Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Pet sitting

The bf is going away for a week, lecturing at a university in an enviously tropical climate. I get to take care of his pets. I should say right up front that the bf is a vet-md and three of his four pets are animals he took in from the clinic where he works. They are not the kinds of pets you play with. They are not even the kinds of pets you pet. Basically they’re the kinds of pets your parents described when you clamored for a puppy as a child: never-ending drudgery centered entirely on bodily functions.

My sister and I got that same lecture every other child got—you say you want a dog but do you know how to care for a dog do you know how to be responsible for a dog and just who’s going to feed the dog who’s going to walk the dog who’s going to clean up the dog’s poop—that we listened to with impatiently nodding heads, waiting for the pause that would signal us to assure them we would pick up every piece of poop that ever issued forth from our pup’s behind with such alacrity that people would start to wonder whether the dog ever took a dump at all. I usually left these assurances up to my sister, the responsible one, the one who couldn’t leave our room without making sure all the books on the shelf were aligned and all the clothes in the closet were spaced equidistant, no errant sleeve rumpled the wrong way. Privately I snickered at her fussiness, but in public—or at least the public of our parents when they were hearing our pleas for pets—I pretended I was just as much of a neatfreak fusspot as she was.
This strategy paid off. Over the years we got rabbits, guinea pigs, two dogs, lots of fish, and a bird, a Javanese finch, who would lay eggs at the bottom of her cage and then kick them from one end to the other like soccer balls. That was childhood, though; I haven’t had a pet of my own in nearly 30 years. While I like animals, I also travel a lot, my condo is small, and I have barely enough disposable income to cover my obsessive need for running shoes. Pets do not fit into such a scenario well.

Enter the bf. And exit the bf, at least for a week, leaving me with a turtle, a tortoise (and I assume at some point, dating a vet-md, I’ll know the difference), a lizard, and a dog. The dog is no problem at all, sweet-natured and generally well behaved. Yes, sometimes she gets in the trash. Sometimes she slips out the front door and goes cavorting around the neighborhood, giving me and the bf anxiety attacks that she’ll be hit by a car or eat something nasty. These are rare occurrences, though; more commonly she would follow me and the bf around the kitchen when we cooked dinner, often interposing herself between us and the stove while we stir-fried veggies or flipped pancakes. This was partially out of her usual neediness for affection but largely, of course, out of neediness for scraps that might fall, and I was always afraid of stumbling over her and sending dinner and dishes flying. Maybe I should sell this idea to the Food Network as their latest lousy cooking competition show: Animal in the Kitchen. Contestants have to prepare a three-course meal all while caring for a clingy, demanding critter. Here’s the twist: turns out the judge of the contest is the critter itself. Are YOU an Animal in the Kitchen?
The turtle and the tortoise live in the basement, in large Nemo-themed kiddie pools under heat lamps the bf set up to keep them from freezing. My duties to the shelled critters this week are easy: add water to their drinking pools and add food to their food bowls. The turtle is a carnivore and gets dog food; the tortoise is vegan and receives a nice organic salad mix. I’m sure there are other differences between them, but those are the ones I know of right now.

The lizard is the high-maintenance one. “He hasn’t eaten on his own for months,” the bf informed me. “He has to be hand-fed.” This entails heating water, mixing it with powdered reptile feed, filling a syringe, and slowly, carefully, dropping the mixture down El Grecko’s mouth. That’s not his real name; I don’t actually remember his real name, but that hardly matters given that the bf just calls him “the lizard” and it’s not like the green guy much cares. I came up with El Grecko. I rather like it, even though he’s not a gecko. I am not sure what he is. There's another thing I'll have to learn.
We did a practice feeding the other day so I could get comfortable with the process. The bf coached me through it: “Grasp him by the shoulders and take him out of the tank. His mouth should gape open automatically, which will make it easy to feed him. Be careful, though—he bites.”

He didn’t, though. Animals seem to like me, eating disordered reptiles notwithstanding. I did everything the bf said to do just fine, the bf nodding his pleased approval, and carefully placed El Grecko back on a branch in his tank. El Grecko went limp. He fell back from the branch, hung upside-down, rolled his eyes back in his head, and dropped to the floor of the tank.
Oh my god. I killed El Grecko. What’s wrong with him? I whispered hoarsely.

The bf peered into the tank. “He does look a little weird.”
Oh shit. I didn’t even pass the preliminaries. Oh shit oh shit oh shit.

The bf calmed me down. The lizard was very old, he explained, and could go any time. It was quite possible he might die in the week I was taking care of him. This did not comfort me. I did not want El Grecko to die. I had zero affection for the thing, and the bf spent a good ten minutes reassuring me I would not be responsible for anything that happened, but I still didn’t want to deal with the little reptile's death. But I also didn’t want the bf to have to lug the tank over to the clinic to have a vet student deal with El Grecko, so I agreed to be his caretaker—though hopefully not his undertaker.
It has struck me that while the bf clearly loves animals given that he’s devoted his career to their care, his care of them frequently results in their deaths. I’ve heard people insist that ranchers and hunters—people who regularly kill animals—know more about these animals than anyone else, and because of knowing more about them also care more about them. This is too sweeping a generalization to pursue, and yet sometimes I look at people who put little hats and sweaters on their pets and talk about how they find most animals far superior company to most humans—and I wonder if these people really are the animal lovers they claim to be. The narcissism of making an animal into what you want it to be is somewhat problematic. Animals are a lot of things; suggesting that they are merely perfect and innocent is not doing them justice. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to think of me as perfect and innocent, since I’m clearly not those things and never have been. Flawed and ignorant, sure; I got those qualities in abundance, but I can still at least try to do what needs to be done, I can still hope my efforts are successful, and I can still care for something or someone in a way that I hope helps them thrive. Wish me luck this week, and if I have bite-marks on my fingers, be happy, not alarmed. It means I haven’t killed El Grecko yet.




  1. I've never understood why some people to dress up animals. I mean, what the hell do they need sweaters for? They have fur. They're not dolls. They're animals.

    This post reminds me of the recent episode of Nature (PBS) that discusses why humans are so attracted to cats and dogs. From my cranky view of things, some of the people featured seemed a little bonkers.

    1. Yeah, I know what you mean - it bothers me when people praise their pets for being "nonjudgmental" and giving them "unconditional love." While a dog won't judge you for bad behavior, that is neither a merit nor a demerit on the canine's part - and it doesn't absolve you of said behavior, sorry to say.