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Frozen Iguanas, Compassion And Zen

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Years ago, at a "cosmic" breakfast with Zen Grandmaster Peter Matthiessen, I posited that a cigarette butt I spied on the then-pristine Galapagos island of Bartholomew was out of place and needed to be picked up. Matthiessen countered that the butt was exactly where it was supposed to be and that any perceived disturbance was within me rather than on the ground. While I understood this familiar philosophical position, I argued then that I was also where I was supposed to be, and my impulse to do the right thing--pick up a piece of trash--trumped even the loftiest philosophy. We proceeded to explore how unbridled personal convictions could lead to bad things--the Holocaust, for instance--but despite my respect for Zen, I remain convinced that there are certain innate impulses that transcend intellectual positions.

This discussion has reared its interesting head again as South Florida endures a record-breaking cold spell the likes of which has not been seen for decades. The last time it was this cold, South Florida was, from the perspective of zoogeography, a bit of a different place; recent years have seen an influx of non-native animals, many of them cold-sensitive reptiles. These creatures--Cuban Knight Anoles and green iguanas among others--have become well established down here, so much so that iguanas are disdained for their primitive looks and omnipresent scat, while big anoles are avoided because they bite and prey mightily on smaller, native species.

This morning, on my way to the gym, I noticed a raft of these creatures lying on the ground beneath trees in my neighborhood. The vast majority of these were dead, frozen solid by the combination of persistent low temperatures and wind. Having been around reptiles all my life, I viscerally felt the agony of their struggle, the slow breakdown of their bodily systems, the inexorable loss of whatever level of consciousness they enjoyed. Truly, seeing so many die broke my heart.

A very few, however, clung desperately to life. Inert and non-response, they nonetheless still held a spark down deep. I rescued these, brought them home, and warmed them slowly. I have the required equipment because I keep and breed a number of non-native turtle species as a conservation hobby and have, for days, been bringing these pets in from the cold. Some animals revive under my heat lamps; others just shudder and die.

Realizing just how many creatures out there needed saving, I enlisted the aid of my young son.

"I have a job for you," I said.

"Of course you do," he answered, being no stranger to sarcasm even at his tender age.

"More important than finishing that Lego, as nice a toy as it may be."

"You think everything is more important than me having fun."

"How about compassion," I said. "How about saving lives?"

This caught his attention, as I've raised him to count compassion, along with kung fu, tea, love, books, and wild nature among the world's "great things". Reluctantly he got up and we went out driving to rescue freezing lizards. In the car we listened to news stories of homeless people dying in the national deep freeze, and also about sea turtles, caught in the cold weather, being found floating torpid on the sea.

"There's a lot of bad stuff going on in the cold," he said quietly.

"There is," I agreed. "But right here, right now, we get a chance to do some good."

Being ecotherms, reptiles require an external heat source to fire their metabolism; that source is the sun. Small creatures, having a greater surface-to-volume ration than large ones, heat up faster and lose heat faster too. Since there hasn't been a warm sun for days in South Florida, few small non-native lizards have survived; the surviving reptiles we found were more than a foot long. Back at home the animals we had saved greedily drank from a water bowl. A few even munched on lettuce and awkwardly caught bugs.

Folks who consider non-native species to be pests are grateful that meteorological intervention has ended what they term "the iguana infestation". Some people have even busied themselves finishing what nature started by killing helpless lizards where they lie. Theoretically, they have a point, as these creatures have come to our shores as a result of climate change and trade--banana boats and the like--and have upset what little natural environmental balance South Florida has left.

"How can they do that," cried my son, seeing some butchery at work and all but leaping out of the car, screaming, to stop it.

I backed him up, and we saved a few reptile lives. On the way home with more cold bodies, I discussed the principle of yin and yang with him.

"Some people take life and others preserve it," I said. "It's a sort of teeter-totter in the world of people. People who deliberately go out and kill helpless creatures without intending to eat them have no emotional connection to the natural world or sense of being a part of something larger than themselves."

"I'm connected," he answered solemnly. "I heard that up north people kill deer when there are too many of them," he said.

"Yes, but that's because the deer are starving and it is sometimes the right thing to do to stop suffering when you can."

"By killing?"

"It's a point of view," I answered.

"There are too many deer because we killed all the wolves that eat them," he said.

"Yes."

"Better if we didn't mess around with nature so much."

"I agree. When you get older, you can work to stop all that bad messing around."

"It feels good to save living creatures," he said.

"I think so too. Anyway, it's what we do. It's going to be unseasonably cold again tonight, so I'm going to go out again early tomorrow morning. Wanna come?"

He nodded. "Saving animals is even better than building a Lego," he said.

It seems to me that a compassionate urge in the face of suffering is one of those innate human impulses I discussed at that breakfast years ago, and one that transcends philosophy. Research shows that compassionate acts benefit our biology. I also believe they benefit the world.

Just ask all those half-frozen iguanas.

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