of the girls’ arm, and he proceeds to clamber round her back and onto the floor. I scoop him back up again and put him on the other girl’s hand. After a lot of laughter and picture-taking from them, and smiling from me, we put Grandpa back. They go outside for a second, and I go back to the desk. Cat and Fred are back, and Fred is talking to someone on the phone about a baby water dragon who is coming in today. My ears prick up. I like to be there when new creatures come in.
About twenty minutes later, a tall blonde lady walks in. She is wearing a uniform with a white shirt with black bits on her shoulders that have gold buttons on. She has a badge that says ‘RSPCA Collection Officer’; on it. My eyes widen. The RSPA Collection Officers are the people who go around rescuing animals who have been treated badly, and bringing them to people like us who look after them and rehome them. They can search people’s houses if they have had a report of an ill-treated animal there, and take that animal away. Sometimes if the animal is being abused and the person doesn’t want to give them up the Collection Officer can bring in the police and seize the creature. This means that the baby water dragon was not given to us by his owner because they could no longer look after him, but he was taken from them because he was being looked after so badly.
Fred has taken the little creature out of his box, and is holding him and talking to the lady. I move closer. The baby dragon is tiny, no more than 12cm long without his long, long tail, which is drooping from Fred’s hands like a mournful piece of string. His eyes are closed, and his mouth is swollen and misshapen. His tail, though long still, has lost about 16cm off the end. His little scaly chest drifts in and out with his breath. Fred tells me that when he was my age he had a pair of water dragons and they were the same size as this one when they were six months old. This water dragon is over a year old. After the collection officer lady has filled in the paperwork, she thanks Fred and leaves.
When she is gone me and Fred do all the health checks on the baby water dragon. We do the flip test which is where you flip the creature onto their back. Most creatures even if they only have a little strength left in them will at least try to flip the right way up. The little dragon doesn’t. He just lies there on his back, eyes closed, as though he’s just given up.
Fred picks him back up and holds him to his ear, to check for respiratory infections. Hearing nothing, he proceeds to check over the little dragon’s swollen mouth and nose and dropped tail. I stand beside him, stroking the little dragon’s scaly head and back. I long to hold the little creature, but I don’t want to be one of those young volunteers who just giggle and coo over the creatures. I hear Cat and the boys complain about them all the time. They aren’t very good at looking after the creatures, they just want to hold them. So I just stroke the little dragon, and help Fred check him over. And then Fred hands the little water dragon to me! He had been struggling a little, but he quietens down immediately as soon as he is in my hands. Fred laughs. ‘Of course he’d do that for you,’ he says. I am unreasonably happy.
When Fred has finished filling in the little dragon’s form, he asks me to follow him, and bring the little dragon into Glassroom to set him up in his new vivarium. I hold onto the small lizard a little tighter and carefully carry him over to Glassroom. There is a small cube shaped vivarium with a couple of plastic hides and a small tray full of water (he is a water dragon after all!) ready and waiting for him. I gently place him on top of one of the hides – the one nearest to the light, and step back. He lies there, in the same position as when I dropped him, eyes open, front feet curled underneath his chest, back legs stretched out behind him.
Fred adds hot water to his water tray until it is lukewarm: the best temperature for reptiles is the same temperature at which you would bathe a human baby.
‘Maybe put him in the water,’ he says. ‘It might warm him up a bit.’
I pick the litle dragon up again and put him in the water tray. He lies there for a second before lifting his head and scrabbling onto the edge of the tray, with his feet and long tail still dangling in the water. Then he turns around and, seemingly purposefully, slowly dips his head below the water. He stays there for a second and then quickly pulls his head out, and scrabbles back onto the side, as though he had fallen in by accident. I smile, and turn away.
When we get back to the shop, Cat is there waiting for me. ‘Shall we go and clean out the stick insects?’ she asks. I nod, and we go off towards Intake (through Overflow One, because Tom accidentally broke the door handle to the passage!). On the way, we pop into Glassroom to peek at the new tegu lizard thats come in, and ask the girl who is cleaning that room to call us when she gets him out. When we get to Intake I open the front of the stick insect viv and look inside.
‘Try and pick out the live ones,’ Cat says.
I reach inside, and immediately spot one that looks a lot less dead than the others. I pick him up and he wiggles, confirming his aliveness. I put him on the side and reach inside again, searching for any more live ones. I don’t find any.
‘Cat,’ I say, ‘I think there’s only one left.’
She comes over and picks up one of the other stick insects.
‘Are you alive? No. Are you alive? No. You know, you might be right Remy!’ she says. ‘Aww. Poor little creature. All alone.’
We put the stick insect in a pot with some leaves to eat. Then Cat tips the contents of the old stick insect viv into the bin. I give the viv a wipedown and set it on its side, ready for any other small occupant that might need it. We name the stick insect Groot, and Cat decides to take him home, seeing as he was all alone and would probably not live very long, so she may as well make the rest of his life happy.
Just then, the girl who was in Glassroom pops her head round the door and asks whether Cat would mind helping her get out the tegu because he is new and we don’t know what his temperament is like yet. Cat says yes, and I follow her to Glassroom where the tegu is sitting in the corner of his viv, facing the wall. Cat reaches in, wearing gloves just in case. But they aren’t necessary. She picks up the peaceful tegu by the back of his neck and gently places him in the box. She smiles.
‘Just like a scaly puppy,’ she says.
I walk over to the vivarium where the little water dragon is, but I can’t see him. I open the front of the viv and look around for him. It isn’t long before I spot him, hiding between the water tray and the front of the vivarium. I smile and shut the viv.
Me and Cat then head back to the shop because today I have to go early. While we are waiting for my parents to turn up, we get out Missus the chameleon, who is Grandpa’s daughter, and is in the tank above him. She is very sweet when she is in the tank and will happily eat from your hand but she does not like being taken out of the tank. Like father, like daughter. She hisses and opens her mouth at us when Cat reaches in. We handle her for a bit, and then Mama arrives. We put her back, and I go and get my bag from the little kitchen. I say goodbye to Cat and go out to the car.
As I am getting into the car I look back at the reptile centre.
This is the sort of place where I would like to work. When I finish school, probably in my gap year, I want to come here and work full-time. Then when I go to university, I hope to get a degree in herpatology and, one day, I hope to have my own rescue centre. I am not one of those volunteers who comes here just for fun or because their school requires them to. I come here because I love reptiles and amphibians, and I want to dedicate my life to them. And I will.
- Remy Duke