Monday, May 3, 2010

110 days to Bar Mitzvah: proper pet ownership

There is such a thing as a pet food chain. You don't start out with a Great Dane, you start with something easy, like a goldfish. Then you gradually work your way up, gaining both experience and maturity, until you are ready to enter the pet big leagues: the world of dogs and cats.

I thought we'd followed this blueprint exactly. It was certainly my aim to do so, once I accepted the fact that we'd be pet owners.

And it wasn't easy, believe me. I'd just gotten used to the idea that we had a kid, with all of the non-quantitative benefits that entailed. Five, maybe six years in, you reach equilibrium. Now they want pets, too?

Pets are messy. They cost money that could be spent on other things, like beer and slices of pizza. They don't listen, they run around the house screaming and they pee in the middle of the sidewalk. Yet somehow, they are treasured. Every kid wants one.

(Ironically, if you have a dog in San Francisco and take it to pet training class at the place on Alabama Street, they will begin the first class by asking anyone with experience as a dog owner -- sorry, dog companion -- to raise their hand. Then they will add a caveat by saying, "Having a dog as a kid doesn't count." So much for the iconic image of a boy and his dog.)

In San Francisco, dogs are treated better than children. People are certainly happier to see them. San Francisco dog owners are more persnickety than new parents. The insist that you "meet" their dog and (I found out too late) refer to their dog as their "child" and you as your dog's "Dad." "My wife didn't give birth to a dog," I once responded dryly, immediately earning myself a non-refundable seat in the dog park dog house. I don't go to that dog park anymore.

No, I didn't want a dog. Or a cat. Or any pet. Well, maybe a cat.

What I got was a series of expendable fish. Following what we thought until this week was a binding rulebook, we started our child's pet odyssey logically, with a goldfish named "Lucky." Lucky had a tankmate whose weird fin structure, to the six-year-old brain, made naming him "Side" a foregone conclusion. Equally logical was the name of Side's successor, after his controversial fin disintegrated, leaving him literally rudderless and near death. Since the new fish was beige, his name was "Khaki."

Lucky outlasted all of his friends, casting suspicion onto his character and motives. When he finally passed, we took the next logical step up the pet ladder: a hamster.

Third grade was a big time for hamsters. It seemed every kid in class had one. Ours was oversized and white. The Jawa named her "Sparky" and became enchanted with the plastic tubes you can buy to create a hamster world that so closely resembles downtown Minneapolis as to give some midwesterners totalitarian-themed nightmares.

Sparky was bathed in love. What an improvement she was over those fish! She was interactive, and large enough that you could hold her without fear of squashing her like poor Lenny, who thought he was going to tend to the rabbits right up until the moment George shot him in the back of the head.

Sparky lived in the corner of the Jawa's bedroom. At night, the sound of Sparky's obsessive wheel-running lulled him to sleep.

Hamsters don't live long. Their lifespan tops out at three years. Sparky, with her full, indulgent life, barely made it past two.

The end came quickly, after a prolonged period of decline. This being the Jawa's first brush with loss, he took it hard. I was surprised at how deeply he'd been affected by what was essentially a dressed-up rat. "He's an only child," reminded his attuned and sensitive mother.

Not long after, we were washing dishes on a Saturday, when I thought out loud. "You know," I said, "maybe it wouldn't be so bad for him if we had a dog."

Legendarily, twenty-two hours later we pulled up to our house with this ridiculous corgi, 11 weeks old, sitting next to the Jawa in the back seat of our Acura TSX. The dog, named after the Jawa's favorite NBA player but misspelled as "Shack," was just off the farm in Lodi where he ran with a pack of corgis, creating possibly the weirdest agricultural image since they made that commercial of cowboys herding cats.

And that was it, I figured. Short of a monkey or a pig, we'd hit the glass ceiling of animal "companionship." Now we could focus on dodging the judgemental glances of our fellow San Francisco dog owners, for whom any dog not "rescued" or "adopted" is a perpetual symbol of its owners' lack of character, and we could continuously pretend that I'd never said I wouldn't lift a finger to take care of a dog, assuming instead that I'd pull my weight out of loyalty to the team and to this odd dog with the giant ears.

Maybe it was something I just dreamed, or thought I'd said.

Horses are different, by the way. Watching my sister navigate horse ownership for her daughter, I'm convinced that owning a horse is more like owning a boat or an RV than it is like owning a cat or dog. Horses aren't pets. They're a way of life.

For almost four years, Shack has enjoyed the life of an only dog. He sits where he wants to sit by feigning ignorance at our house rules. I take him to the dog park even though about once a week I swear I'll never go back, after chasing him around with a treat because he refuses to come when it's time to go home.

So I've adjusted. I'm used to Shack. He's very loyal, even if he likes to pretend that it's only through the craziest kind of coincidence that he shows up next to my bed every morning.

Once you've reached the top of the mountain, you don't look down. Unless you're a Jawa whose imagination has never loosed itself from the grip of the hamster, his pet Platonic Ideal. Despite all of our best maneuverings, threats and challenges, he never stopped planning for another hamster. So it was last Saturday that we found ourselves at Pet Smart, where the Jawa plunked down $40 of his own money to buy a Critter Trail 2, bedding and food. We laid out the $15 for the hamster itself.

See, you've got to get the Critter Trail 2, because it comes with an attached wheel, is easy to clean and looks pretty freaking cool besides. And you need the special white bedding, which is available at our local pet store for $5 less than it was at Pet Smart, but we had to get it at Pet Smart because what's the hamster going to do when it gets home and finds it has no bedding? You can't expect it to walk around on bare plastic.

This hamster he named "Butters," demonstrating the quantum leap between the imagination of an eight-year-old and that of a pre-teen. Butters is his mother's favorite "South Park" character.

Now we have a hamster named Butters and a dog ready to tear out his own fur with curiosity. Instead of waiting by my bed, he plants himself in the Jawa's room and waits for the hamster to fall onto the floor, at which point he will eat it. And that will not be a happy day in our house, however valuable it is as a teaching moment. Sometimes he barks, hoping to stun Butters into an accidental -- and fatal -- fall.

This is the Jawa's own pet, not ours. He cleans up after it, he buys for it, he takes care of it. And if he thinks I'm taking that thing to the hamster park, he's nuts.


Butter Goats said...

Butters?! How awesome is that!

Butter Goats said...

Really, though, it should have been Cornholio, his mother's true favorite.