Wednesday, September 16, 2009

How I Became a Pet Expert and Sabotaged my Sanity

That was my topic at the last TIME OUT: the mother of all comedy shows, when I followed a brilliant mamalogue by TIME OUT creator and comedienne Jacki Kane. Yes, I got to be the first guest mamaloguer (which in retrospect was good, because they were awesome, especially Jillian Starr), and I was more nervous than the last two times.

I had my script again. Last time I’d taken the stage I talked about being a stoner slut in high school and the time before that about dropping my drawers in public—wait, it wasn’t like it sounds… but I’d had those down pat, they were complete pieces, finis, whereas this pet thing goes on and on and on…

This is pretty much what I had to say:

I’d hoped to be more ready, but it had been kind of a rough week. With three kids I’ve REALLY been looking forward to school starting. And that was nice and all, but I’d really hoped the kids would be starting school, too. The only one to actually start school was our seventy-pound six year-old on the spectrum who can take out a twelve year old or a teacher with one blow, and does, when the mood strikes him, but went like a lamb, shocking the hell out of all of us.

The seventeen year-old senior, on the other hand, arrived home from a gaming convention with swine flu the Sunday before school started—you’d think at a gaming convention he’d have caught a computer virus or the plague, something medieval—and I’d kept him penned in his room all week, hoping to keep the germs at bay. He wasn’t allowed out of his room without an antibacterial sponge bath.

The freshman is easing her way into high school slowly, and we may have reached complete absorption into the system. So sometime maybe, just maybe, the house will be mine, though if their current schedules stand, this will leave me with a maximum of 3.25 hours kid-free out of 6. Let’s just say creative time has been limited.

Which is too bad because I’ve got a lot of experience with pets, and children who don’t take care of them[the theme for the evening]. And I’d like to say straight out that it’s all my fault. There would be no pets in our house if my wife had her way. Partly because she can’t take care of them; she couldn’t suck algae water from a fish tank to save her life or pick up pet poop if she was paid for it, taking torn-up animals injured in territorial disputes to the vet is beyond her and remembering they need food and water is a stretch.

Which makes it odd that she hooked up with Dr. Dolittle. But life is like that. She wanted kids; I assumed kids came with pets. Lots of them. Sequentially. Severally. Strangely, this made me something of an expert at pet care in the world of Internet Advice—which tells you how Expert the Experts really are—so I put my so-called expertise to good use and wrote up my findings for a site that I got to write other stuff for, like “How to Attract Vermin to Your Neighbor’s yard” and “How to Come Out as an Atheist” and “How to Hide from your kids.”

In my defense, my spouse should have known she was marrying Dr. Dolittle. I’d worked in a pet store; you know, one of those disgusting jobs teenagers take when they’re desperate for dough during high school, the five am shift cleaning every cage in the shop, sweeping up the droppings from the floor and swabbing it all down with disinfectant. A job most teens dump after two months because it isn’t worth the minimum wage—except that I kept cleaning cages for three years. I was totally more willing to stick my head into a cage full of flying, screeching, defecating budgerigars, than work food service with strangers. And I learned some interested things, like that monkeys do fling poop, and will masturbate all day given the chance, and how to catch an iguana who’s gone rogue.

Step 1.
Put on your welding gloves, boots, thick pants and long-sleeved shirt. Face mask optional.

Step 2.
Locate the iguana that’s gone rogue by the smell of reptile in the morning, the pile of fresh iguana poop on the floor and the sound of lizard belly slithering on a smooth surface.

Step 3.
Approach the rogue iguana from downwind, walking slowly and softly behind the beast.

Step 4.
Quickly reach down with both gloved hands and grasp the iguana firmly around the midsection with fingers beneath the belly and thumbs across the back.

Step 5.
Lift the iguana with both hands, turning him belly side away from you, so that the iguana is held sideways with his back toward you and the tail to one side.

Step 6.
Walk swiftly to the rogue iguana’s enclosure, turn him right side up and place him head first back into his home, while shielding your face from his tail.

Step 7.
Make sure the iguana is placed entirely in his cage, then close and lock the door.

After a reptile’s gone rogue, he’ll do it again—any chance he gets. Keep welding gloves on hand wherever your reptile roams.

But my pet shop experience has given the kids an unfortunate out when it comes to pet care--they long ago discovered that no matter how much they insist they’ll take care of the critter, whether lying like a log or seething with sincerity, I’ll do it in the end because I can’t stand seeing a guinea pig wallow in its own waste, and can do the job ten times better than they can in half the time. As for picking up dog poop--we can’t even pay the kids to do it—and why would they? They know it’s me who cares most about dog debris getting tracked in if the dogs step in their own spoor. They’re kids and couldn’t care less, and frankly, I’m an Expert:

How to Pick up Dog Poop

Section 1: Picking up poop with a scooper.

Step 1.
Approach the poop from up-wind.

Step 2.
Using one hand to hold your dog’s leash, use the other to scoop the poop using a trowel, rake, scooper or claw-like metal instrument designed for the purpose.

Step 3.
Quickly dash to the nearest trash can without a home-owner watching and dump the contents of your trowel, rake or claw-like metal instrument into the receptacle, hoping you meet no one during your mad dash.

Step 4.
Repeat as necessary.

Section 2: Picking up Poop with a Plastic Bag Around Your hand

Step 1.
Approach the poop from up-wind.

Step 2.
Slip an appropriately-sized plastic bag over your dominant hand, leaving the other to hold your dog’s leash or your nose.

Plastic newspaper bags, grocery bags and produce bags all make good poop bags, and can be saved up for this purpose, though the sight of smooshed dog poop through clear plastic is not for the faint of heart.

Step 3.
Place your hand over the poop and pick it up gently, as if handling baby chicks, in order to keep the dog poop in a solid state.

For multiple poops, two hands may be necessary to gather the entire flock of feces; stand on your dog’s leash to keep him from exploring freely or rolling in his own dung.

Step 4.
Pick up the poop in its entirety; with the other hand, slip the baggy off the dominant hand, enclosing the poop within.

Step 5.
Tie off the bag to prevent poop, and odors, from escaping.

Step 6.
Dash to the nearest trash can and drop in the bag surreptitiously, in case you’re being watched.

Step 7.
Repeat as necessary.

Don’t grab poop fresh out of the dog; allow the poop to drop to the ground before collecting. Even dogs can have shy bowels, and a constipated dog is not a pretty thing.

Never use your scooper to flip the poop into a hedge, ivy bed or bush; while it may seem a speedy solution, a potential confrontation with an angry mother standing behind the bush or an irate gardener (who had spent the entire day pruning the ivy into ship-shape), is not worth this scooping shortcut.

So, over the last seventeen years on the mommy track, I’ve learned some things about pet care, mostly by error, much of it a trial, because during that time we’ve had:

4 Siamese Fighting Fish
3 mice (one who died of cancer and two who injured each other mortally in a mixed martial arts free for all leading to euthanasia for two and a shared coffin made from a plastic take out container with a bow on top)
1 cockatiel named Doris
1 parakeet captured in a public park we named Boris
5 Goldfish

One of my first how-tos was

How to Name a Goldfish

Step 1.
Observe the goldfish you have chosen—does a name scream out to you? Does your fish have obvious traits: a growth on his forehead, a third eye, a spot on his tail that looks just like the one on your mother-in-law’s chin?

Step 2.
What do you want your fish’s name to say about you? When a friend asks, do you want the name to indicate your humor, vocabulary, cold-heartedness, knowledge of Eastern religions or taste for shocking slang?

Step 3.
Ask yourself—“Will I be comfortable saying this name in ten years, if the goldfish defies the odds and survives over a decade?” Even if you’d like to change your goldfish’s name, your kids, relatives and friends will never let you forget his original appellation.

Step 4.
Try names on your tongue—does “Aloysius” sound satisfying? Does “Carpo” feel right?

Step 5.
Consider your household—if you have children, they will want to name the fish. Make suggestions to vary the possibilities or you may be feeding “Goldie”, “Fishy” or “Swimmy” for the next few years.

Step 6.
If no perfect name emerges from your musings, let your fish remain nameless until inspiration strikes. Your fish will swim on in blissful ignorance of his un-baptised state, and you can hold out for the name of your dreams.

Naming a fish after a beloved friend or relative (still living) is an invitation to cosmic disaster. Bad Karma will ensue if your fish meets a swift end, and disposal will be complicated by your attachment to the beloved friend or relative, resulting in a fish funeral rather than a quick flush.

Naming a fish as retribution for the emotional crimes of your enemy, ex-boyfriend or in-law is tempting (“You’ve got the power”), but inadvisable. Keeping the fire burning in an antagonistic relationship by naming your goldfish after your worst enemy will distance you from what should be a beloved pet. Rise above it.

But then my time ran out onstage, though the list of our pets went on:

2 finches
1 long-lived leopard gecko named Sweetie who jumped into my older son’s shirt at Petco, stealing his heart forever, and lies interred in our freezer awaiting a final resting place. Though this might seem strange to some people, when I was seventeen, there was a dead tortoise named Turbo in our freezer, and no one thought anything about it. Until my mother’s boyfriend took it out thinking it was a turkey on Thanksgiving…

3 rabbits—note, never say yes when your son calls you from class saying, “Susy brought in her baby bunnies and they’re soooo cute” just because you’re guilty about the new baby. I should know. I also know:

Remember to bunny-proof ahead and remove or say goodbye to any electric cords, sashes, curtains, wood furniture, priceless antique heirlooms, good shoes, long dresses, cabinetry and doorframes.

House rabbits are a long commitment; bunnies living in a warm, safe environment can live for a dozen years, require countless litter box changes, and chew an endless supply of electrical cords. Starting with realistic expectations will quell your urge to shout “Damn you Beatrix Potter and your little Peter, too!” as you clean up another pile of bunny pellets.

Bunnies have a nasty bite and an even nastier scratch. Clean any abrasions quickly and avoid bites or scratches by a policy of mutual respect—you won’t pick him up without warning, and he won’t turn into the medieval attack rabbit from Monty Python.

4 guinea pigs.
I’d never been a fan of guinea pigs before getting one. I’d always thought of guinea pigs as like those multi-hued puff-balls on “The Trouble with Tribbles” episode of Star Trek—they squealed, they pooped, they bred like bunnies when they were barely legal and ran away any time you tried to touch them. But then my daughter met Cocoa.

Cocoa was a love of a guinea pig. Gentle, funny, liked to be cuddled. Her hair stood out in more directions than Edward Cullen’s. And then I had the bright idea of adopting her a companion from the animal shelter. Cocoa took to her like a Mean Girl on Steroids, until poor Dolly was ready to slit her wrists, join a cult or run away to military school. When Cocoa passed away from natural causes in her studio apartment, Dolly breathed a sigh of relief, in her equally separate dwelling, before succumbing to cancer.

But wait, the list of pets goes on:

3 newts—this is where the sucking of algae water comes in—nothing says loving like the willingness to suck in fetid aquarium water to save your son’s ailing newt
1 bearded dragon named Darwin
2 medicinal leeches
Yes, leeches. Like in the middle-ages. Same leeches. Handy for keeping the blood flowing when reattaching body parts. We fed them raw hamburger. They were cool.

Okay, so some of the pets weren’t my fault, specifically:
100’s of Australian leaf insects, which began as little shiny eggs purchased on a whim from a ranger during a bug demonstration at a campground, by my wife, for one dollar. She didn’t check with me first. The one dollar packet of eggs hatched into tiny sticklike insects who grew into hulking four inch mutants who needed a constant supply of blackberry vines even in the winter and would suddenly burst into flight during cage cleanings, and even I scream when four inch bugs are suddenly flying around me and the air is buzzing with wings. That one was HER fault.

2 toads that Santa Claus delivered

Toads are surprisingly personal pets, and difficult to keep alive. Which is why I wrote how to hold a wake for a toad.

Step. 1: Bury the toad quickly after death has occurred, as amphibians quickly shrivel, dry unattractively and smell. Bury deeply where pets are unlikely to disturb the earth.

Step. 2: Mark the burial location with a special stone or tablet; this both decorates the grave, and prevents you from disinterring a dead pet. A temporary marker can serve while a custom gravestone is being prepared.

Step 3: Invite those who loved the toad, and care for the toad’s owner, to gather and celebrate the passing of a friend. Formal invites aren’t necessary; toads are casual animals, and appreciate informality.

Step 4: Provide light refreshments and beverages to toast the toad and wish him well into a better world.


Do not be too obvious if this passing is a joyous occasion for you; the owner will not appreciate your glee, which can lead to tears, guilt and a puppy.

Beware the urge to minimize the occasion; comments like “It was only a toad” can better be made in private.

And the list of pets goes on:

2 poison dart frogs—who needed to be fed hundreds of flightless fruit flies daily. That was a bad idea for a busy family.
7 Pacific Chorus Frogs—before they were marked as an endangered species, I swear!
1 Really UGLY African albino clawed frog—it was like a bloated dead thing that ate worms. The kids loved it.

And 4 dogs
Not all at the same time. We have 2 dogs right now, one white puff ball of a puppy, and one 10 year old Labrador who still hasn’t grown up, even though he’s winding down. Actually, it’s less that he’s still immature, but that he just doesn’t care. He’s an old man. By now he knows we’re not really going to do anything drastic if he steals food off the table or knocks someone out of the doorway when he wants to go first. But when he was younger he was a real handful. So I wrote:

How to Live With a Labrador

Section 1. Living with a Labrador Puppy

Step 1: Look into your puppy’s adorable eyes, and lower your standards of cleanliness, of landscaping, of punctuality, of how smelly you are willing to be.

Step 2. Sign up for puppy classes as soon as you return home with the puppy; use your cell phone at the breeder’s if possible.

Step 3. Remove all chewable objects from the floor: like shoes, purses, pillows, recycling bins, computer hard drives or toddlers.

Step 4. Gate off any areas the puppy shouldn’t go using metal gates (plastic gates won’t last a day or wooden ones an hour).

Step 5. Don’t let that puppy out of your sight for a second! Use positive reinforcement for every good behavior (“Good Rover, good pooping outside!”), and not shaming. Labradors are the surfer dudes of the canine world, and will look at you blankly if you point out the error of their ways.

Step 6. Practice on a leash as soon as you get a collar on that pup. Make him follow you, or you will be following him with your arm outstretched shouting, “Heel Rover, heel!” for the next twelve years.

Step 7. Learn home repair skills as your Labrador enters the teen years and teethes on doors, stairs and kitchen cupboards, as well as swallowing aluminum cans, entire collars (spitting out the metal parts), and any chew toy marketed as lasts for hours.

Step 8. Once mature at four, your Lab will become the dog of your dreams--provided you’ve trained him, gotten used to piles of poop and don’t mind finding dog hair in every square inch of your home, including the refrigerator and its contents.

Step 9. Enjoy his golden years of calmness as arthritis sets in, his ebullience wanes and you have the perfect dog.


What you see isn’t always what you get; if you’re buying a purebred Labrador, meet the parents before buying. Are they British Labs (stoic, steady), or American Field Labs (tall, kinetic and difficult to train, see Marley & Me); knowing what the in-laws are like will help predict Junior’s behavior.

Expect to know your vet on a first name basis and have her on speed dial. Time is of the essence when it comes to upchucking poisonous plants, chocolate cakes, sharp objects and large denomination bills.

Tempting though it may be, never shave your Lab to keep shedding under control; an embarrassed Labrador will call the ASPCA quicker than you can hide the clippers.

Some Labrador owners send their puppies off to Boarding School for training, an expensive option, but cheap when compared to the cost of a complete deck rebuild or a personal injury lawsuit when Rover knocks down the neighbor.

Was your puppy pint-sized and the adult version is a brewery? Enjoy your monster dog; take pride in his ability to terrify intruders, haul a sled full of school children or pull your car out of a ditch.

Section 2, Living with a Used Labrador

Step 1. After choosing a Labrador based on brains, beauty, price, sob-story or availability, bring her home to stay, accepting her for who she is, warts and all.

Step 2. As warts appear (nervous peeing, a chronic skin problem, leash-aversion, actual warts or a desperate desire to disembowel squirrels) ask yourself, “Am I perfect? Am I one to throw stones? Can I look into those brown eyes and say that I’ve never sinned?” Then grab the mop.

Step 3. Get to know each other, and expect to lose some shoes, a chair, that heirloom writing desk from Great Aunt Lucy or a laptop. Every relationship comes with a price.

Step 4. Take a class together to bone up on the obedience basics; she needs you to know how to be boss, you need to stop tearing your hair out or you’ll be bald.

Step 5. Be glad you have skipped the deck replacement/door devouring/aluminum can-eating stage, and enjoy your mature Labrador, who already has her permanent teeth.

Overall Warning: Labradors can be addictive--avoid puppies, breeders, animal shelters and want ads unless you want to live with additional Labs.

And naturally, all of this “EXPERIENCE” made me the perfect person to write:

How to Pick the Wrong Pet

Step 1.
Be impetuous! As soon as the idea strikes you, go out in search of the animal of your whim.

Step 2.
Do no research; picking a pet is about falling in love, not logical analysis of existing data.

Step 3.
Look for your pet at the nearest outlet, regardless of reputation.

Step 4.
When you’ve found a pet source, don’t be afraid to compromise, change your mind or decide on another species once you get there, based on availability.

Step 5.
Ignore practical considerations offered by store employees or bystanders who mutter, “Are you sure you want to do that?” when you appear to be buying an opposite-sex pair of a speed-breeding species.

Step 6.
Get the cheapest accommodations money can buy for the new pet, or figure you have something at home that could probably work.

Step 7.
Leave with your new pet, and a sneaking suspicion you may have just made a big mistake in a manner of minutes.

Look for the pet that needs your loving care—the one in the corner cowering, the lame one limping along at the back of the kennel.

When in doubt get two; if there are dueling desires in the family, why not please both by buying two pets?

Think of the pet you want now, not the pet it will be in ten years, when you go off to college.

Never stop to consider if you want to pick the wrong pet; rational thought and logical consequences might intrude.

Overall tip
Even with the most impetuous purchase, you may get lucky; if you have miraculously picked the right pet, don’t be afraid to try again with another species.

No comments: