It can be hard to empathize with a spiny-tailed lizard. Unlike a cat or dog, it’s difficult to read a reptile’s emotions, so many people don’t connect with them.

Kirsten Engeseth is different.

“I’ve always been an animal lover,” Engeseth said. “I’ve been especially drawn to animals that people find creepy or gross.”

In January, Engeseth started a rescue organization to help reptiles and invertebrates, the creatures she loves. Run out of her Eden Prairie home, Creepy Crawly Animal Rescue takes in the lizards and snakes people can’t care for or don’t want.

There are plenty of them. Some people buy reptiles without realizing they require light, heat and special diets, while other owners can’t afford their care. Still others find pets aren’t welcome when they move to a new apartment.

“People buy them when they’re small and cute, not realizing they get bigger,” she said.

But the Animal Humane Society doesn’t take reptiles. It’s up to a few groups like the Minnesota Herpetological Society to find homes for the orphans so people don’t release them into the wild or neglect them.

“Housing here is set up for furry creatures,” said Carrie Libera, spokeswoman for the Animal Humane Society. “It’s not set up for scaly creatures, if you will.”

Pet stores also end up taking in reptiles, said Sara Szabo, manager of Twin Cities Reptiles in St. Paul. The store gets two or three reptile surrenders every week in June and September, when students are leaving or returning to school.

Engeseth said she’s offering another option: “I just want people to know there is a resource if they need help.”

Crickets and vegetables

Engeseth grew up with a house full of rescue animals and a mother who managed an animal sanctuary. She learned about wildlife rehabilitation through volunteer positions and reptiles at a previous job.

Creepy Crawly has amassed eight rescued reptiles, which Engeseth cares for with her boyfriend’s help.

Some animals are retrieved from Craigslist posters trying to get rid of them. Others find her through Facebook or her website.

Pickle is a 2-foot-long savannah monitor lizard she’s elected to keep as the Creepy Crawly mascot. While living with a previous owner, Pickle was fed only hot dogs, Engeseth said, but now consumes $100 in roaches and rodents a month.

She’s taken on Zilla, a Uromastyx lizard that arrived emaciated and with a broken jaw — and requires feedings from a syringe. She may never be adoptable because of her special needs.

She’s also amassed three ball pythons, two bearded dragons and a leopard gecko. Once healthy and vet-checked, the animals can be adopted.

A recently adopted scorpion named Nougat is Engeseth’s first success story. Future adoptable animals will be posted on her website and Facebook page.

Eden Prairie permits residents to keep any reptile except poisonous pit vipers, which are snakes such as cobras or water moccasins, said Jim Schedin, the city’s zoning administrator.

Engeseth’s biggest obstacles are probably the same as any rescue organization: time and money. Vet bills add up, and the animals need precise diets.

Though she works at a preschool, caring for the animals is “pretty much a full-time job,” Engeseth said.

She wants to expand the rescue, eventually renting a facility off-site and organizing education programs.

Engeseth completed state paperwork to become a registered nonprofit and will soon file with the IRS. She’s used her own money for everything, though crowdfunding efforts have garnered $1,600 so far.

“It just felt like a natural thing to do,” she said of launching the rescue. “I would love to see it grow, for sure.”