This week marks my two-year anniversary of adopting Oliver, my Covid kitty. He spent the first days of our new life together cowering behind the shower curtain while I sat in the bathtub, reading my book, talking to him and feeding him special treats. It was a victory when he finally emerged. We’ve been inseparable ever since. Of course, I’m the only one he will show up for. Anyone that has come to visit in the past two years is lucky to see a tail peeking out from underneath the bed! Our time together had me reflecting on the animals in my life (and I’m not talking about my two sons . . . )
My first pet was a dog named Whiskey, dubbed as such by my perpetually inebriated grandfather whose beverage of choice was indeed, scotch whiskey. After we moved to Arizona, we adopted a new dog, keeping the beverage theme, although with a much more child-appropriate name of Pepsi.
Our small block of three families had an inordinate number of animals between us; dogs, cats, bunnies, birds, turtles, hamsters and even a duck named Meat who eventually ended up living in the pond at the entrance to the Phoenix Zoo because the cats didn’t like him very much.
After my dad retired, he volunteered at an animal shelter, working with unadoptable dogs, sometimes for many years, training them to trust humans so they could find a new home. He even became their poster boy in his seventies! When he died, I’m fairly certain there were more photos of dogs than people in his memorial video. Adopting and caring for pets was an ingrained tradition in my family, one I continued once I had children of my own.
Dogs were just too much work with two active boys so we settled on cats; Stingo, Roxie, Mojo, Athena and Sophie, who was with us for over fourteen years. There were, however, a couple of times we attempted caring for other types of pets.
First, there was the dreaded aquarium. I’ll say this about fish care. I tried. I really tried. But the constant battle with Ph balance, remembering to buy fish that weren’t going to eat each other and the never-ending cleaning . . . well, it’s a lot of work. When my youngest son, Alex, got up one day and eagerly asked, Hey mom, can I scoop out the dead fish this morning and flush him down the toilet? I realized he thought that was what was supposed to happen with an aquarium…scoop out dead fish every day. It’s hard to emotionally bond with fish when they die all the time. Besides, by that point the sucker fish had grown so large it looked like a swamp creature. I deep sixed the tank within a few months.
Then there was the mealworm.
When Alex was in second grade, they had mealworms in the classroom as some sort of science project. He came home one day and declared that Sophie was favoring his older brother and he really wanted a pet of his own. He decided a mealworm was the perfect choice. I had no idea what a mealworm was but I was thrilled he wanted to take on the responsibility of a pet. So, off we went to the local pet store.
We were the first customers of the day and I knew Alex was excited. A pet of his own to live in his room without interference from his older brother! We approached the counter and addressed the man behind the cash register whose name tag identified him as Mo.
“We’d like to adopt a mealworm, please,” Alex said with all the eagerness a six-year-old can exude.
Mo looked at me with a quizzical lift of his eyebrows, which were furry enough to masquerade as escapee caterpillars.
“A mealworm?” he echoed.
“Yes, please,” Alex replied, employing his best manners and brightest smile, absent his two front teeth. Mo looked at me for verification. I nodded and echoed, “Yes, please. One mealworm for adoption.”
“Just one?” Mo asked. The caterpillar eyebrows were inching closer to his receding hairline.
“I think that’s all I can handle at the moment,” Alex replied with a self-awareness that had me stand a little taller, proud that he was ready to take on the responsibility of a pet.
For the third time, Mo looked at me, knitting his caterpillar brows together with some consternation I had yet to understand. With a shrug of his shoulders and a slight shake of his head, Mo went into the back room. He quickly returned with a plastic bag filled with sawdust and a small brown worm. Mo handed the bag to Alex who clutched it tightly.
“How much do I owe you,” I asked, reaching into my purse. Mo’s expression softened as he watched Alex attempting to catch the eye of the mealworm and coax it out of hiding so they could have a proper introduction.
“Really, I can pay you.”
“No,” he said with a wave of his hand. “It’s on me.”
“That’s very kind of you,” I said.
“Thank you!” Alex said and then leaned in to Mo, as if he had a secret, “I think I’m going to call him Brian!”
Mo’s eyebrows shot up again, the most exercise they’d probably had in year, and we marched out of the store, proud owners of a pet mealworm named Brian.
For the first few days Brian grew bigger and fatter so we put him in a larger shoe box but soon he became listless and began to fade in color. We didn’t want to call the vet at this point, so we went online to investigate. What we discovered sent us both scurrying into his room to make sure the lid of the box was tightly sealed.
Apparently, Alex missed the point of the science lesson – that of metamorphosis – which included the molting of the mealworm and the emergence of a very large, very dark, six-legged beetle the size of my hand.
To say we both had the heebie-jeebies would be an understatement. Visons of a giant beetle hatching in the middle of the night, clawing its way out of the box, and attacking Alex were swirling around the two of us like no-see-um gnats.
“What do we do, Mom?” Alex asked, clearly freaked out but also torn that his beloved Brian was going to turn into something so unexpectedly gross.
“We should probably release him into the wild,” I said, making it up as I went along. I had no idea what this beetle’s natural habitat was, but it for sure wasn’t going to be my son’s bedroom.
So, we bundled up Brian’s box, climbed into the van and drove up to nearby Water Dog Lake to release him into the wild. We returned home and sanitized Alex’s room from top to bottom.
Further research revealed mealworms, as their name so obviously indicates, are used as food for fish, birds and reptiles. No wonder Mo thought we were nuts! I’ve never been back to that pet store.
Despite these occasional failures, I think our pet family was one of the few things I got right as a parent. Teaching children to care for others through the love of animals is an essential lesson and I am so proud they’ve continued the tradition with their own pet families.
As my dad’s poster says, “Love flows both ways.”