'Come see the great guinea pig!" my son begged me outside the mall pet store. "They have his name on the cage. It's 'Biter.' "
I rolled my eyes.
I've been personally familiar with many small animals as I've raised five children, biting guinea pigs included. We've had fish, white mice, gerbils, hamsters, toads, guinea pigs on loan from school classrooms, orphaned birds, injured ground squirrels, turtles traveling through our farm, and a proliferation of other creatures, both cold- and warm-blooded. Small children and small pets are as naturally attracted as magnets.
Our family's first foray into the world of Lilliputian pets began innocently. I bought a child a 10-cent ticket at a school-fair game booth. Before I could say "not on your life," we were the proud owners of one goldfish, swimming happily and oblivious in a clear-plastic bag of water.
My children refused my sensible suggestion of turning the creature over to fish-owning friends. Conspiratorially, they even bagged a second fish before the evening was over. Ralph and Redpaw, as they were named, rode home and spent the night in a pail on the kitchen sink.
The next day, knowing the delicate needs of fish, I traveled to the nearest pet store. In no time, our two free fish were the owners of $40 worth of paraphernalia - a bowl, bubbler, net, artificial foliage, colored gravel, and enough food to see them into their golden years. Our other family pets, a dog and two cats, looked on jealously as the newcomers were established in their plush accommodations. They were, no doubt, calculating the impact of these intruders on their own lives.
To lessen the shock of our fishes' inevitable demise, I had purchased 10 more goldfish.
My ploy didn't work. For the next week, no sooner had we named a new fish than we found him floating in the bowl. Ralph and Redpaw were among the four hearty survivors. The mourning was long and intense - at least mine was. I felt personally responsible for each fish. My children, on the other hand, seemed to take things in stride.
Our remaining fish lingered on, especially Ralph, who survived for years despite several misadventures. One night he leaped from the bowl and landed on the linoleum floor. I discovered him the following morning, the consistency of a partially-chewed Gummi Bear, gasping for breath. As I peeled him off the floor and tossed him back into the bowl, I was sure our fish-owning days were over.
Instead, Ralph revived. Another time, athletic Ralph leaped into the garbage disposal during a bowl-cleaning session. We had to dismantle the kitchen sink to rescue him.
FROM fish, my children "advanced" to rodents. Again, each creature had optimal, wallet-thinning living conditions. We did try. But our lively home was just not conducive to small-pet ownership. Our frisky 180-pound Great Dane, for example, viewed each rodent as a new playmate. Need I say that a three-ounce white mouse was no match for this behemoth in a game of tag?
We made countless trips to the pet store for replacement animals during our learning phase.
Our last two small pets were golden hamsters. As always, I suggested we not name them for several days after adoption. This served two purposes. Somehow, the trauma seemed less if an unnamed pet didn't make it. And often, an animal's personality suggested an appropriate name in time. These hamsters were easy to name. We dubbed them Lost and Found.
During their first week with our family, the two hamsters spent more time running loose than in their cage. We tried a variety of homes. Plastic, metal, glass seemed to make no difference; these two Houdini hamsters escaped. We always found them, usually after a frantic scramble on hands and knees through the bathrooms and down hallways.
One time, after a particularly long disappearance, my children were concerned that the two critters would starve. They considerately sprinkled the entire second floor of the house with seeds, nuts, and fruit.
I'm sure Lost and Found (as well as other house-dwelling vermin) appreciated the thought.
After Lost and Found, who lived long and active lives, my children left the small-animal phase behind, content once again with our family dog and cats. At least I thought they had. I thankfully packed away the tanks, cages, exercise wheels, tubular runs, water bottles, and other equipment, and tucked away my hankies.
Then I made the mistake of attending a four-day business meeting out of town. My children were excited to see me return, especially my youngest son.
"Welcome home, Mom," he said. "Look what I won at the fair!" He held up his prize - one forlorn goldfish in a plastic bag.
And I'll never leave town again.