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Operation reptile rescue

Mary Ellen Kerney is a dedicated reptile rescuer, with 68 reptiles sharing her Spokane home. Kerney considers them to be not only pets, but learning tools.

“I’m a substitute teacher,” says Kerney. “So I bring in all sorts of animals to class for the children to feed, touch, hold and to watch eat. I teach the kids about the animals’ habitats. I also teach them about the habitats that are being destroyed. Kids need to make these connections. They love the animals.”

Her collection is impressive: Russian tortoises, bearded dragons, collared lizards, frogs, and various turtles and chameleons. Many are rescues from customers who buy the animals then later return them to pet stores. Such animals can’t be resold as they may carry disease or parasites. So Kerney gets a call.

“Too many people buy pets without knowing exactly what they’re getting into,” says Kerney. “Animals need proper enclosures, care and food. Don’t buy animals on a whim. Do research first. Make sure the animal is healthy. Think of the cost of the set up.”

After seven years of reptile rescue Kerney has learned a lot. She constructed a turtle “bunkbed” to provide more space. Ficus trees both within and outside the enclosures furnish gyms for the chameleons, dragons and lizards. Screened cages are better than glass as they provide more ventilation.

These animals eat well. Fresh fruits and vegetables such as bananas, tomatoes, carrots, peas, and romaine lettuce, and less appetizing silkworms and crickets. The chameleons can eat crickets with lightning speed, with a tongue anywhere from one to one and a half times their body length.

Kerney says veiled chameleons are the easiest reptiles to raise, but they still require special care. If they’ve been handled since they were babies they won’t bite. Kerney will often bring one to the store, tucked into her sweater with its head peeking out. Within minutes she’ll have a crowd around her.

“I’m Mom,” says Kerney. “The funny thing is that many people don’t think that these animals have personalities. But they all do. Some good, some bad.”

A bit of sunshine is healthy, so if the weather is nice then Kerney will carry the reptiles to outdoor enclosures. It’s sometimes difficult, though, to find them in the grass when it’s time to go in. She has to count to make sure they are all there.

Kearney says unpleasant “accidents” rarely happen.

“The chameleons never go to the bathroom on me,” says Kerney. “The turtles might. Whenever I bring animals into the classroom there’s always one that poops and the kids will say ‘Oh, that’s disgusting!’ and I’ll say ‘You poop, I poop, everybody poops, and they’re not trained to use the toilet.’ Then I use it as a learning experience. We talk about animals and how they get rid of what they don’t need.”

Many people mistakenly believe that chameleons match the color of their environment. Actually their hue corresponds to their moods and health. Chameleons change colors when they’re scared, angry or sick. It’s more of a mood thing than a camouflage thing, Kerney says.

Kerney doesn’t encourage bringing wild animals into the home. They may have parasites or won’t eat whatever you offer. She’s tried to save too many ill animals.

“I have animals that live for a day or two, for a week, for six months, for a few years. You just never know,” says Kerney.

“The sickest ones are the ones I usually become most attached to, because I spend the most time with them. And some of them never make a comeback.”

Kerney’s dream is to write children’s stories starring her reptiles, and to have a larger house with bigger enclosures. She also would love to have more people involved in reptile rescue. She’s running out of room.

It can be a tough job, but there are rewards.

“It’s a lot of work,” says Kerney. “You put a lot of emotion into it. But I can die tomorrow and be happy because I have kids everywhere in this town who remember the animals. It’s made an impact in their lives. And that’s what’s most important to me.”

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