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First Pets: Wild Thing

A declaration of "no dogs" can bring a parade of alternative pets through the house

I was on the kitchen floor, sopping up spilled milk and Cheerios with a paper towel, when Zach, my 4-year-old, launched the latest attack in his campaign for a puppy. He looked balefully into his cereal bowl and asked, "Why do you hate animals so much?"

Over the previous three months, he and his older brother, Phin, had stopped strangers with dogs, pulled me into pet shops, and made many passionate promises that they would care for a puppy perfectly all by themselves.

"I don't hate animals," I said. It was the idea of having a puppy — another family member that needed to be fed, walked, and house-trained — that I couldn't stand. From the chewing of shoes to the accidents on the carpet, they're high-maintenance, and for what? As a child I'd had an arthritic, slobbery basset hound that didn't like kids and a crotch-sniffng Belgian sheepdog that snapped. And they both came into our family as grouchy, but housebroken, adults.

"No puppies. It's not happening," I said briskly. But to prove I wasn't an animal hater, I offered up suggestions for a different pet. After all, people had pets other than dogs, didn't they? "We'll find something easy to care for," I chirped enthusiastically. "And I bet it will be even better than any old dog."

Don't Bite My Head Off

Okay, so it wasn't exactly an animal, but my boys were suffciently interested in the Venus Flytrap I brought home to name it Ramona. I suspect it was the carnivorous aspect of the plant that caught their attention. As promised, Ramona snapped up the bits of raw hamburger and chicken we offered her hairy leaves. If Ramona had come with an instruction manual, however, it would have said, "Never feed me anything but soft-bodied insects, like flies." Apparently little leaf tummies can't tolerate fat. I learned this six days later, when Ramona died.

Our next pet came with instructions — plus a water purifier, food, and "instant" eggs. As a kid I'd desperately wanted the sea monkeys I'd seen in ads in comic books, which depicted them as cute, sea horse-like humans. In reality, they looked and smelled like, well, teeny-tiny shrimp. "Those just aren't real pets," Phin said resentfully, then ignored them for the rest of their lives. Which turned out to be 13 days.

Undaunted, I purchased some triops, a kind of larger, ancient sea monkey with one intriguing feature: They have three eyes. Prehistoric animals that live in a state of suspended animation in the desert, they come to life — presto! — once water hits them. Talk about instant gratification.

Despite the three eyes, triops weren't what my children considered real pets either. "Do they do anything?" asked Zach. I was tempted to say, "What do you want them to do? They've got three eyes!" But in truth they didn't do much, except eat each other. We ended up with one whopping, two-inch triops. "Wow!" I'd say, shortly before it died, probably of boredom, "just look at those eyes!"

The books Phin brought home from his school library began to take on a distinct theme, with titles like ASPCA Pet Care Guide for Kids and Dogs Working for People. I watched him sigh over the pictures of cute little puppies and felt downright sad. But not sad enough to actually agree to a puppy of our own.

Zach brought home our next pet in a birthday-party goody bag. What parent in his right mind believes that surprising another parent with a live goldfish in a plastic bag is a "favor" in any sense of the word? As the guy in the pet store explained, we now needed a hundred bucks' worth of tank, filtration systems, and chemicals, "unless you want your pet to die . . ."

The goldfish did die, in 11 days. Now we had an empty tank. Enter Gus, a Madagascar hissing cockroach. Horned, wingless, and great at emitting a loud, fierce — or was it romantic? — wheezing sound, Gus was longer than Zach's thumb. He wasn't cuddly, but at least my kids liked telling people they had a giant pet cockroach.

One night, however, Gus's hissing didn't stop. It grew louder. After a few hours it woke the kids. I hauled the tank down to the living room, moved aside Phin's library copy of A New Owner's Guide to Great Danes on the sofa, and sat vigil with Gus. Was he in pain? In love? One thing was clear: That bug could belt.

And belt Gus did, for three days straight, a horrible, anguished shriek. Between the frantic calls to the local nature center (which had no advice on giant cockroach maladies) and long discussions about the circle of life with my horrified kids, I had covert, gruesome conversations with my husband, weighing various forms of bug euthanasia (to squash or to freeze). Ultimately, Gus gave a final, piercing howl and bit the dust, all on his own.

The boys' puppy campaign took on new dimensions. Dinner conversations invariably turned to the amazing feats of friends' dogs. Pictures of puppies from the Internet appeared on the kitchen counter, along with carefully lettered lists of reasons why dogs are good pets. One particularly poignant advantage: "They live a long time."

In fact, my son's point about longevity led us to adopt Rocky the box turtle, who turned up on the side of the road. Turtles are known for long lives, and it looked like we were off to a great start. Rocky was very lively at first, clawing with surprising speed over the log we'd set in his large, newly purchased tank. But soon he literally withdrew into his shell. Rocky was depressed. And our parade of pseudo pets, which should have been frolicking in lakes, oceans, deserts, or forest floors rather than languishing in our house, wasn't making my family too happy either. I assume Rocky beat our usual odds and lived a long life, because we set him free where we'd found him.

Turtle's Best Friend

With great trepidation I decided to visit a beagle breeder one day when the kids were at school. "Just to look," I told my husband. Those little red-and-white "huntin' dogs," as the breeder called them, were so small, so responsive, so cute. And I had to admit that these were real pets, bred to live with humans in a house. It was love at first look.

When my children walked into the house that day, I didn't have a camera ready to capture their reactions. I didn't need one. The looks of amazement, joy, and shock will be forever etched in my memory.

Like all puppies, Roz was high-maintenance. She needed to be walked. And fed. And housebroken. My sons argued over caring for her the first week, then promptly abandoned their pledges. It didn't matter. My kids were happy, and I was smitten. Roz provides unconditional love and lots of entertainment. She is ecstatic over a chicken tidbit, thrilled by a car ride, delighted with a thrown ball. She is so sweet, so easy to amuse, so eager to please. And now when someone spills cereal on the floor, I don't have to clean it up.

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