Thursday, August 13, 2009

Little Critters, Big CIty

The summer issue of the Park Slope Reader is now out, complete with my newest Dispatch from Babyville. You can pick one up in a coffee shop near you, or, if you're living beyond the Reader's reach, you can read the essay here:

Little Critters, Big City

By Nicole Caccavo Kear

I had a pet-less childhood with nary a dog or hamster or even a goldfish to call my own. To say that my mother is not an animal lover is to put it mildly. Though a reasonably feeling woman in general, she is downright coldhearted when it comes to creatures covered in fur, feathers, or fins. Not as bad as Cruella da Ville, but close. I guess I inherited this animal aversion because it never bothered me that I didn't have a pet. I had a kid sister, and that was sort of the same thing.

My kid sister, on the other hand, pined for a pet. Melissa's pining (and whining) led to a series of what I will euphemistically call "eclectic" pets, the kind a kid can keep in the city without disturbing the domestic peace too much. The first was Slimy, a snail gifted to her by a waiter at Ko Chine Restaurant in Chinatown. The waiter was impressed by Melissa's appetite for escargot and thought she might savor a live snail as much as she did the ones she swallowed whole. My sister shared one and a half magical days with Slimy before he, for no reason whatsoever that we could discern, suddenly stopped sliming.

After that she had to content herself with taking the classroom fish home on holidays, until one day my mother accidentally (we hope) flushed him down the toilet. Guilt ridden about the fish-slaughter, she consented to buy Melissa a bird. So they went to the pet store and came back with Freddy, a one-eyed, skittish cockatoo.

My sister did not look too happy with this, her long-awaited pet.

"Why does he have only one eye?" I asked.

"He was on SALE," she replied sulkily, "because he's missing an eye from having a fight with another bird. Now he's a nervous wreck."

"We rescued him!" my mother exclaimed, like she was auditioning to play Dian Fossey in the remake of Gorillas in the Mist. But my sister and I knew better than to buy the act - my mother had bought the bird because he was a bargain.

Over time Melissa grew to love Freddy, and when he issued his last, anxious chirp, our cousins handed her down their bird, a green parrot named Captain, who was as bona-fide a pet as a child of animal-haters could hope for. So, in the end, her dreams of pet ownership were realized.

Fast forward twenty years and you will find the cycle of pet-withholding has repeated itself. Only now I'm the meanie and Primo and Seconda are the pitiful city kids without a canine sidekick.

It's not that I hate animals. I just don't want them as roommates. Little critters, no matter how smart or loving, like to roll in the mud, lick their butts, and eat garbage, and I think that's fine, that's totally cool, as long as it's not happening in my house.

There's also the fact that I can hardly manage caring for myself and my two children, who seem more like animals every day, which leads me to believe it's not a great idea to enlarge our family. Every plant we've ever had dies a slow, painful death of thirst and is left to wither for several weeks before it's disposed of. The only living things that do thrive in our apartment are the animals that live there without my permission, the endless parade of mice, not just any mice but a mutant strain of defiant super-mice who are invulnerable to death and skitter around the kitchen corners despite my unflagging efforts at hole-plugging and crumb-collecting.

Point is, I've got my hands full.

But children don't understand logical reasons such as these. Children just want. And my 4 year-old wants a creature to call his own. In his desperation, he has turned to bugs. Ants, in particular.

In the afternoon, he has taken to patrolling the stoop for stray ants that he can pluck from their happy life on the pavement and drag into our inhospitable home.

"I FOUND ONE!!!!" he shouts, like he's struck gold. Seconda runs over and bends down so that her face is a half inch from his fingertip.

"Oh you so tiny, you so coot my little Anty! I LOVE YOU, ANTY. I LOVE YOU SO MUCH!" she bellows.

"Too LOUD! You're going to scare the living daylights out of him!" Primo scolds.

Then, like he's a surgeon and I'm a nurse, he orders, "Habitat!"

I comply, handing over the plastic dome with a yellow handle, kindly manufactured by Fisher Price to satisfy the bug-capturing yen of children like my son.

"Get in there you little Anty you!" he coos, dropping the sucker inside and shutting the door, which must sound like a death knell to poor old Anty. No doubt word has gotten out in the Park Slope insect world about Primo's appetite for ants; the sight of that habitat cum torture chamber must send them running for broke.

Primo captures a bunch more, gleefully narrating to Anty that he's delivering some roommates for him so he won't be lonely in there, and then, when the habitat is full of writhing, squirming, dirty bugs, we get into the old "Can I bring them inside?" debate.

The first time this debate unfolded, I was a novice, and feeling guilty that I'd deprived the kids of a Fido or a Mittens, I agreed to letting the bugs come upstairs, provided - and this was the dealbreaker - that the habitat door remain closed.

Rookie move, I know. But Primo's my first and parenting him is full of rookie moves.

About two minutes after we brought the impromptu ant farm upstairs I heard a shriek.
I ran into the living room to find Primo holding the empty habitat, screaming, "WHERE IS ANTY?"

"Did you let him out? All of them?" I yelled back, scanning the floor for ants and spotting not a one, "I TOLD you not to!"

"But I wanted to PLAY WITH HIM!" he choked out before the bawling began, the wild, wide-eyed sobbing of a man with nothing left to lose, "ANTY! ANNNNNNNNTTTTY!"

Seconda, not quite sure what the hubbub was about, but always willing to join in on a good cry, piped up, "I WANT MY ANNNNNTY! GET HIM MOMMY!"

Primo thought this was an excellent idea. "Yes, Mommy, find him! Find Anty and his roommates, too!"

It is the lot of mothers to fix the unfixable, to do the impossible. But even we have limitations. I tried to explain that you'd have better luck keeping track of a collection of dust motes than ants on the loose. I told him it was his own fault for not listening to his mother. I told him you can't really play with an ant anyway. I suggested finding one of Anty's identical twin brothers on the stoop. There was no consoling him.

Since that fateful day, we have a strict all-bugs-left-behind policy. The kids can pick up whatever creepy crawlers they please - slugs, inchworms, millepieds, rolie polies - but they all get released back into the wild when its time to go home. And wouldn't you know, just yesterday, the wheel came full circle when Primo was poking through the dirt at his grandparents' place and found a small, sleek, black snail.

"Mommy, Mommy look!" he cried, breathless.

I had to admit, the snail was stupendous. She stuck her head with its lovely little snail horns right out in a delightfully amiable way and swayed her body this way and that, ever so slowly. I felt positively enchanted.

We named her Slimy Jr. and spent an hour or two in the garden playing with her. When it was time to go inside for lunch, I told Primo it would be OK if we kept Slimy, since she was such a special, such a one-of-a-kind snail.

"No, we better let her go free, Mommy," my son said, "So she can find her family and live a happy life in the dirt."

And that, I think, is precisely what happened.