Mightier Than The Pen

Making The World A Bitter Place

You Can Have a Pet When You Can Kill It Without My Help

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The question is not whether a houseplant will wither and die in our possession; the question is how much it will suffer until it mercifully expires.

Our thumb is black, not green. When it comes to horticulture, I have not the golden touch, but the gravel scratch. We have never knowingly brought plants into our care, but all the dead ones littering the house at various stages of our life have somehow not broadcast clearly enough to others to refrain from presenting any to us as gifts. Or perhaps the benefactors had it in for the poor things.

The children have yet to ask for a pet of any sort, but, like most parents, I, too, was once a kid, and it’s only a matter of time. I might frame a gentle refusal in terms of responsibility, commitment, the seriousness of caring for the life of another creature, etc. But behind it all, I know, lies my realization that if this household cannot sustain members of the plant kingdom for any respectable period, what hope does it have for actual vertebrates?

I should have taken the hint years ago, really. My parents bought us a succession of fish just begging to leave this mortal coil, never quite grasping what a death sentence it was for an animal to be brought within my purview. Some lasted for a time, yes, but it was not the fishes’ mortality that prompted my parents not to buy any more; it was simply that no one was interested in them any longer. So they decided to subject a different succession of doomed creatures to our pit of despair.

First up was a salamander that barely lasted a week; that was 1986 or 87. A little while later, a break in the gloom occurred when my younger brother was given a garter snake; he spent a while researching the care and maintenance of these reptiles, and that might account for that lone bright spot in the otherwise sordid history of pets and Thag. It subsisted on scraps of fish from the supermarket, which my mother procured free. We occasionally supplemented this rather monolithic regimen with freshly dug earthworms. You have not lived until you have experienced the unique set of willies to be had from observing a snake devour a live worm. It’s wriggles galore, with a dash of death thrown in as a bonus.

It’s possible the success of this mostly maintenance-free snake went to our heads, and in 1988 my parents bought me a guinea pig. It did quite well for a time, and I grew to love that creature. I willingly cleaned his cage on schedule, and tolerated the stink its presence imparted to my bedroom. I reveled in the squealing that heralded my arrival home from school. I felt flattered, even vindicated, when my younger sister requested a guinea pig later that year – whereas normally, her following in my footsteps would engender nothing but annoyance and dismissiveness.

Eventually, the happy couple produced two litters, of which we sold a bunch and gave away two babies to a friend. All was hunky dory in the Thag pet universe. Until January 1989, when my beloved guinea pig got sick in a hurry and died before we could get him to a vet; my mother even tried shielding me from the immediacy of the death when she took the cage into her bedroom when she realized the moment was nigh. He passed during the night, but my mother sent me off to school the next morning leaving me to assume there was still hope, that the little guy might make it to the vet that day and get treated for whatever was stopping up his digestive tract. Naturally, I couldn’t focus in school at all that day, my mind whirling with concern, and I rushed into the house that afternoon bursting with anticipation of whatever the vet said to do.

My mother gently broke the news; I didn’t actually start wailing until I touched my guinea pig’s strangely stiff corpse, the sensation bringing home the finality of the situation. That feeling didn’t hit me again for another ten years, at the burial of an elderly family member: the hollow sound of the first clods of earth landing on the casket underlined the permanence of the loss, and at that moment a new round of crying set in.

I interred my pet’s body in the back garden-cum-burial-ground that had served as the final resting place of at least one dead bird we had found over the years, and I marked the spot with a triangular rock I found nearby. It disappeared not too long afterward, under unknown circumstances, and I hadn’t even thought about that until now.

We got another snake in the meantime, a boa constrictor. Eventually, the garter snake also died, the boa constrictor and remaining guinea pig were given away, and pet life ceased from my parents’ household. All told, a mixed success, but at least all four children survived more or less intact.

The prospect of a pet for my children fills not so much with dread as with sorrow, really. But it’s precisely the experience of the inevitable loss of a creature for whom one has cared that makes me hesitant to rule out a pet completely. Do I really want to deny my children the depth of emotion that only such a loss enables? It’s a tough, tough question, with no easy answer.

I apologize, but not really, for the non-humorous turn this post has taken. I promise to make it up sometime in the next week with at least one irresponsible analogy, one remark to insult the intelligence, and one bad pun.


Written by Thag

January 17, 2011 at 3:34 pm

One Response

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  1. I encouraged my daughter to embrace all sorts of pets, they can teach a child so much. Many died much to her heart broken disappointment. However my love of pets and farm animals rubbed off on her.

    She and her husband have purchased 20 acres in the country. Populated it with a new log home, 2 steers for butcher, 1 longhorn bull just because they liked the way he looks, 1 jenny {now pregnant} and a Jack guard donkey to protect their 500 pound bull from coyotes. And a sorted, assortment of chickens, Barbados ewe {Now with lamb at side} 2 pigs and so many dogs that I can’t count them all.

    Moral of this story is Go For it. Get your child a pet or maybe 2 pets 🙂


    January 19, 2011 at 7:30 pm

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