If you would have told me at this time last year that I would soon be adopting a cold-blooded animal who would steal my heart away, I would have told you that you’ve got the wrong girl, that I am a “cat person.”
However, that’s exactly what happened.
The weekend following Valentine’s Day 2019, my boyfriend, Evan, and I were about one month into settling into our new home. We headed to the pet store to pick-up a new scratching post for the cat because her old one was tossed in the move. We instead walked away with a baby bearded dragon, a bag-full of live crickets and the all-inclusive “bearded dragon starter kit” because it was our first reptile, and we were a little clueless.
He scratched at his box on the drive home, and I couldn’t peel my eyes away. I wanted to pet him, to stroke his spikes, but I was afraid of hurting him. He could nearly fit in the palm of my hand. We decided he would name him Bubbles, “Bubbles the Bearded Dragon,” with a laugh. These days, we call him Bubs.
When we arrived home, we quickly set-up his enclosure and spent the first few weeks fogging up the glass with our breath watching him closely as he adjusted.
We wanted him to be comfortable with being handled, so we began gently stroking his spine. I learned the hard way that dragons can make their “spikes” feel hard and sharp when they feel threatened. Note: never approach a dragon from the top as it frightens them. Eventually, we began holding him, and letting him sit on the couch with us. He seemed to enjoy watching football games, or at least they would hold his attention.
Within a couple of months, we had replaced everything that came in the “bearded dragon starter kit” because as it turns out, those kits don’t provide the best supplies. By summer, Evan had built him a beautiful, customized cage — two feet wide by two feet high by four feet long — including multiple levels, room to climb and a bridge between the hot and cool side of his home. It was quite the upgrade.
We were purchasing approximately 200 feeder crickets per week, plus a container of dubia roaches and super worms every now and then and fresh produce because dragons are omnivores. He was a growing boy.
Bearded dragons come from the hot, dry climate of central Australia. So when setting up a dragon enclosure, the goal is to re-create that environment as much as possible. (Actually, the goal when setting up any reptile enclosure or vivarium is to make it mimic their natural environment as much as possible.) Dragons need a basking light and they need their environment to reach desert-like temperatures. Being “cold-blooded,” their body temperature will reach whatever their outside environment is. However, the enclosure temperatures shouldn’t be desert-like through-and-through, because sometimes dragons need to cool down. Set up the tank so it allows a temperature gradient between the “basking side” and a “cool side.”
One of the most important elements of dragon keeping is ensuring that they are able to pick up ultraviolet rays produced by the sun to keep them healthy and strong. However, living in a four-season state doesn’t guarantee that bearded dragons will always have access to the sun. Therefore, a tube UVB bulb long enough to stretch across the majority of the enclosure is absolutely essential to keep bearded dragons healthy and thriving. Most bulbs last about six months before they stop producing the ultraviolet rays, but the more expensive bulbs will last about one year. UVB bulbs will stop producing the necessary rays before they blow out, a lesson we learned the hard way.
Although we had a rough start, essentially doing most things wrong in the beginning, we have experienced a year of learning how to “speak dragon.” Bubs may not breathe fire to scare away threats, but he can and will harden his “spikes,” and puff out and change the color of his “beard” to black when he feels threatened. In the wild, doing so would make dragons look scarier to potential predators. Bearded dragon keepers call that “black bearding.”
However, Bubs hardly ever “black beards” us — only when there is a little too much stimulation happening around him for his taste. He’s a friendly dragon, and while he looks a little scary to those who aren’t used to being around reptiles, his big “puppy dog eyes” and sweet demeanor will melt the hearts of all who spend time with him.
He lifts his head anytime I approach him, he turns to face me when I call his name, he knows my morning routine and when his breakfast is on its way, he prefers being talked to in a soft, “baby voice,” and paces the front of his enclosure and scratches at the walls when he is bored and wants out to play. He “scales” down the couch rock-climber style to explore the house when he is let out, and sometimes nuzzles up under the wrinkles on my shirt as he lays and relaxes on my chest.
He shows off his mellow but goofy personality every day. Bearded dragons usually have pretty big personalities.
Just a few nights ago, he fell asleep on the couch after being taken out of his enclosure. I picked him up to put him back so he could rest peacefully, his hands on my fingertips and body stretched down my arm. As I reached inside his enclosure to place him on his basking net, he pushed back on my fingers, as if he was telling me “No! I don’t want to go back in there; I want to hang-out on the couch with you!”
He may need specific equipment to survive and thrive, but not all “good boys” wag their tails. Some of them have a few spikes and scales.