After weeks of severe illness, today my wife and I made the very hard decision to have Princess put down. An African fat-tailed gecko, Princess was a shy and reclusive creature, though always keen to fully investigate any changes to her environment. It’s almost funny how much a lizard weighing just 40 grams can tug at the heartstrings, but we cared for her day in and day out for three years and a half years, and it’s incredibly hard to let go.

With a pesky underbite and an apparent inability to look downward, Princess either refused or was unable to feed herself, meaning we were responsible for hand-feeding her crickets and mealworms multiple times a week. She never appreciated us helping to remove excess shed from her toes and tail, but we know she felt a great deal of relief when we were done. She often watched the world from the entrance to her little rock hide, opening a lazy eye and sniffing around whenever we walked past.

She had dark brown bands with a brilliant white stripe extending from head to tail, and her spindly legs made an unstable—if entertaining to watch—strut as she walked around when she thought we weren’t looking. I didn’t expect such a small creature to have a personality, but we soon realized she certainly did live up to her name, changing her mind about whether she wanted to eat or not at a moment’s notice, or if the worm wriggled in a way that didn’t please her.

She never enjoyed being handled—not that many desert geckos do—and so it was infrequent that we brought her out to explore, but when we did she was inquisitive and actively sought out nooks and recesses. Though her eyes appeared completely black, on closer examination her cat-slit pupils were visible, and gave off a kind of wary judgment. Only when she was sure of your intentions would she relax and, with a little sighing exhale, close her eyes as she rested her chin on a favored rock.

Very frequently we would come across her with just her head in her rock hide, with the rest of her body sprawled in the open air of her terrarium. Whether she was regulating her own temperature or just liked the feel of the paper towel as she slept, but wanted to enjoy the darkness, we’ll never know, but it was always entertaining to watch. Over the past few months we often found her in the opposite pose, with her head and neck resting out of the rock, the rest of her body hidden within. She’d lazily blink awake, make eye contact as if to say “what are you looking at?” and then return to her little snooze.

I don’t want to dwell on the illnesses which took her from us, but lizards are at once a hearty and sensitive bunch—the species evolved on the inconstant climes of sub-Saharan Africa, and could live up to 20 years in captivity, but they did not fare well in the face of infection. After a particularly poor shed the end of Princess’ tail became necrotic. After consulting with a local exotic pet veterinarian, we removed the dead tissue. Unfortunately the built-up toxins had already begun to take root in the rest of her body, and while she at first appeared to bounce back from the February injury, these past few weeks saw a fairly rapid decline in energy, appetite, thirst, and weight. For an animal that topped out at 40 grams, even a small loss is a big shift.

I’m normally a pretty stoic guy, and try not to let my emotions get the best of me, but tears have been brimming in my eyes and my voice has been catching in my throat all morning. When the vet said that even with intensive, ICU-like treatment the chance of a positive outcome was at best 25%, my heart just broke. My wife and I had been preparing ourselves for the worst for more than a week now, but it still cut to the quick.

Most of my pictures of Princess are of her under the red glow of the heat lamp, but I tried to take some photos of her this past week under more neutral lighting. Maybe I’ll make a small gallery and attach them to the end of this post after a period of grieving.

The vet offered to make a clay footprint of Princess as a small memorial, and I took her up on the offer. I’ll be picking it up tomorrow, and I’ll surely post a new picture of it as a way of saying a final goodbye to our little snooty Princess. Our time together was heartbreakingly brief but she brought a lot of joy to our lives.