Salamander Army, Salamander Friends

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Here’s the full salamander story for those who care/are interested. I don’t expect you (or you) to understand or feel the things I feel, but The Salamanders are something that have been a cornerstone for me during this past half year. It’s not a simple thing to try to explain : how much I care about them and love them, and how much they have helped me out of one of my darkest times.  (Above: some of the first morphers. Below: SwimFast when I first found him and )

On April 23rd, I got a text from a number I didn’t know, with a photo of a dying tiger salamander larvae. Turns out it was the owners of my gym (where I stopped going, thanks to covid), who knew I was a biologist. We were friendly always, but didn’t know each other well. I met them a few hours later at the reservoir, which was being drained. I had my muck boots (I managed to scar my legs from them because I wasn’t wearing high enough socks each day, oops!)  and wandered around finding mostly dead larvae salamanders, and a handful of live ones. (Below: Barnaby and Apollo who had some skin issues and were too dry.  They died and I hope their next life is a much happier and longer one)

When it got dark, we left , but they had me over for (very) socially distanced wine.  Some (very bad) things came up (I hadn’t interacted or seen people in a couple months at that point).  Some…revelations, yet facts, and circumstances… came up, that I had been suppressing and had been in denial about.  I had the biggest panic attack of my life. I was hyperventilating, they were crying. It was really rough, but necessary. My first instinct was to leave Taos to get away from what I was suppressing. I’m extremely grateful to my now friends, who were acquaintances before, who became incredible friends that night.  (Below: only a few of the dead salamanders I found at the reservoir).

I left when I calmed down, with a plan of going back to the reservoir, because I was so upset about all the dead and dying salamanders. I thought maybe at night I could find more with a headlamp, in the dark.  It was almost 10:00 pm, and my town had a curfew, and I was trying to get home before that.  I went back to the reservoir, I found more dead salamanders. I had another immense panic attack, in the dark, alone, stuck in mud that was  flooding my muck boots. I felt very gone and broken and I wasn’t able to move. This was not a panic attack. It felt like I was on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
(Below: McWiggles! …and me)

I wasn’t able to physically move for quite a while. I finally got  back to my car and I got home (after curfew). I got the salamanders settled and then I put myself in the bathtub for about 6 hours.  I tried to call 2 of my best people and neither answered. I was really upset about that.  I ended up calling an ex (now not an ex),  who was thankfully there for me and listened to my cry-fest/freakout/breakdown.  I was/am so grateful to and for him.

Above is is Water 100, who was clearly not thriving. You can see how dry his back is.  I doubt he would have made it through the day if I hadn’t found him. He is doing well now, and enjoys hockey and whiskey.  I found so many dead ones in the position he was in, trying to get into the mud in the cracks.  Below is the almost entirely drained reservoir. Note how pleased I am about that fact.

I went straight to the reservoir the next morning.   I found more dead salamanders. A few more live ones. This went on for the next ~2 months.  I went every day. Of course, every day, the water was less and less. Eventually there was no point in going. Most of the salamanders had leeches on them. Some of them had hundreds!! of leeches. I took every damn leech off.  It’s not a symbiotic relationship with salamanders and leeches. Many were on the verge of death, partially dried up and barely alive, for a multitude of reasons. (Below: Hans had upwards of 300 leeches on him. Incredible and incredibly gross. I removed each one).

There was a liner in the reservoir, prohibiting the salamanders from burrowing like they normally would. They drained the reservoir to fix something, and also were going to put a double lining in. In the end, I found more than 100 dead salamanders. I found exactly 50 live ones. 14 died. Most of those deaths were pretty awful. A few of them literally exploded, with their guts hanging out. It was terrible for them, it was terrible and traumatizing for me. I had a really difficult time with all the deaths. I did not handle it well. I buried every one. I mourned every one. I still struggle with it.  (Below: Arnold smiling for his glamor shot and Galoshes being the sweetest thing ever at his graduation ceremony).

I had one salamander early on that really concerned me. He had breathing issues, constantly gasping for air, severely underweight, never ate. I named him Galoshes.  As time went on, he became more sick, more thin, and one day I thought he was actually dead. I took him out, thinking I would have to bury him.  I force fed him, which was easy to do because he was so limp and let me open his mouth. He hung on, barely. My friend mentioned I could try a fecal transplant. And I did, gladly. I got a healthy salamander poop (salamander poop is sort of funny), watered it down in a syringe and shoved it down Galoshes’s throat. The next day, he was a new person. I mean, new salamander. He ate 20+ waxworms on his own and had energy. It really was a salamander miracle. I was going out of town for a few days, and didn’t want to leave Galoshes, so he went on a little road trip with me. Definitely a backseat driver, but good company. He had a proper graduation ceremony, and my friend even sent him a card and 20 bucks. Lucky guy!! He’s a comeback kid.  Galoshes is doing well and likes his head and neck scratched. I’m very attached to him.

I (and other more herp-intelligent people than I) did not think my salamanders would morph. They were all pretty unhealthy and came from a really crappy habitat, it made sense for them to stay neotonic (not a bad thing, but it means they stay in larvae form, in the water, with the gills and long tails).  Eventually, the salamanders did start morphing. Just a few days ago, the last one (Maurice) finished his transformation. All but 3 have morphed to land salamanders. It would be surprising if the three neotonics end up morphing. But at this point, everyone seems very healthy, so no matter. (Below: Me with a few manders  – my niece visited and helped spot a few while she was here. Thank you, Ellie!)

My initial plan was to release all of them back into the reservoir in May. But the reservoir never got filled (and it still isn’t, then I heard about the double lining and wouldn’t have wanted to put them in there anyway, if it had even been a possibility).  Before they started morphing, I searched out remote waters/ponds where I could possibly release them.  I’ve found some bizarre spots that do have tiger salamanders. I’ve found some high elevation (around 12,000) feet ponds that have healthy, isolated populations of neotonics and non-neotonics. (Below: Rossetti enjoying the succulents).

But the thing is, I cannot release The Salamanders.  I can’t release them in the same locality because that area no longer exists. And they morphed.  In theory, if they refilled the reservoir, if they had all stayed neotonic, I could. Because they would have already been exposed to what they would have been exposed to. But that is not the case. Where I found them does not exist anymore. Amphibians carry a hoard of weird stuff- fungal, bacterial, skin, etc diseases. It would be irresponsible for me to throw them out in the wild. I’m sure the ones I had that died were carrying some diseases. Likely, my healthy ones carry them too – but are not affected by it. I’d be an asshole biologist to put these salamanders back into the wild, risking killing other isolated populations.  I won’t do it, and if you think I should, you are very much in the wrong. (Below: more than half of the morphers. They’re beautiful. Every day I’m mesmerized by their patterns and colors. Glorious)

Below is Lady Beast. She was one of the biggest ones I found, but I had her in the sick ward for a couple months because she had a weird skin thing going on, like many of them did. I had to have many of them separate because they were really sick when I found them and I didn’t know how or if it was contagious for the others.  Eventually, Lady Beast started morphing and her skin issue started getting better. Her wound (? I’m not sure what it was) turned into a really cool scar (polk-a-dots!!) that you can see in the second photo. Today, she is a chunk and very healthy!

A sad story is Harriet, below. I found her with a really terrible wound that went all the way through her head. I called vets all over central and northern New Mexico, to see if they would take her and NOBODY would take a salamander. I was willing to drive hours to get her help.  The best I could do was try to see if iodine (in small doses) would help so that she wouldn’t get an infection. But because of stupid Covid, I couldn’t find iodine anywhere near Taos. I went on a local facebook page to ask if anyone had some, and I ended up meeting someone in a parking lot for a sort of hilarious exchange. This sweet woman filled a pill bottle full of iodine for me. Unfortunately, Harriet died and I hate that I couldn’t help her. I did use the iodine on a few other salamander wounds/skin issues and they all recovered well.

Up until yesterday, my bathroom was full of salamander tanks and I had to move them all around if I wanted to take a shower (good thing I’m a dirtball, eh?). I finally put more salamanders together in a bigger tank and now I have my bathtub/shower again, yeehaw! I never minded at all, but I’m looking forward to actually being able to take a bath…
Below:  Atreyu, who insisted on having his named changed from Gary. Still easy to get a notary during covid, fyi). That’s also Atreyu chowing on the worm. Early on, I was struggling to get them enough food and someone mentioned I could feed them beef heart…Pretty gross, especially for a vegan. friends found a bison heart somewhere somehow and my very kind neighbor sliced it up for me. They didn’t love the bison heart too much, so I still have about 4 lbs of frozen heart in my otherwise vegan home.

I’m on a couple salamander and new facebook pages, and I’ve had quite a few people I don’t know ask if I am selling my salamanders and that I should breed them. That thought never ever crossed my mind.  And I would never sell The Salamanders or ship them across the country!! That is an insane thought.  I’m open to rehoming some of them in pairs, to people I know, trust, and respect. Below: Charlene, before she fully morphed, loved being in this mason jar. What a goofball.

I know many of you know about my salamanders and love the story/the love story?,  and I’m so grateful for everyone’s moral support and help with my gofundme,, for them. I also am so happy (elated?) to hear when people tell me The Salamanders are what keeps them going, what gets them though the day, brings them happiness. I’ve heard this more than you may think, and I’m grateful that The Salamanders can give others some happiness and laughter and peace during this weird time we are living in. It’s the same for me, and knowing others get that and feel is really touching. Below: The Morphers just came out with their first album: Morph All Night.

I don’t know how clear it is that The Salamanders have been a saving grace for me. I was in an extremely rough spot when I found them. I don’t love the whole “fate” thing, but I am convinced it was supposed to happen that I rescue them. It’s sort of hard to even type it out, but my heart and soul and head were in a really dangerous place before I found them all. Or rather before they found me, I guess. And again, I’m so grateful my friends got in touch with me after finding the first one.  I don’t like to think about how the last 5+ months would have been without them. I think things, for me, would have been very different, in a pretty bad way.  They have freed my head of something. They have given me a reason to wake up in the morning. They’ve given me reason, period. I hate defining myself by anything at all. But I think The Salamanders have a place in my own definition.

Above: Gumby just being too cute for her own good.

7 Replies to “Salamander Army, Salamander Friends”

  1. This story is so inspiring and beautiful. You are a great woman and biologist/conservationist. Thank you for what you have done and I know the salamanders love u back! Look at those smiles. How could one not fall in love?

  2. I recognized your passion for wildlife and nature years ago on our blogs. I’m so thankful to have reconnected on Facebook and get to do life together, even many miles apart. All that said, this last chapter in your life, the difficulties that had faced you, taken you to such a low place was very sad and I was concerned about you. This is a gift, these beautiful Salamanders now living life and enjoying the care of your beautiful self and heart. I love them and love you for your passion. I love the names and those adorable faces. They are blessed little Salamanders. I even joined a couple of Tiger Salamander groups on Facebook to see what they have to say about these heart creatures. I had one once named Rigert
    Well done Jill

  3. You are a wonderful human and I am grateful that we’re FB friends. It is indeed a beautiful love story, overflowing with love. Just knowing that people like you exist made these past 6 Covid months bearable. Thank you Jill.

  4. Jill: below is a story from my own life that seems quite resonant with your Salamander adventure …


    I once rescued a nestling pigeon that had fallen into a creek at the edge of town. I was standing next to the water, thinking very dark and destructive thoughts when the drowning bird floated by right in front of me. I ran after it down the creek and just managed to fish it out of the water before it plunged over a waterfall. I then spent weeks hand-raising it. When it was finally old enough to fly, I took it out into my yard and tossed it into the air. In a frenzy, it flew into the distance, disappearing from view, but then suddenly reappearing, circling overhead and then crash-landing right next to me. The next day it took flight on its own and quickly disappeared into the distance, yet returned quite unexpectedly several hours later. On the third day, it flew away and never returned. Raising that bird was transformative, in a big way. It helped me dig my way out of the darkness, out of my own personal hell. Perhaps it even saved my life. For that reason, I had named it Savior. Not only did I save it, but it saved me.

  5. Wonderfully written and photographed story! I love the intervening of your personal narrative and the conservation message. Ever considered a children’s book! I hope this blog gets reprinted somewhere…

    As a career conservationist, I see so few heartwarming stories that make these sorts of issues real and meaningful for people. Great stuff!

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