Kids and Pets: It’s the Pinky-Toes that Make the World Go Round

By: Lisa Donovan

Our hamster, Burnt Waffle, has escaped. Yes, I did say Burnt Waffle. No, you shouldn't be alarmed. This isn't Burnt Waffle's first stint as a free man —er, hamster. He typically returns after about five or six days. The longest he has vacationed from his cage was a ten day spell — even I, the most idealistic of the house, thought him a goner. Our cat Sonny thankfully found him and rather than surrendering to his inherent nature, much to our surprise, acknowledge that he was family and gently alarmed us of his return. Every time he does this, I realize what a huge part of the family this little, hairy, occasionally smelly thing is. Even the cat feels it.

We were hesitant to let my son get another pet. My husband and I both are animal lovers. Once we were married we had a combined household of four animals — three dogs and one cat. We had to let one dog stay at a farm down in Florida — she was just too energetic to incorporate into the new family. So we actually made the move with only two dogs, Jackson and Aki, and the old cat Sonny. The dogs and cat, though, have been our pets. The kids enjoy and love them, but they are not the caretakers of them. At the age of three my son was insistent that he have his own pet. My husband and I talked long and hard about the pros and cons of a childhood pet. Would our son be capable, at three, of handling the daily responsibilities? Would he be ok when it died or ran away? Would we be ok covering for his age-appropriate lack of responsibility? Overall, we agreed that if we chose the right animal that it would be a positive experience. We decided on a fish.

So we set off to find our fish. Our son decided on a beautiful beta fish — her tail was a wonderful array of purple and gold. She was lovely. We started her off with a small fishbowl with some pretty rocks for the bottom and set off for home. En route, our son exuberantly shouted that he decided on a name for her: "Pinky Toe" (Our son has quite a penchant for naming pets, no?). He was in love from the moment he named her. We had all sorts of gleaming proud parent smiles back and forth to one another the entire drive home. So this childhood-pet thing wasn't so bad after all.

Then Thanksgiving came and, with it, a freezing cold that no one in Nashville saw coming. The weather had been a neurotic 70degrees and, as most people do, we turned off our heat as we headed out the door for our family Thanksgiving in Florida. We were to be gone for only three days and there was no forecast suggesting any weather other than the oddly warm temperatures that we had been experiencing. We had our dearest friend all set up to watch the house and feed Pinky Toe once while we were gone. He did the job remarkably, as instructed — feed her once on the second day we were gone. Everything was heaven for Pinky Toe — swimming, swishing her lovely tail and more swimming- until that third day. On the third day, with no warning, a freeze came. With no one to turn the heater on for her, our dear Pinky Toe, all alone and cold, died. We arrived home to find her belly-up in her bowl of ice cold water.

With all of our worries about how this very event would pan out, my son handled it more maturely than anyone else in the house. I reacted as if I had just found a dead homeless person in my living room. Literally — I shrieked and wailed. My husband did the only thing he found natural — he ziplocked Pinky Toe up and scheduled a "service" in our backyard directly following mommy's "episode" of overreaction. Once I calmed down I realized that this was a golden opportunity to show my son the cycles of life and death. I was thankful that my husband had a better reaction than I did — it was a good time to really show my son what this was about.

As my husband and son dug a small hole my husband started talking about how all things come from the Earth and, eventually, go back to the Earth. He started pointing out trees and flowers and dirt that get their nutrients from beings that have died. My son looked intently at him as he spoke. I nodded and smiled compassionately at this poor child who had just lost his dearest friend in the whole world. We were right back to our proud, smiley, give-these-folks-a-gold-metal parenting selves. We looked at our son for a reaction — expecting grief or confusion or typical signs or loss. He looked at us, the confusion was there just not how we anticipated. "Well gosh guys, if she's supposed to go back to the Earth why did you put her in that plastic bag?"

And so, with Burnt Waffle's MIA status, I am worried. Worried that this childhood pet saga is going to take another wrong turn. Worried that this time he won't be so detached and quasi-scientific about the nature of death (he has a lot more emotional investment this time around). But I have faith that our Burnt Waffle will return. And I have faith that my son is, as proven before, much more resilient and much wiser than I give him credit for. I have faith that he is learning those integral lessons of responsibility and compassion that convinced my husband and me to commit to this in the first place. And I have faith that, one day, we will be reinstated as conscientious citizens of this peculiar world of childhood pets.

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