The problem with becoming a pet owner these days is that, as with so many
aspects of consumer life, there are just too many options. This was not
always the case - in the past, your basic pet alternatives boiled down to
either a cat, a dog, or possibly a bird, assuming you could prove special
circumstances, such as that you were: a) a magician; b) a pirate; or c)
Dogs and cats remain the most popular pets, of course - dogs are still
prized in large part for their fierce loyalty. As an illustration of
canines' remarkable devotion, every so often you hear the inspiring story of
a dog who gets left behind when the family moves away but then miraculously
turns up months later at the new home, often having traveled thousands of
miles, and proceeds to savagely tear the family members to shreds for
And while cats are often criticized for being entirely selfish creatures,
that is not entirely accurate. Why, just take the case of Mittens, a
seven-year-old American shorthair who, when her owner's house caught fire,
raced inside and, heedless of the flames that threatened to engulf her,
valiantly dragged to safety the family's electric can opener.
But ownership of traditional pets usually requires a great deal of effort,
including daily feedings, trips to the vet, scooping litter boxes,
time-consuming walks, cleaning up whatever the animals have shed, coughed
up, spilled, or killed and dropped into the middle of the living room
carpet. For prospective pet owners who aren't ready for this level of
commitment, a less time-consuming pet like a snake may be preferable.
Bear in mind, however, that while snakes require very little upkeep, the
downside is that snake feeding is more - shall we say - visceral, than
casually scooping kibble into a bowl. At first, you probably won't mind
feeding crickets to the little guy, watching him (or maybe her - who can
tell, with a snake) swallow the little critters whole. As the snake grows,
however, it will need ever-larger prey, to the point where in a few years'
time you face the prospect of wrestling a live, kicking goat into the
For a genuinely "low impact" pet, however, I highly recommend the latest
addition to our household menagerie: fish. If I had to encapsulate, in one
word, the greatest advantage fish offer over other pets, that word would be,
Ha ha, just kidding. As far as anyone in my household knows, I have never
flushed any of our pets down the toilet. But I'm serious about fish being
terrific pets. Up until this point, my only personal experience with pet
fish was a single episode during my childhood, when my sister won a goldfish
at a local carnival. I think she'd played one of those games where, if you
knock down all the bottles, you win a fish. If you only knock down one
bottle, you get two fish. It turns out that fish are a pretty cheap prize.
Sadly, my sister's goldfish, Charlie, lasted just one day. Soon after
arriving in our home, he developed a terminal case of "Mom Doesn't Want A
Fish." Unlike me, Mom did, in fact, flush Charlie down the toilet, but
promised us that he was enjoying a much better life frolicking in the nearby
Charles River. The truly scary thing is that Mom actually believed this to
be the case.
Beyond the simplicity, what's really surprised me about fish care is the
mystery surrounding what goes on in the fish tank. Within a week of bringing
home our little guppies, tetras and swordtails, almost before our
five-year-old daughter had time to name them, individual fish started
disappearing. I began to suspect that maybe I had underestimated our fish
and, perhaps inspired by the long distance-traveling dogs, had made a break
for it, hoping to return to their beloved fish store home. The simplest
explanation is often the best, after all.
The guy at the fish store disagreed, and suggested that a more likely
explanation was that our vanishing fish had been eaten - and here's the
truly chilling part - he said the murderer was probably still swimming
around in our tank!
After a bit of detective work involving much observation, quarantining of
individual tank residents and the purchase of a guppy whose job was to put
the "fish" in "sacrificial lamb," we determined that the likely culprit was
our orange swordtail, Johnny. I know, it's always the one you least suspect.
But unlike my mother, who would no doubt have consigned the culprit to a
porcelain grave, we showed leniency and returned Johnny to the fish store.
In time, we might even be willing to forgive him, and welcome him back into
our home. To prove his dedication, however, he'll have to find his own way.