life as the meanest mother in the world

Can we get a dog? No. A cat? No. A horse? No. A giraffe? A giraffe?! This discussion springs to life at our house on a regular basis. Am I the meanest parent on the planet or an animal hater? If only it were that simple, as life with kids so rarely is.
My daughter is nine years old (almost, nearly ten if you ask her) and loves animals of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Sure, she loves warm and fuzzy, but cold and scaly or big and ugly also works for her. At the same time she has also had asthma since she was born, while I have allergies to everything from dust to mold to animal dander. Needless to say, we have no pets.
But what’s a mother to do with a child who at two would charge up to animals ten times her size, horses, donkeys, llamas, whatever, and demand to ride them? This is a girl who has the patience and calm nature to convince the peacocks at the zoo to let her pet them; I don’t know about your zoo, but at ours, the peacocks spend their days shrieking and avoiding the outstretched hands of every passing child. This is a girl who lies on the floor with any dog in her immediate vicinity and just wallows in its “dogginess”. And still, we have no pets.
I have passing thoughts of, how bad could it be? Some studies even say pets can be good for children with asthma and can help improve their resistance. As for my allergies, I grew up with every animal under the sun either in my house or in my yard, and I survived, thanks to tissues and eye drops. I could again, surely. When I find myself thinking this way, I remember the words of her doctor describing the number of young patients he’s had who have begged for pets, gotten them, loved them dearly for six months and then were unable to breathe. Then they had to suffer the agony of giving the cherished pet away. I think I would rather cut off my arm that watch my daughter go through that.
Instead we have tried some stopgap measures that bring some peace and joy into our pet-less lives and let our girl know how much we respect her love of all things animal. While we go into these situations armed with an inhaler and knowing the time needs to be limited, we have found that the interactions need to occur for her basic happiness. As her doctor says often happens, perhaps one day she will outgrow her asthma and have pets to her heart’s content. In the meantime we forage.
We have been petsitters, if that is a word. We had the neighbor’s hamster for two weeks while they traveled to North Carolina. Our daughter was more excited than she would have been if we had been going on the trip. She spent hours watching JoJo careen in his runabout ball. She built mazes for him out of toilet paper tubes. She rearranged the sections of his cage, moving the food here, the water there, the wheel here because she thought it would be better for him. She fed him, changed his bedding, and filled his water bottle. She held her little nose to his and just inhaled his rodent scent. I stayed in the background, medicine at the ready, encouraging hand washing, vacuuming and dusting after she went to bed. When JoJo went home, there was at least the consolation that he lives just next door.
We raised tadpoles and released them. Who would have thought two little squirmy blobs in a screw-top jar would be the most exciting thing to come in the mail all year? Instantly she named them, Sam and Joe, “because you don’t know with frogs whether they are girls or boys.” She fed them and cleaned their little tank and watched them grow as eagerly as I can only imagine she would kittens. Sure, she would have loved to hold them (and did frequently when they got to be frog-size), but she got so much enjoyment out of just watching these critters. Joe passed on early as an adolescent frog because he couldn’t eat his same-size cricket food, but Sam could have won a “sumo wrestling for tadpoles” contest and was just the right size as a frog to enter her grandparents’ backyard frog pond. The look of elation on her face when Sam launched from her hands to the pond was priceless. We hope to see Sam and little Samettes in the pond each spring.
We have visited the grandparents, all of whom have pets, on a regular basis. We have been to farms and zoos and petting palaces and just about anywhere else that promised to have animals. We’ve been to sheep shearing and professional kennels and farm dog training grounds and dog Frisbee championships. You name it; we’ve been to it. We’ve taken home the classroom animals over weekends and vacations, including the chicks that peeped all night long. We’ve talked to and pet the dogs on the street of all shapes and sizes, after checking with their human friends that they’re friendly, of course. We fed the birds all winter at multiple feeders in our yard. And still came the plaintive cry, “Can we get a pet?”
We began a new round of investigation of possible pets. We checked out hypoallergenic dogs, the labradoodle, the goldendoodle, and the cockapoo, all various relatives of the poodle, and found them not so sneeze-free after all. We read about gene-spliced, allergy-free cats and decided it was a little too creepy for us, like robot cats. We considered birds, until the allergist informed us about the special dust that birds generate and its probable effect on our tremendous allergy, to dust. We thought briefly about the whole reptile genre, and I have to admit it was me, though not me alone, who was a little put off by the idea of having to feed them other once-living, now frozen animals. Sure, they eat mice in the wild, we all eat to survive, but the idea of a freezer full of mice next to the frozen corn just didn’t thrill me. A woman in the pet store told me she’d been feeding her son’s pet snake for the last sixteen years since her son left for college; that was all I needed to hear. As much as this girl wanted a pet, I put my foot down on the mice eaters.
We have recently settled on fish. We are now knee-deep in the myriad decisions to be made of tank location, tank shape and size, gravel color, and the all-important which fish. Next will come tank decoration, with questions of abandoned reef scene or undersea castle, plastic plants or real ones? I tell stories of childhood fish, of the morning we woke to find that the angelfish had eaten everybody else for a midnight snack and was now huge and seemingly lonely. We got him (or her) some angel friends. The allergist’s nurse tells the story of her goldfish, aptly named after the legendary long-lived literary spider Charlotte, who has survived all manner of tragedies and lived an unheard of ten years. My daughter is enthralled. I am off the hook as the meanest mother in the world. Fish, here we come!