On Pets

As I write this I'm having a conversation with Kitty, a neighborhood stray that has decided to come visit me every morning. The first time I paid her some attention a week or two ago, she eagerly followed me around as I took care of chores outside and in the garage, eventually darting into the house behind me. Amused, I decided to be a friendly host. She's kind of skinny and pathetic so I rummaged through my kitchen looking for something suitable, eventually settling on some half-and-half and tuna fish. She devoured it. (Perhaps I made a new friend for life?)

Kitty has been showing up at my doorstep almost every morning since. This is the first time I've ever fed a stray, so I'm not sure what the deal is, whether she officially belongs to one of my neighbors or what. No collar on her and given the way my suburban property is laid out there's no telling exactly where she's going when she leaves here. Regardless of how long this relationship lasts, I'm enjoying it, to the extent that I bought some actual milk for her at Publix last night.

I don't consider myself a "pet person" the way that some people get all excited about their dog or cat and always have one. My first experience with a dog happened in elementary school. One of my next-door neighbors had a small brown dog, which perhaps was still a puppy. I don't remember what breed it was, but I think its name was Timmy. I seem to recall that Timmy's owner would let me walk him around the block almost every day. I imagined having my own dog and how much fun it would be, but my dad put his foot down firmly against the idea. I was the oldest of five kids and he didn't make too much money, so you could say there were too many mouths to feed already in our household. Luckily, we eventually figured out that really small mouths were okay.

My uncle Max, a bachelor living at home with my grandmother just upstairs from us in our shared duplex well into his 30s, provided interesting hobbies and pursuits on a regular basis throughout my childhood. Everything from listening to popular music (versus the classical and moldy oldies preferred by my parents, if they listened to anything at all), to setting up a photography darkroom in our basement, to car mechanic work in the garage, and most relevantly to this story, keeping pet fish in an aquarium. My own family unit could only manage a simple fishbowl in our flat, what with all those little kids running around, and I don't remember us doing a very good job of keeping our fishbowls intact. But my uncle was enthusiastic about anything he tackled and occasionally had some disposable income to indulge his hobbies, so his freshwater tank upstairs was outfitted with the latest lamp and filter technology and regularly stocked with interesting goldfish and little luminescent critters that filled me and my siblings with wonder and amusement. Our trips to the store to pick out new inhabitants for the tank were always fairly fun, while helping Max with the complicated and fraught process of cleaning the tank a little less so, given his penchant for imbuing all activities with a great deal of pessimism and grumbling.

Somehow I was able to consider at least some of the fish in Max's tank "mine," whether they were bought by me or just claimed I don't remember, but I was quite personally attached to some of them. My first suicide related heartbreak involved one of those goldfish. We came back from a multi-day religious convention (a yearly summer ritual for my JW family) and I bounded up the steps to my grandma's flat eagerly. I was stunned to discover my favorite, a large, handsome black goldfish, laying motionless on the worn parquet floor in front of the tank. What the..?? To this day I don't quite understand how that fish managed to get out through the flip-top door of the tank, unless it shot out of the water with a force that doesn't make sense in my gut-level understanding of physics. The only other explanation would be that someone left the flip-top open and later closed it, leaving the fish on the floor. Either way, the fish was dead, and I was crestfallen. My brother and sisters and I gathered around the toilet with it, said a few words and flushed him away.

I haven't had my own fish since, but my daughter Taylor keeps a few in a small tank in her room. She doesn't take particular good care of them in my opinion, perhaps remembering to feed them everyday, I can't be sure. Comically they are named after members of her favorite band, All-Time Low. Earlier this year I was doing something downstairs when I hear a piercing shriek and "NO, NO, NOooooooooo!!!!" coming from Taylor up in her bedroom. Puzzled about the commotion, I walk over to the stairs and ask her what is going on. She breathlessly explains that as she was in the process of starting to transfer her fish so that she could clean the tank and had her back turned, Zack Merrick jumped out. She turned, thought it was a big bug or something and came this close to stomping on it, before realizing at the last second that it was one of her beloved. Mind you, it was still wriggling on her carpet as she's telling me this. "Well pick it up and put it back in the tank for goddsakes!"

"I CAN'T!"

Oh my gods, the ridiculousness of teenage girls sometimes. I think I helped her use the net to get it back in the water and the fish was fine. Or I berated her until she did it herself, either way the fish was saved for the moment. One of them died a few weeks later, I think. I don't know if it was Zack or not, perhaps the experience aged him prematurely. I think it's good for children to have pets, if only for the lightweight exposure to life-and-death responsibilities and outcomes.

Throughout the remainder of my childhood, especially in my teen years, we were able to have some additional small pets in our house. We had a hamster named Pookie for awhile, and a gerbil. I recall learning the hard way that you shouldn't put them both in the same cage, with a big bloody gash on the tip of my thumb serving as a cautionary reminder from the time that I gave it a try. At some point we also had a turtle, which is among the most boring of pets, except that we gave it plenty of exercise and play time. I'm sure from its cold-blooded perspective, that was extremely annoying. Turtles are among the class of pets that always seem very annoyed.

Besides Kitty and Fredericka, the praying mantis that is currently in a clear storage container on the table behind my sofa, my only real pet of significance in my adult years has been a cat named Zilla, that I got from my friend James back in the early 2000s. That's a long story for a different time though, right now I have to go make sure Kitty is enjoying the milk and leftover chicken I set out for her.