Jane has been clamoring for a pet for a while now and Sunny has been clamoring for anything her sister wants for most of her young life. Christmas tends to intensify this kind of thing, so it was getting kind of loud around here.
Most of our dinner conversations since Thanksgiving have featured names for the dachshund we aren’t getting,* because the other adults in the house, including Toby, our geriatric cat, have put all their** collective feet down.
But I like the idea of my kids growing up with their own pets.
I did—we had several cats and dogs when I was young, and a large aquarium full of fish and snails.*** We also had many, many generations of gerbils, descendants of a single pair which, despite the pet store’s reassurances, were clearly not both male.^ There were also various free-range turtles over the years, a couple of ping-pong playing pigeons from Dad’s behavioral science labs, and also a short-lived, but much adored lizard.^^ Not to mention the illegal hamster and fish I smuggled in and out of my college dorm rooms and managed to keep alive for much longer than my roommates had
I think—my family can tell you for sure—that caring for small animals taught me about responsibility and empathy and stain removal. I’d like my kids to learn about those things . . . and also about keeping the floors of their rooms clean, which was the only stipulation I set.
To be honest, I set the standard pretty low, because Sunny loves fish and I’d already found a small, single-occupancy tank that cleans itself (more or less) through a siphoning system, which was just too cool to pass up.
She unwrapped it on Christmas Day and announced that she wanted a big black fish named Godzilla.
But her sister wanted something she could hold. Because I try to get my kids to learn a little something whenever possible, we did some research on that.
We reluctantly ruled out lizards, because her bedroom is the coldest in the house and I could afford the reptile or the heating system, but not both. Because I have some experience with keeping small mammals alive—one for almost twelve years, though she keeps growing up on me—we went through the options and decided that a hamster was a good starter pet.^^^
So this past Saturday, we all trooped to the pet store.
Sunny and my husband went to look at the fish and found a Longfin Dragonscale Betta with beautiful silvery-hematite scales and red-tipped fins.
She immediately dubbed him . . . Pebble.
He doesn’t seem to mind the simplicity of his new name, but I’m not sure how you could tell.
Meanwhile, Jane and I went to the rodent cages to look at the hamsters—or rather for the hamsters, as most of them seemed to be asleep under a thick layer of bedding material.
In fact, the only animal awake was a bruiser of a gerbil—he was so big that I thought they’d mislabeled the rat cage.
The gerbils of my childhood were small, brown-brindled things and generally quiet, modest, and self-effacing. This one was huge and butterscotch colored. He sat there in his wire wheel, rocking slightly from side to side on his big hind feet as he looked us over with bright, bold eyes.
I glanced at Jane, whose own eyes were glowing with an emotion I didn’t think I’d be seeing for another couple of years.
“Mom. Mom. I want him.”
“That’s not a—“
“Please, Mom. PLEASE.”
So we brought the not-hamster home, along with a car-trunk full of the stuff we needed to sustain his small life.
And then we needed to name him. He wasn’t a Fluffernutter or a Whoopie Pie or a Captain Seedeater, all names we’d thought might work for a hamster.
This was a gerbil, and a manly one at that.
Finally, after much laughing debate— Dempsey! Megagerbilius! John Henry! Thorin! Gerbil X! Mom, stop it!—Jane finally said, “His name is Pip.”
“Pip,” I said. “That’s a good name. You mean, as in Pipsqueak?”
“No, Mom,” she said, rolling her eyes. “As in Pip from Great Expectations. Aren’t you supposed to be a librarian?”
That’s gratitude for you.
But it’s still a good name.
It’s been three days, and both fish and gerbil have survived. It helps that Toby, whose bad hip is keeping him low to the ground these days, remains clueless about the new arrivals.
Sunny has used her new paint set to do a portrait of her beloved Pebble and has been
stumbling jumping out of bed and into her clothes every morning without complaint so she can feed him.
Jane has been good about cleaning up the plastic ledge where Pip has chosen to do his business. The slow bonding process has resulted in a nipped finger or two, but she’s been remarkably patient and forgiving for a kid who’s been training hard for a place in the U.S. Grudge/Revenge Biathlon team for the next Junior Olympics.
Whoa. It’s working already!
*The current favorites are Salami, Chorizo, Lil Smokie, Vienna, and Captain Strudel.
**Not our feet, mind you. But I’m willing to wait until Toby passes away to call another vote.
***Remind me to tell the saga of the Great Snail Migration sometime.
^It was the squirming translucent pink miracle of life every week for a while. By the time we could reliable determine the gender of a specific animal for separation purposes, it was usually too late. If it weren’t for escapees, determined cats, and severe inbreeding, we would have been buried in Rodentia.
^^Remind me to tell you about Basilisk’s burial at Frigidaire sometime.
^^^Okay, I cheated. I found a Find The Best Small Pet For You online quiz, figured out which answers would lead to “hamster”, and then guided Jane through the same quiz. Mea culpa, but her answers would have netted us a ferret, and both Toby and my MIL would smother me in my sleep.