How To Adopt A Dragon

“What the…?”

I rubbed my eyes and looked again at the metal cage. It was just like all the other cages in this dirty little animal shelter, which I’d quickly realized was simultaneously underfunded and overpriced. The cage floor was stained with off-color water and strewn with grime, and there was only an empty food bowl for furnishing. I hadn’t so much as seen a blanket or toy for comfort in all the time I was here, but at least all the dogs and cats I’d wandered past had been active and noisy, barking and meowing and running around in circles. The creature in this cage didn’t have enough room to get up and turn around; it was curled up into a little black football, its tail under its chin. Its spiked, scaled tail, under its horned head and lizard-like snout. And I hadn’t imagined it - those were leathery wings folded tightly against its sides. It stared at me with dull yellow eyes, and I knew, even though I’d never seen one in person, that I was looking at a dragon.

Now I really knew this place was sketchy. You couldn’t just find a dragon at an animal shelter, at least not in North America. They’re not meant for Midwestern climates. And I wasn’t any kind of animal expert, but even from movies I knew that they needed more room than this, and more food than you could give in a tiny little bowl like that. This had to be a baby dragon; it was only about the size of a corgi. But there had been corgis elsewhere in the shelter, and they’d had more room to run around and roll over than this little dragon had here.

I took out my cell phone and dialed my sister, glancing over my shoulder in case the one staff member I’d seen came walking by as I quietly explained what I’d found.

“A dragon?” Abby’s voice had a tinge of annoyance to it, which I did my best not to resent. “I asked you to look around and see about getting Mara a kitten, not a dragon.”

“But what if you did get a dragon, though?”

“We can’t take a dragon. Do you know how big they get? I don’t even want a dog. You know I’m the one who’s gonna have to take it on walks and out to the bathroom and everything. That’s why I said cat. They’re self-sufficient.”

“Abby, please. I can’t just leave her here. This place is terrible.”

“Then call the police or something and have them get her. Or pest control.”

I didn’t like the thought of calling the police. Who knew how long it would take them to actually respond, or if there was anything they could do here, legally? If the guy had a dragon here, out in the open, he must be certain he had the right to own it. And all it took was to look into the little dragon’s eyes to know that pest control was out of the question, too. This wasn’t a pest. It was a baby. It needed a home.

I scrolled through my contacts and made a few more calls.

“We don’t have the room for a pet,” my father said, and my mother chimed in from across the room, “I don’t want a forever baby! I like that you’re all grown up and doing your own laundry!”

“Aw man, that would be really cool,” my friend Kevin said, getting my hopes up for a moment before he added, “but I don’t know the first thing about owning a dragon, and anyway, I’m spending the semester in London. No way I could get her on the plane.”

“It’ll just fly away at the first opportunity,” said my cousin Rebecca, and I could practically hear her eyes rolling. “After it destroys all my furniture.”

“I don’t think it can fly yet,” I said to her. “It looks skinny and weak. It needs a home, Bec.”

“Then why don’t you take her? It’s not like your furniture can get any worse for wear.”

I bit my tongue to stop myself from snapping back; she was constantly judging me for “living like a poor person,” or as I called it, frugality.

The little dragon had inched itself closer to the door of its cage, looking up at me. The yellow eyes seemed a bit brighter now. Maybe she was getting used to me standing there.

I put my hand against the cage door, ready to pull back right away if she tried to bite me. She lifted her head and sniffed at my fingers. Then she opened her mouth and let out a high-pitched crooning sound that ended in a soft squeak. And I knew better than to anthropomorphize; it’s the first thing my biopsych professor told his class, not to assume that animals thought and felt like we did. But in that moment, I couldn’t help but read that sound and the expression in her eyes as hopeful.

“Excuse me!” I called over my shoulder. The lone employee at this shelter, a waif of a man, stuck his head around the corner.

I pointed at the cage. “How much to adopt the dragon?”

It took a half-hour in all, between the paperwork, the haggling as he tried to sell me lots of dubious-looking pet-care items and I settled on just getting a secure little carrier, and the process of getting the little dragon out of the cage and into the carrier. She wouldn’t let the guy touch her, flinching and snapping at his hand whenever he came near.

“You’ll have trouble with this one,” he said, shoving the carrier into my hands. “But you signed for her already, so she’s yours.”

I got down on my knees and put the carrier next to the open door of the cage. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m getting you out of here.”

She eyed the carrier suspiciously, still not moving.

“Come on, Coal,” I said, the name escaping my lips before I consciously realized I’d chosen it, after her black scales and the legends in my head of fiery lizards. “Let’s go home.”

Slowly, step by step, she crossed the threshold of the cage and entered the carrier.

Coal spent the whole car ride squeaking and scratching at her carrier door. I kept glancing at her in the rearview mirror, to see her little eyes darting every which way. “It’s okay,” I said more than once, “we’re almost home,” though I knew she couldn’t understand me.

She calmed down quite a bit when the car finally stopped and I got her out, holding her carrier under my arm and up the steps to the porch. I guess she liked traveling by human more than by automobile. I couldn’t blame her.

Once inside, I put the carrier down on the living room floor and opened the little metal door. She didn’t come out right away, and again, I couldn’t blame her. Who knows how long she’d been in that poor excuse for a shelter, and a lot had changed in just a few short hours. So I left her there and went about making dinner, for myself and for her. The latter took some Googling and several more rounds of thinking “oh my god, what have I gotten myself into, I don’t know the first thing about raising a human child let alone a dragon.” But according to the dragon sanctuary websites I found, at this age, a dragon’s diet is a lot like a goat’s or a pig’s. They’ll eat just about anything, and I just had to make sure I didn’t give them anything rotten or diseased. I took out some leftover hamburgers for her, a bowl of microwave pasta for me, and resolved to do more research tomorrow.

I put Coal’s dinner on the floor in front of her carrier and settled on the couch with my macaroni. After a minute or so, the little dragon snout came sniffing out of the open door, and her skinny tongue flicked out at the meat. Then there was a flurry of movement, the rapid-fire snapping of jaws, and the burgers were gone, and so was a chunk of the plastic plate.

“You liked that, huh?” I said. Coal burped and blinked up at me. Then she walked towards me, her claws clacking softly on the hardwood - I’d need to figure out dragon-proofing the house, those claws would do some real damage once they grew a bit; that was another thing for tomorrow’s to-do list. I stayed very still as she approached my feet, afraid of startling her. She paused at the base of the couch for a moment, tilting her head from side to side as though unsure what to do next. Then she gathered herself, wiggling her butt much like a cat about to pounce - and pounce she did, hopping up onto my lap. I managed to set my bowl aside just quickly enough to avoid spilling my pasta, though I wasn’t dexterous enough to keep my fork from clattering down under the couch. Darn it.

But as the little dragon snuggled into my lap, letting out the most contented sigh I’d ever heard, the anxious voice in my head fell silent. In that moment, I knew without a doubt that I’d made the right choice. The moment I’d seen Coal, I’d wanted what was best for her. I’d wanted her to have safety, comfort, a loving home. But if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.

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