We had decided to get the rats neutered after one began exhibiting some rather aggressive tendencies toward his brother. I knew this was a possibility and although that meant paying a heck of a lot more for such a procedure than one might think, I made the appointment to get it done. Jake seemed to be living in fear of his brother Finn; I would find him breathing heavily and making soft squeaks every time I took him out of the cage. It wasn’t until a week later that I was hit with the thunderbolt thought that these might be symptoms of something else – something far more serious.
Convincing my husband to bring Jake into the exotic pet emergency room (yes, there is such a thing) on a Sunday night which also happened to be our sixth anniversary was not as difficult as you might have thought. My son sat stoically in the waiting room as a myriad of snakes, hedgehogs and other animals with various illnesses and injuries were carried into the back rooms of the vet’s office. Jake was put on oxygen and diagnosed with a likely respiratory infection, apparently quite common for rats. My husband irritably paid the exorbitant fees for the emergency room visit and the meds and brought home our sick patient.
Thus, our lives entered a new phase. Rat care-takers. How’s the rat today? Does he seem better yet? How’s his breathing? Does he look worse today? Is he eating enough? Administering oral medications into a rat’s unwilling mouth through tiny syringes is about as fun as it sounds. When days went by and he didn’t seem to be getting miraculously better, it slowly sank in that I had to consider another possibility – something that up until this moment I had forgotten about, something that was probably the number one reason I had avoided pets for the past 22 years of my life.
When I was about ten or eleven, our bull terrier got out of the gated backyard and ran full-speed into oncoming traffic on our very busy street. She didn’t die immediately and I remember vividly the seemingly endless car ride to the veterinarian, as her head lay on my lap, and I watched the dark blood from her wounds seeping out into the fabric of my new lavender winter coat. I had watched her grow from a puppy and now our relationship had come to a screeching stop on the wet night pavement in front of my house.
Every animal that we had owned was now dead, obviously. Animals only live so long and a plethora of accidents, diseases and other calamities can befall them even before they live to a respectable age. There had been other dogs that were hit with cars, a number of cats that went missing, and even a disturbingly sad discovery in the basement by me and my sisters. There had only been one euthanasia that I remembered – our ancient and blind dog that would drag herself up the basement steps only to slip and fall clattering down the staircase again and again. I remember seeing my mother wince each time she heard the commotion, eventually steeling herself for the inevitable.
I reflected on these sad memories and wondered why anyone would put themselves through the eventual and unavoidable torture of having to part with a creature who had become a loved companion. Jake was only a rat, but he was someone that I took care of, someone who enjoyed snuggling in my arms – someone who was a someone, regardless of his species or size. The idea that sooner rather than later, I would have to watch him suffer towards death, or worse, have to make the decision to euthanize him if he was sick enough brought tears to my eyes. Why put myself through it? “THIS is why I don’t have pets,” I said to my husband.
I worried that my son would become despondent about the decline of our rat and watched carefully for signs he was depressed or overly concerned. I was almost disappointed to realize my mature boy known for being sensitive and emotionally aware seemed to be just fine. Even when I sat him down and gave him ‘the facts’ about Jake’s condition, he nodded soberly, but easily changed the subject to a video game he was hoping to download. Was it because he was a boy? Was it his age? Did he not really ‘get it’ – this idea that his small furry companion would not last much longer?
Children don’t understand many of the grim disappointments and tragedies in life and they shouldn’t have to. That’s what makes them resilient and adaptive and confident in the everyday joys of cartoons, bike-rides and ice cream. While I examine every potentially negative aspect of every choice I am about to make, my sons blithely seek out avenues of pure happiness, not caring whether it might last a moment or a month.
Pets are like that too. They don’t understand bankruptcies or lay-offs or cancer diagnoses. They don’t need to know where ‘this relationship is going’ or how committed you are to providing them with a certain lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. There’s no judging or miscommunications or passive aggressive plays to hurt your feelings. Perhaps that’s one reason why people have pets – to be closer to that part of themselves that they might have lost along the way from carefree child to anxious adult.
Jake remains with us for the moment, although I know one day I may walk into my sons’ room and find him lifeless in the cage. And, I’ll probably cry. And, then I’ll have to move on, understanding that like any relationship, it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. Maybe.
I still don’t consider myself a ‘pet’ person, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of having another one after our rats pass on. No chinchillas though. They’re just creepy.