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The State of Grace

March 27, 2015

The phone call changed the course of the day, and that’s how I met Grace.

I’d driven four hours across Florida on a whim to photograph half a story–the second half wouldn’t happen till months later–if it happened at all.  I had no buyer, no budget, perhaps no common sense;  just a desire to document complete cuteness; as everyone loves a baby otter.  I raced through Ocala National Forest as the sun threatened to paint the sky perfect for long leaf pine silhouettes. Fighting with my eyelids (four am is no time to start a drive when you get in bed at 1am) I cranked the radio and welcomed the dawdling cars challenging me to pass them on the inky curvaceous two lane road through park.

Nature's incredible artwork.

Nature’s incredible artwork.

I googled the nearest Dunkin Donuts. Apple Maps lied again, and almost two miles further from the highway exit than expected I reached my non-caffeinated patience limit.  I needed my ‘half-hot-chocolate-half-french-vanilla-coffee’, and an ‘everything-bagel-not cut-with-cream-cheese-on-the-side’ pronto.

My blood pressure skyrocketed and my voice came out low and slow and halting.

“You. Don’t. Have. Bagels?!?”

“We are a Dunkin Donuts Express.”

“Maybe you should put that on the highway sign before people get off and drive the four miles down the road to get here.”  Too early, and no bagels; the mouth had opened itself before my filter switch activated.

“Yes. Ma’am, we’ve complained to management more than once on that matter. You are not the only one to complain.”

Apparently I was not the only tired and hungry pissed off customer wanting nothing more than a ‘medium-half-hot-chocolate-french-vanilla-coffee-everything-bagel-don’t-cut-it-cream-cheese-on-the-side.’

Starving, irritated, and one lackluster regular coffee later, I finally made it to my four hour shooting session with the rescued otter.  Adorable is an understatement, but this story isn’t about the otter.  We were finally wrapping up and I was working my way out of the house.

“So, are you spending the night down here?”

It had crossed my mind, but budget was an issue.

“You know,  I was going to, but would rather not spend money on a hotel.”  I said embarrassed, but too tired to care.

“Hold on.  Let me call my friend.  She might have a room.”   Ten minutes later the response came in.  The room would come with a trade.  “Would you mind taking a few pictures for her?  She has an animal rescue too and would love just a few simple shots of her critters.  It will only take a few minutes.”

I’d just driven hours at the crack of dawn to shoot a brown velvet fur ball on spec.  Pictures of animals for a place to sleep?  No problem.

And that’s how I met Grace–and Iggy, and Izzy, Ramsey, the ‘other Iggy’, and Rhonda and Rhett and Casey and Katrina.  And, that’s how I met Lenne, and the Gulf Coast Iguana Sanctuary in Tampa Bay, FL.

Grace.

Grace.

Unbenounced to most people, Iguanas are non-native to Florida.  That means, they don’t belong there and are not supposed to be there, but, they, like many other species that don’t belong-live there. The Orange State is filled with non-native permanent residents due in large part to the exotic pet trade.  Mom’s buy their kids iguanas-the kid goes to college-mom doesn’t want the lizard anymore, and hey, the palm trees in the back yard look like they would make a great place for pet Izzy!  But, it is illegal to release iguanas in Florida.  It is not however, illegal to capture iguanas and sell them back to pet stores.  Makes sense no?

Lenne takes in unwanted iguanas —  they come from all over.  They are found in yards, they are pets that no one wants anymore. Located on the grounds of her St. Petersburg FL, hotel-Lenne has about twenty rescued iguanas that live in a climate controlled enclosure.

Sanctuary residents.

Sanctuary residents.

Lenne and I met the afternoon after my fabulous night sleep, and after my second session with the otter.

“Thanks SO MUCH for doing this.  I just want a few good shots of the iguanas for my website.  This will just take like fifteen minutes.”

I smiled to myself.  I probably invented the phrase, “just one more.”  No photo has ever taken me ‘just fifteen minutes.’  Especially not with an animal as a subject.

One hour and a half later, I emerged from the 80 degree hothouse.  The cameras were wet, I was wet, and my gear bag was wet-as happens when strategically placed under the mister.  Lenne greeted me with a bottle of cold water.

“You must have some amazing shots.”

Natural design.

Natural design.

I laughed.  “I never know until I look later!  So – tell me about the iguana with no tail?”

It was Lenne’s turn to smile.

“That’s Grace-she’s been with me the longest-over fifteen years.  She was in a breeders place in Florida. He’d used her as a breeder, but didn’t want her anymore.

Lenee’s hand brushed back her blonde hair, her eyes sparkling under her large format aviator glasses.

“I went to get her, she was so sick. She had a parasitic infection.  We gave her antibiotics and extra calcium.  But, before we could fix her up some of her fingers fell off, and we had to amputate her tail.  She’s a sweetheart. She loves to be held and pet.  She’s really the only one who loves to be touched.  She’s cute isn’t she?”

Lenne and Grace.

Lenne and Grace.

Cute isn’t a word that would ever cross my mind to describe an iguana—especially not a full grown crumbly creature with no tail.  But, I’d spent long minutes contorted on wooden beams with a macro lens focused on Lenee’s ‘babies.’  Each was a unique character–brown eyes, red eyes, white scales, orange scales, a busted lip, an old man face…Grace, in my eyes was the furthest thing from ‘cute.’

My day had gone from one extreme to another.  My brain tried to grasp the irony—a veterinarian spent her days at work and nights getting up to feed a four week old otter—with the sole intention of getting that animal back in the wild.  And here another woman dedicated space on her hotel grounds to giving a home to animals that were bred by humans, discarded by humans and persecuted out of that same wild.

Sanctuary resident with varying colors.

Sanctuary resident with varying colors.

We parted ways in the parking lot, and I began my trek back to the other side of the state.  My head spinning with the thrill of another creature encounter while a nagging discontent crept in through the crevices. I thought about ‘grace.’  Grace the Iguana, born into a life of captivity in a state she didn’t belong in; and ‘grace’ the dictionary entry:   “elegance or beauty of form, manner, motion, or action”;  “favor or goodwill”; “a pleasing or attractive quality or endowment”; “to favor or honor”, “mercy; clemency; pardon” which perfectly defined the animal, and the actions, of not only the two women I’d met in the past 24 hours- but, all the humans who rescue, rehab, and give their lives to the lives of the creatures many of us don’t think twice about.

Every creature is intricate in design.  What might look 'creepy' as a whole, is merely an intricate design if you take the time to look closely.

Every creature is intricate in design. What might look ‘creepy’ as a whole, is merely an intricate design if you take the time to look closely.

As the road ahead again turned to darkness, and I once again struggled to stay awake, I filed another amazing experience into life’s cabinet.  The one thing I knew for sure was that overnight, I’d had a lesson in grace.  Grace, is two amazing women giving their lives to help the lives of the creatures many of us don’t think about twice.  Grace, is all the beautifully designed creatures that were here before us, and struggling to live by our rules.  Grace, is irony.  Grace, is an iguana.

And perhaps for a tiny fleeting second – that peaceful second before I realized that I’d left my stupidly expensive polarized sunglasses at the IHOP 17 miles back where I slammed down a grilled cheese – I might have been convinced, for maybe a second, that Grace, is also, ‘cute.’

Sanctuary resident.

Sanctuary resident.

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