Looking back, mine was never much of a pet family. Growing up in Manhattan, we didn't really have space for a dog. My dad had a couple of cats (my parents were divorced when I was an infant), and I learned in fairly short order that I was allergic to them. But even beyond the limited apartment-space factor, there didn't seem to be any desire in our home for a pet. No one clamored for dog or a cat or a horse or anything like that. Maybe if we lived on a farm or something, we'd have felt differently, but to pretty much everyone in my immediate family, pets just seemed like extraneous furniture you had to clean up after. None of us seemed to have the pet gene in our DNA.
Presumably oblivious to this, my father bought my sister a pair of budgies for her birthday one year during her early teens. Budgies, if you're not aware, are small, yellow tropical birds who will supposedly speak if you train them to. I want to say that my sister's first reaction was something along the lines of "Let's see how long they'll last without food," but I may be embellishing a little bit. Regardless, the upkeep of said birds swiftly fell to my mother and myself. Given my mother's nagging Catholic guilt and my desire to teach the birds to say something inappropriate, rude or just plain shocking, we managed to keep them alive for a little while. We even tried to name them. I think my mother named one of then Why and the other Not (geddit?), whereas I referred to them as Odysseus and Agamemnon (having just completed "The Iliad" earlier that year). But even projecting identities onto the poor things didn't do much to lend them any meaningful presence in our household.
If you really care about how this tale ends (hint: It doesn't end well), click back to this post of mine from 2007.
Decades later, I am once again faced with a hoarily-unsolicited pet dilemma. Today, my little daughter Charlotte turns 7. I can't tell you have fast she's grown. Neither chirpy toddler nor precocious tween, Charlotte is at an elusive age where it's not immediately clear what she'd like for a birthday present. She's gradually outgrowing the stuffed animal phase and doesn't really give much of a hoot about dolls. We've showered her in books and art supplies (she loves to draw), but have been at something of a loss to divine what she'd really like for her birthday. So, we asked her. As if on cue, Charlotte said "PET!" without the slightest hesitation, specifically citing "a bunny," as the desired animal in question. Her mother and I then tried to explain that a bunny would be far too complicated for us, although, when pressed, I could only continually suggest how smelly it would be -- an argument Charlotte wasn't buying.
Suddenly, my wife blurted out "How about a goldfish?" My brow furrowed. Charlotte's big brown eyes lit up. Two separate little friends of hers have goldfish."YAY! A goldfish!!!!" And then, in an instant -- an instant wherein all my predictable, swiftly-brewing and logically-formulated objections were completely anticipated and summarily ignored -- it was decided. We were getting a goldfish.
At the risk of dusting off yet another pet-phobic anecdote, I should point out that I've never liked fish. When I was growing up, my best friend Charlie kept a fish tank. I remember accompanying him to the pet store one summer day. He'd saved up his allowance and was going to splurge on something new for his increasingly-crowded aquarium. Gazing around at all his options, Charlie settled on an exotic African Frog; a small purple amphibian. We raced back home and Charlie gingerly released the squishy little fellow into his fish tank (located, somewhat inexplicably, in his kitchen). We sat for a few minutes watching the frog explore this new environment, much to the bemusement of its new, finned roommates. In short order, though, we got bored and left the kitchen.
Hours later, something was amiss. During the course of the day, the African Frog had somehow ceased to be in the fish tank. The possibilities were fairly slight. Either (a) the little guy was eaten by one or more of the fish in the fish tank or -- more disquietingly -- (b) he had somewhat escaped! Charlie sounded the alarm, sternly notifying everyone in the household that they should watch their step, lest they unthinkingly snuff the life out of his new African Frog -- and end up with a nauseating purple splotch on the rug. We spent the next several hours carefully searching the kitchen, expecting to find the frog smooshed repulsively between two dinner plates. But, he never turned up; alive or otherwise.
About twenty years later, I had a friend of mine from college -- Ed -- living about a block away from me. Incongruously, Ed kept Oscars. If you're unfamiliar, Oscars are a decidedly ugly form of sea life that masquerade as fish, when -- in actuality -- they're really just bilious turds that happen to have gills and fins. Also, they kinda smelled. I know that sounds impossible -- how can one smell something when it's (mercifully) contained in a coffee-table-sized aquarium filled with cloudy water? Well, trust me -- the fumes that emanated from the lair of the Ed's Oscars could put you off your food for a week. I couldn't imagine why Ed had these noxious creatures in his otherwise hip bachelor pad, but I believe he thought they leant him an air of exotica.
In any case, Ed would periodically go out of town on business and, being that I was basically the only person he knew in a five block radius, he'd routinely ask me to come and look after his Oscars. I begrudgingly agreed to feed them, but said I wouldn't do anything else. I wasn't going to clean the tank or change the filter or inspect them for welts or anything. I'd keep them alive, but that's it.
Over the next couple of weeks while Ed would be away, I'd come into his apartment about twice a day to dribble crumbs of fish food into the increasingly murky tank. By the end of the first week, the water in the tank would be positively brackish and impenetrable. I'd raise my hand over the tank, and the Oscars would surface out of the black like diminutive Loch Ness monsters to prize their meal, then gurgle back to their smelly depths. The whole process was disgusting. But, they lived. Mission accomplished.
About a year or so later, Ed took an assignment in Singapore and bizarrely sold his Oscars (and their accompanying fish tank) to the laundromat next to his building. I remember walking by Ed's building about a week after he left and seeing his now tellingly empty fish tank in the window of that laundromat. What happened to the Oscars? Did they eat them? I don't think I ate seafood for a couple of years after that.
So, yeah -- I don't like fish. But, once again, this isn't about me. It's now about a decade and a half since my last interaction with Ed's aquatic pals, and here I am about to put my coat on to accompany my wife to PetCo on Union Square to procure a pair of goldfish. Charlotte's already thrown a few possible names around. The big contenders seem to be either "Sparkly" or "Swimmy." My suggestions -- "Goldfinger" or "Sid Fishus" -- were unsurprisingly shot down, but -- again -- it's not about me.
As much as I'm not looking forward to hosting a new little creature in the household (least of all one that resides in a tank), I am looking forward to the look on my kids' faces when they see them. Who knows? Maybe I'll become a pet person yet.
...but I wouldn't bet on it.