Pets: My Checkered History

A blogger I follow recently posted about pet peeves. I have some of these, of course. Don’t we all? It was then that an off-topic thought occurred to me: I don’t think there is any other kind of pet that I am qualified to keep.

One of the great mysteries of my life is how I grew up in a house without a dog or a cat. My mother grew up on a farm

and there were animals everywhere. She even told stories of a pet pig (which she and her two sisters decided to name Woofie). Woofie the pig had been the runt of the litter and the three little girls nursed Woofie to health. I think Woofie met a sad end (one that involved a plate and a fork), so perhaps that experience soured my mother on pet ownership. I know that there was never an animal of any kind in her house for her entire adult life.

I tried to change that once. I think it was the summer between 3rd or 4th grade. I caught a frog. I don’t remember where I caught it or how I caught it. I just remember that I did, and was quite proud of my accomplishment. The only other thing I remember is that I named him Goomer. I don’t know why I chose that name. And I am sure it was a “he” – what self-respecting 3rd or 4th grade boy would want a girl frog? I think it had something to do with cooties. Anyhow, I somehow got my hands on a glass bowl and put the frog in it, whereupon I announced to my mother the new addition to our family.

“You’re not keeping that frog in the house.” My mother would have made a good judge. Nobody with a black robe and a gavel could have entered that decree with more force or finality than did my mother. So poor Goomer was consigned to a place in the garage, where I spent time looking at him and trying to find things for him to eat. I was not very good at catching flies. I think I tried slower, crawly bugs. And Corn Flakes. Fortunately it was during the summer so the garage was plenty warm and comfortable for a frog.

Until I kind of forgot about him. A week or two probably went by and then suddenly, to my horror, I remembered Goomer out in the garage. He was, sadly, not in the garage any more, having gone to frog heaven. The bowl was dry and, with no food or water, what else could possibly have happened? As an adult I think I might have kept closer tabs on the situation had my own children caught a frog. But there is no way around it – I forgot all about poor Goomer and nobody reminded me. I still feel quite bad about it.

I stayed away from the idea of another pet until my freshman year of college. My roommate Dan proposed that we should get a hermit crab. We agreed to share custody. Hermit crabs live in large shells, which they drag around the environment as protection from large creatures who are always on the lookout for a seafood buffet. They also have pincers, which Dan discovered were not just there for decoration. After this painful lesson, Dan proposed to name the crab de Sade, after the Marquis de Sade, a terrible man who was known for inflicting tortures on others. Dan was not always the best influence on me.

When it came time for Christmas break, each of us was certain about one thing: neither of our mothers would stand for de Sade coming into the house. We tried to be good crab parents, and worked out what we thought would be a great plan: We poured several containers of water to be available and left plenty of food in the little shoebox it called home. Really, if de Sade had been a college student, it would have been one long three-week house party. Sadly, de Sade was not a college freshman, just a stupid hermit crab.

When we arrived back from break, we were chagrined to find that de Sade had gone missing. The water was gone, as was the food. In the middle of the dorm room floor was an abandoned shell. We imagined that he left it behind in an attempt to go in search of provisions. He had a fighting chance because he could escape the shoebox that was his enclosure – unlike poor Goomer who had been stuck in a glass bowl. Both Dan and I tried to tell ourselves that de Sade made it to a source of food and water and lived happily ever after somewhere in the residence hall complex, but I think we were both victims of some self-delusion.

So there you have it. When my children brought up pets, their father was not like other dads who would take their side in an effort to sell Marianne on the idea. In truth, I am allergic to cats, which was my official reason. But after my tragic experiences at pet ownership, I realized that I was in no position to offer guidance to children on the care and keeping of animals. Today my home is free of pets. Except, of course, for a few peeves I keep around for comfort and companionship. Those have thrived under my care.

Photo credit: Hermit crab photo is from the Flickr page of Ross Garner, under Attribution CC 2.0 license.

29 thoughts on “Pets: My Checkered History

  1. Grew up in a house with, at times, two dogs and two cats, at the same time. My Mom had some rural upbringing (also a pet runt pig story there somewhere) before ending up in her early teens in Chicago, and was the animal lover, as were all of us kids. My Dad “claimed” to not like them, but was occasionally caught playing with the cats or petting the dogs when he thought no one was looking. In a house of six people, someone was always home, even my mother worked split shifts for a utility, so I doubt if any of the animals ever got the chance to get “separation anxiety”, someone was always around. The cats probably wished we’d get lost for longer periods of time. Everyone was probably overfed too, as people getting home from school or work would see an empty bowl and fill it up, not knowing when it last had food in it!

    As an adult, I found a cat in a rainstorm, crying under a car, which I took into my studio, but eventually he ended up out at my parents, as they were down a cat, and he was better off in a little yard! He was a good cat too. I love both dogs and cats, but except for the one, never had another. Someone who is gone 13-16 hours a day from home should not have pets, and now today, when I’m “retired” I would love a dog but I am not sure I could treat it right and afford it. My brother, who has a dog, claims I would need to buy animal health insurance if I had a dog, there’s no way I could afford it otherwise on my fixed income.

    Now that I’m “retired”, I try to get my 2 mile walk in every day sometime around peak dog walking time. I get a lot of dog petting in, and I know the name of every dog in a twenty block area, but can’t seem to remember their owners names. When I lived in Zionsville, I used to have a pocket full of milk bones for my pals (the one treat rarely snubbed), but here in Milwaukee, people don’t like you feeding their dogs, so too bad.

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    • I like dogs – but I like them best when they are other peoples’ dogs. When I was single I was right there with you – a small house in the city with nobody there most of the time was no environment for a dog. I eventually discovered that I have enough trouble cleaning up after myself, and dealing with kids took up all of the energy I would have had for dealing with a dog. As for cats, I have been badly allergic for most of my life, so that one is just a no.

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    • Oh yeah – the animal health insurance. If only I had been wise enough to go into that business about 30 years ago. I cannot imagine the kind of money people spend on health care for their pets these days, particularly in more affluent areas.

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      • You said it! My brother, who has had a dog all his married life, maintains that the cost of pet care has risen exponentially only because of pet insurance and the wealthy willing to pay anything. 30 years ago (and three dogs), if was a couple of bucks a year, if you even bothered to take your dog to the vet every year. Now my brother claims the vet bills average out to above 500 bucks a year, even if nothings wrong, and you are constantly harangued and shamed if you don’t take them to the vet as much as you go to the dentist.

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  2. Wow, a hermit crab. I didn’t know that was a viable pet option. Or not, as in your case. The algorithm happened to bring me this BBC video of a mass hermit crab shell swap, perhaps de Sade left to attend one of these:

    We have a no pet house, to the chagrin of our kids. When I was growing up somehow a cat found us whenever there was a pet vacancy, but I have become fantastically allergic to cats in the past 20 years.

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    • I have been allergic to cats most of my life. That allergy kept our house cat-free. It must have looked like a good plan to Marianne, who asserted an allergy against dogs. I think the actual allergy had to do with cleaning up after them, but in any case, we never had a dog. There was a very brief episode involving our daughter and another creature, which I will probably have to write about some time.

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  3. I enjoyed the various pets I had growing up, (in order, a cat, a dog, then another cat, then another dog). I happily pitched in to help take care of those pets, namely walking the dogs and making sure everyone’s food bowl was full. As an adult, however, I am reluctant these days to commit the time and money to taking care of a pet all on my own. Maybe some day when I have kids I’ll resume pets.

    I once knew a guy in college who had a boa constrictor that he kept back at his apartment. As I recall, I think he was able to use this fact to intrigue women, who would then want to go with him back to his apartment to see it, and I assume other developments would follow. I think hermit crabs are fascinating creatures, but I can’t imagine them being used in quite the same fashion.

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    • A boa constrictor – wow, that is quite a jump. You are right – a hermit crab was no way to get dates. πŸ™‚

      When I was single and had a small house, everyone told me I needed a dog. My glib answer was that the yard was too small for an acceptable grass to poop ratio. The real answer was that I didn’t see that kind of arrangement as being very fair to the animal.

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  4. JP, I echo what you wrote in one of your above comments that “I like dogs – but I like them best when they are other peoples’ dogs.”

    I love dogs, in fact, but don’t want one. That’s become somewhat of a problem, because the other three members of my household (wife and two daughters) do, in fact, want a dog. I get pestered about this daily… but I’m standing firm, even though I’m outnumbered. I remind the family that it takes a unanimous vote to get pet in our family, not just a supermajority.

    Time is a big issue… pets are time consuming, and that’s my most precious commodity right now. Plus, I enjoy taking vacations, and it’s much tougher to do that with a pet – and I don’t like the idea of boarding a dog in a kennel while we’re gone. For instance, we’re planning a 3-week, 6,000-mi. trip out west this summer, and I can’t fathom how we’d make that trip with a dog.

    Then there’s cost. Many people I know have spent unimaginable amounts of money on their dogs. Vet bills, food, boarding, etc. Ugh. I’ll pass on that, please.

    But, I’m sure I’ll continue to get hounded on this topic.

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    • My daughter has made some pretty good money “pet-sitting” for people on vacation. I would rather be on the income side of that equation than the expense side. I have heard horror stories about vet bills and other problems. At one time I toyed with the idea of collecting pet-ownership horror stories and assembling them into a book. Like a friend whose recent New Years Eve was taken over by a sick dog. Or like the St. Bernard that wolfed down the thawing roast that had been planned for the family’s dinner. Or . . . .

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  5. My wife had a cat when we married. Now our daughter has a cat. My tolerance is tested daily.

    Growing up, no critters were allowed in the house. Those were the days.

    You have dodged a huge bullet by not having pets. As Eric said, the vet bills, food, cat litter, etc. all add up too quickly.

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  6. My dad told his kids we could never have a cat because the dog wouldn’t stand for it. Can’t believe we fell for that line. Better story: my brothers and I found a snake on the hillside in our backyard, brought it in the house, and put it in an aquarium. That’s when we learned – to our horror – snakes eat cute little white mice. My dad decided to teach us the circle of life and brought a mouse home for the snake. We watched through the glass for awhile but of course, the snake wasn’t going to eat the mouse in front of us. So we all lost a night of sleep thinking about the poor mouse. Woke up the next morning and the mouse was still alive. Guess the snake wasn’t hungry yet. Let the snake go; kept the mouse as a pet instead.

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    • Mouse as pet. I have a story on that, which I shall probably write some day. The idea of voluntarily bringing a mouse into a house is just wrong. You might as well have a termite for a pet.

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  7. Also, my wife & I almost topped your Goomer story by putting a bowl of goldfish in our living room bay window back in the day, a window that took in a lot of direct sunlight. My mother-in-law came across dead fish a few days later but couldn’t really say the words, so she said, “they’re not looking so good” instead. Still, forgetting about Goomer in the garage seems the slightly harsher story.

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    • I guess this is one of those things that work out – animals find their way to people who want to take care of them and stay away from those less suited. Most of the time, anyway. The exceptions are sad.

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  8. I belong to the “I like them best when they belong to someone else” club. I grew up on a farm but we never had animals in the house, they were outside. There were lots of barn cats and our dog(s) slept in the doghouse, or the barn if it was very cold. When they got older my parents relented and a series of slobbering golden retrievers ensued, (not my favorite breed) which were gifts from my sister, who also had them, who were allowed inside, and my mother got a white Samoyed husky about the time we went away to school (the empty nester dog). Then my dad started to let Boots the stray cat stay in the house once in a while when it came over from the neighbour’s farm. It had a litter of kittens in a box and it all went downhill from there……. I have never had pets, I like them but not being home all day, and leaving a pet alone cooped up in a house – what kind of a life is that for an animal. So people end up buying two for company for each other. Plus what do you do with them while you’re on vacation. Besides, it was really a horse I wanted. PS. I was out walking today and ran into a neighbour I knew years ago and he had three big dogs with him, and I can’t imagine what the food (and vet) bill would be for that. After the dogs, all three, a Golden Retriever, a black lab and a massively overweight bulldog, had finished jumping up on me and clawing at my yoga pants, while I’m urging them off, he said, ‘What you don’t like dogs?” I’m more of a cat person myself.

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    • Marianne is like you – she doesn’t dislike dogs but isn’t drawn to them either. They, however, are drawn to her. Whenever we go somewhere with a dog the dog will go directly to her first. Usually with great enthusiasm.

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      • Yea, it’s the enthusiasm I can’t handle. I think those Goldendoodles have become so popular because they don’t drool like retrievers, and maybe don’t shed either, and are good with kids.

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  9. I have never been a pet owner, partly because I am irresponsible and partly because I am selfish. Some of my siblings had pets when we were growing up and I almost preferred the pets over my siblings. I did some pet-sitting for neighbors on vacation but never had any sort of interest in owning any. I am not sure why because I have three sons who caused more trouble than any pet co

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  10. I was catching up in Reader and this was my next post to read … I paused to watch the PBS mini-series “All Creatures Great & Small” … so I returned here on this cold and snowy morning and I got my morning smile. Boy do I identify … though we had three dogs when I was growing up, all that were loved, but essentially “duds” – was it user error and my parents had no dog-training abilities or was it the dogs’ disobedience problems? Exasperated, my parents promised to buy me a dog … even two … as a wedding present. (Well, they were off the hook there as I never married.) At that point we switched to parakeets which gave us many years of joy. My mother would say “who knew a few ounces of feathers and bones could bring such joy to our lives?” I took an empty, clean pickle jar and, like the other kids in the ‘hood, I brought home tadpoles from the creek that flowed through an undeveloped field that bordered a woodland at the foot of our street. My mother relegated them to the basement. She said they were to go once they got their hind legs … she needn’t have worried as I had too many in the jar and the next morning they were belly up. I had a pair of gourami fish that chased each other out of the bowl and they also were relegated to the basement. They met their demise after a chasing episode and both were on the floor when my mom went downstairs to do the laundry – she was not happy to see their lifeless bodies on the floor. We had a hermit crab at school – I had never seen or heard of one before its arrival at our classroom. Thanks for the morning smile JP and the chance to relive a few long-lost memories of my own.

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      • I can close my eyes and hear my mom’s voice when I came home from school as she told me to go downstairs and pick up those fish that jumped out of the bowl. πŸ™‚ Parakeets and canaries were welcome additions to our lives.

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