Of Interns and Iguanas

So many exiting things happening all at the same time makes it hard to decide where to even begin...

Before the Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic even opened its doors, the first interns arrived in March 2012 and while I promised to focus more on animal’s stories again – as opposed to all that mostly “human” stuff – I can’t resist to also talk about our first 2 week interns: Sarah and Stacy. In 3 words: They were awesome! What connects Interns and Iguanas? Probably the first letter... and while all my students get their hands on iguanas, Sarah and Stacy saw a lot more then the average iguana patients during their internship.

They knew the clinic might not yet be open and opted for the “intensive rotation internship” where they would spend the majority of their time at our conservation partners and BWCN member organizations, get some basic theory and go around seeing patients with me. And they were ready to jump in! On our way from the airport we saw the first patient – not an iguana and possibly the subject of a different blog soon – a very sweet puma. The next morning, with the official start of their internship, we received the first iguana call.

In general I do not see very many iguana patients in Belize, since people do not keep them as pets here. If an iguana is found injured it will more likely end up in a pot since they are considered a delicacy, especially pregnant females. I am sure I do not have to tell you how bad eating the pregnant females is, from a standpoint of trying to sustainably use and protect a threatened species for future generations. But of course this is a different subject and I understand that this cultural practice and its conservation conflict are a very complex issue, despite the fact that a closed season during mating season has been legally in place for many years. Fortunately for Belize, we still see the green Iguana, even though several hunters report a drastic decline.

So the same origin applied to our first patient that day: a female iguana, full with eggs, that had been captured for consumption and was then purchased by someone who did not want to see her and her babies eaten... In the typical fashion the iguana had toes clipped and tendons pulled on front and back legs – to tie them for easy transport and restraint with their legs behind their backs.

But upon our first quick inspection, after she had an overnight post rescue, on a heating pad (and after a drive in a car and good sun exposure for 30 minutes) she was very lively, toes already dried and wounds closed, 4 good fingers remaining on each foot, only one small scratch on belly and she had laid 3 eggs. So the first impulse was to quickly send her on to San Ignacio Hotels Green Iguana Project where she could be incubated and soaked in warm water and given sandy substrate to lay eggs in, under the watchful eyes of Eddy and Humberto. We were all hoping for a quick recovery, release of mom and likely incubation of eggs.

The next day we arrived at the project and our lively rescue from the day before had lain down in a corner of the enclosure. Fire ants we starting to attack her eyes, ears and mouth. She was cold to the touch, barely responsive (it took a moment to actually determine that she was still alive) and had not laid any more eggs! So from a quick “lets see if we can give her a bit of recovery, good food and then release in a few” – she turned into a life threatening emergency - an egg bound iguana. And fire ants are truly an “evil enemy” when it comes to debilitated animals that we are trying to recover and a very BAD sign. So we quickly got into gear and did the usual – heat and fluids, some dextrose, Calcium and finally Oxytocin. She soon started showing weak signs of contractions! We were happy to see an egg emerge from her cloaca rather quickly! But the effect did not last and one egg was all we got. And female iguanas her size will lay about 30 or more. We continued our efforts and repeated treatments.

And then, much to our embarrassment, we made one of those crucial mistakes one should never make! Hopefully you can learn from us? We left the iguana, basically comatose with no response to 2 injections! sitting in her soak bath, outside of the main enclosure. To make it clear: she had not been conscious or responsive for a rather extended period of 2-3 hours when we left her unattended in that soak bath... and what happened? she „self released“ (which is an excuse used by some to disguise what is ultimately our human mistake... sounds better sometimes), meaning we turned around, talked and walked a few meters away... and she LEFT! So not only did she regain consciousness but she climbed out of the bath and fully disappeared! We were not able to locate her again, despite searching.

So let it be a lesson: no matter how comatose a patient appears to be ALLWAYS keep them inside an enclosure or under your direct supervision! Just never ever let your guard down would be a basic rule working with wildlife (and sometimes that seems to apply to life too).

Good news is that she was inadvertently released in what could possibly be one of the most protected spots for iguanas, right over the river at San Ignacio Hotel. And we hope that she regained enough strength with fluids, energy, calcium and hormones she was treated with.

Next Stacy and Sarah bathed and treated all 70 baby iguanas for ectoparasites, and retained skin and gave them a general check over. The majority was doing well but we saw a few cases of digital necrosis, some due to retained skin rings some possibly due to fungal infections. All iguanas came out greener and “shiny” from their bath and some seemed to enjoy the shedding help. . Usually I might go and see the Iguana Project once a month, but this time we got a rather urging text 2 days later, asking if we could come by for a visit for one of the stars of the project: Roxy! We were in the middle of other activities at the Belize Zoo and planning on visiting Belize Bird Rescue but the report sounded rather concerning: First Roxy had “disappeared”. Apparently Roxy used to sometimes take a “day excursion from the enclosure” and then return to the enclosure*...so no one was too concerned the first day of her missing.

And when she was found a day later she had been inside the enclosure, trapped under a collapsed cavity in the sand! She too was overdue to lay eggs! Nothing else we had planned that day was “life threatening” so we quickly switched the schedule and returned to San Ignacio.

Unfortunately as we reached we look into the sad faces of Eddy and Humberto saying that Roxy had died 15 minutes ago. When we inspected her she indeed still had some reflexes left and a doubtful heartbeat with some respirations! Next lesson here: diagnosing death in a reptile is challenging! So our first response for Roxy, once again was efforts as resuscitation, with hydration, warmth, respiratory enhancer and then also Calcium. But after about 20 minutes we had to agree that the observed reflexes and irregular beats heard were “post mortem”, and further attempts at revitalization fruitless. So then Sarah and Stacy quickly switched to C-section to save Roxie’s babies! 32 eggs were recovered and are now incubating at the Green Iguana Project. A sad end to one of the most personable iguanas at the project in the past few years. She loved to be petted and interact with humans. But her brief legacy will hopefully be passed on to the next generation.

The C-section also provided highly valuable experience and demonstrated the difficulty of snake and lizard uteri that generally require multiple incisions and can not safely be “milked”. Especially once they are egg bound and become even stickier. Sorry medical sidetrack.

To end Sarah and Stacie’s Iguana experiences at the end of their internship they also bathed and checked a good number of the full grown iguanas in the main enclosure, including Gomez! They got the obligatory (minor!) scratch and did awesome, as through out their whole internship! Of course we saw and did lots of other things, but the blog is too long already!

* For those who don’t know: Many of the iguanas released on site at this project actually return and try to re-enter the enclosure – especially for the males no wonder... but all in all “Guanaland” is just a perfect hotel for Iguanas :) and the Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic will soon work on an “Intensive Care Unit” for injured or sick reptiles.