I don’t want to make myself out to be some kind of anti-PETA monster. I think puppies are cute. I appreciate the aesthetic of a basket of kittens and yarn. Seeing-eye dogs provide an amazing service to those in need. Animal friends can help old people live longer. But, perhaps because I grew up with an understanding of how much work pets can be, when I finally moved out of my house, it was with a sense of relief that the only thing I had to take care of for a while was myself.
Eventually that changed, and unfortunately, as much as I knew about owning animals, no one really prepared me for how much work it was to have kids. But, for some reason, taking care of babies didn’t bother me as much. Maybe it was the biological link or maybe it was the fact that they didn’t have teeth yet to chew up my shoes, or maybe it was because they wore diapers to prevent accidents on the rug. I didn’t mind changing them, or feeding them or playing with them the way I minded cleaning up after animals. (Except for vomit. Vomit’s always bad.)
For years my husband, kids and I lived without any pets at all. Happily. I smiled knowingly when I heard my friends complain about finding someone to watch their cats or guinea pigs while they were away. I shook my head when I read the latest neighborhood email trail about a loose dog found on the street. I casually scanned through Facebook photos of ‘fur babies’ and ‘fur mommies’ without the slightest consideration of whether adding a pet to our own family would be a desirous prospect. I was surprised when my sister, who I thought shared the same views on animals as I did, purchased a dog with her husband. “I have enough things and people to take care,” I would say, if my mother – who to this day, remains an ‘animal’ person – would bring up the idea.
It wasn’t until I noticed that my two sons, who were growing up isolated from any kind of regular pet contact, were afraid of animals that I gave owning one a second thought. The idea that my stubborn refusal to entertain the notion of having a pet might in some way be detrimental to my children’s psychological state set off some perfectionist paranoia and I abandoned my rock-steady resolution on pets in a matter of days. Initially, we tried a couple of beta-fish and hermit crabs, but it became clear a species on a slightly higher order was necessary.
“Kids need to have a furry pet,” I reasoned with my husband, who had grown up with dogs and cats and was more than happy not to have any now.
“No dogs,” he said.
For a moment, I considered a cat, but I was still very allergic and the idea of subjecting myself to cat dander and the heavy regimen of anti-histamines which would be necessary in order to live in my own home was not appealing.
That left the rodent group. Ferrets, hamsters, chinchillas, gerbils, guinea pigs, mice and……rats. Let me briefly explain that prior to the story I am relating, I always had a ‘thing’ about rats. For Indiana Jones, it’s snakes. For me, it was rats. They’re clever, creepy and contagious. As a child, I’d seen at least two movies in which humans get eaten by rats. ‘Flowers for Algernon’ and ‘The Secret of NIHM’ notwithstanding, I hated rats.
Yet, as I continued to research the best ‘first furry pet for a child’, rats kept coming up at the top of the list again and again. Apparently, they are as smart as dogs. They can be trained fairly easily and will adapt to your sleep schedule (most other rodents are strictly nocturnal). They are extremely social and enjoy interacting with people and rats. They very rarely bite without provocation. They don’t require shots and are relatively easy to take care of.
Ultimately, no one was more surprised than me when I agreed to allow my nine year old son adopt two rats for Hanukkah. Two instead of one because they are so social, they will get lonely if left by themselves for too long, apparently. We didn’t even own them yet and I was already anxious about their psychological states.
To Be Continued….