SALEM, Ore. — When Sherrie Dolezal found her beloved pet Del Sol floating face up and unconscious in his pool earlier this week, she did what any critter-loving great-grandmother would do: she immediately began chest compressions and forced air into his mouth.
She didn’t give up. Working for what she said felt like a half hour, she held the 3-year-old motionless Del and rubbed his belly, then hung him upside down to clear water from his mouth and breathed air past his teeth.
Before long, he opened his eyes and started to move.
It’s worth mentioning here that Dolezal was giving rescue breaths to her bearded dragon. The cold-blooded, golden-hued reptile lives in Dolezal’s northeast Salem home with 21 other lizards, most rescued, some bought, along with one Russian tortoise and three dogs.
Dolezal, 62, said she was having a crazy day Tuesday, running errands and caring for her pets when she took Del Sol out to clean and feed him and then put him back in a small swimming pool.
“But I forgot to put the rocks back in it so he could climb out and about, and when I came back, I was sure he was dead, which just killed me because Del belongs to my great-grandson, Roberto,” Dolezal said. “I really couldn’t remember how many chest compressions should be given before a rescue breath, but he was blue so I just did it. I was really amazed it worked.”
Dr. Mark Burgess, a veterinarian who specializes in exotic pets such as chameleons, iguanas, and geckos, said it is probable Dolezal saved the bearded dragon’s life.
He said it would not be possible to revive the spiny lizard native to Australia if it had been dead for any length of time, but if it was just unconscious, she probably helped save it.
Which is what Dolezal said she’s doing for the other lizards living in her manufactured home at the edge of the city.
“I rescue bearded dragons,” said Dolezal, who reads lips to understand conversations. “I call myself the Reptile Rescuer. So many people get them and think they’re cute when they’re babies, and then they just ignore them or let them loose to die. People don’t know what to do with them when they get big. I want people to know I’ll take them in and find homes for them or keep them, and I’ll even give them mouth-to-mouth if that’s what it takes.”
Dolezal, who has a separate refrigerator to hold cartons of nearly expired produce she collects from trash bins and a local independent grocer to feed her “kids,” dedicates one bedroom in her home to the dragons, though they’re pretty much free to roam at will.
They are not confined to glass terrariums. She has large rocks and tree limbs scattered on the floor of her spare bedroom under more than a dozen ultraviolet lights and heat lamps. Nearby is a platter of mill worms she buys online and uses to supplement the dragon’s diet. They motion from side to side, and crawl under the rocks and trees, basking in the 90 to 110-degree heat.
Pet Etc., a pet-supply store in West Salem, confirms that “Sherrie buys at least 6,000 live crickets monthly,” which she also feeds to “the kids.”
She stops and scoops up one who has rickets, a disease of the skeletal system resulting from a lack of vitamin D. Dolezal said its previous owner never had UV lighting or a warmer and so she’s supplementing his diet with vitamin D drops. She cuddles him and then picks up Cupcake, her oldest at 5. They nestle in her arms, looking as natural as a kitten. They don’t purr however.
And when she wants them to sleep, she gathers most of them up and tucks them under blankets atop a heating pad in a crib she bought at Goodwill. They sleep right next to her bed, save for the turtle and a baby dragon who sleep in one of her dresser drawers.
Dolezal, who said she’s been rescuing the vertebrates for more than three years, insists they don’t keep her awake. She points out that they don’t make much noise at all, perhaps just a little rasping sound on occasion. And she seldom sees their spiky beards puff up because they’re never threatened in her home.
“That’s a defense, like their third eye,” Dolezal said. “We don’t have much trouble. Occasionally, we’ll get the males fighting over the females, but they just whack each other with their tails, and some wind up with stumps. That’s how we tell their genders. The females have gorgeous tails.”
Each morning, she gets them out of their crib and puts them on their rocks to warm up. She then bathes each of them so that their dry, scaly skin is moisturized.
She has an enclosure in her backyard where she takes them so that they get natural light as well. An old apple-tree stump is centered inside the pen, which gives the lounge (a group of lizards) considerable climbing freedom. She feeds them the scavenged cabbage, zucchini, lettuce, carrots, celery and parsley that she collects every few days, and during the summer, she adds to their meals from a bountiful garden where she grows fresh produce as well.
“They eat well, and I take care of them,” said Dolezal. Dr. Leanne Eggert at Creekside Veterinary Clinic in Keizer confirmed that she has cared for Dolezal’s bearded dragons.
For their part, the reptiles seem to adore her. When she picks them up, they immediately crawl to her shoulder and snuggle in. She balances a few at a time, and they all seem to favor the side where her pacemaker is located.
“They’re so soothing and comforting, and they make great pets,” said Dolezal.