The Age of Irresponsibility



I think our snails are up to some hanky panky. The other day they were tangled up in a position that looked like an illustration from the Kama Sutra for invertebrates. My boyfriend, Andrew, and I bought these two freshwater snails to keep company with a beta we had. The fish passed away after eight months, but two years later the snails are still sliding over the glass walls of the aquarium. Their home is a five gallon tank, complete with decorative gravel, waving plastic plants, a ceramic log, and a tiny pagoda if they happen to feel the need to meditate. They don’t do much except vacuum up the algae from the tank. It is a little like having a Roomba for a pet. The aquarium offers them both a regular bright electric light, and with the flick of switch, a mellow bluish purple tinted glow. Nerite snails are supposed to be asexual, but maybe it’s the blue light that puts them in the mood. Or maybe, like us, they just feel the need for a hug now and then.

Andrew and I occasionally discuss adding a pet to our home, but the logistics of adding an animal to our two bedroom apartment overwhelms us. Who would empty the litter box? Who would arrive home in time to walk the dog? Half a life time of caring for others has left me selfish and lazy in this, my carefree empty nest years. There are evenings where I can barely muster up the will to feed myself, let alone another living creature. I’ll resort to eating raw foods straight from the packaging, standing over the sink in order to catch any crumbs.

When my sons were young we had the usual procession of cats and dogs in our household. My younger son, Andy, was gifted once with a dwarf hamster. The hamster fit in my palm, and he had light apricot colored fur. His eyes were bright red, a satanic hue that should have warned us. We named him Mr. Nibbles, a deceptively cute name for a demon possessed rodent. Mr. Nibbles lay in wait, curled up and partially hidden by the soft wood shavings in the bottom of his cage, until an unlucky victim placed their hand inside. Then he would spring into action, leaping up and nipping any fingers within reach. He got me once in the web of skin between my thumb and index finger. I screamed and yanked my hand out of the cage with Mr. Nibbles still latched on. A flick of my wrist sent the little devil flying across the room to thud on the wall, his tiny legs splayed out like a cartoon character. I scooped him up, unconscious and unable to bite, and deposited him back in his cage.

He recovered from this trauma, but several weeks later we noticed that he had somehow lost an eye. Andy shrugged and renamed him Captain Nibbles, the pirate hamster. The lost eye did not improve his disposition. He continued to attack anyone unfortunate enough to be assigned cleaning or feeding duties, until one morning I found him belly up in his cage. I poked him with a straw first, to make sure he wasn’t just pretending to be dead. We held a funeral, complete with an insincere eulogy. I conjured up tears by remembering the pain inflicted by his sharp little teeth.

Not to be outdone by the hamster, my older son requested a Leopard Gecko for a pet. The little lizard was a light cream color with black and brown spots. He required a heat lamp to keep his glass tank at the perfect temperature. Like the hamster, he was palm sized, but unlike the hamster, the gecko was shy, and he would hide in his artificial rock cave whenever any of us tried to get a look at him. While we humans drank water from the tap, the gecko enjoyed bottled water from a battery operated bubbling fountain. The hamster, when I was brave enough to stick my hand in and feed him, ate tiny pellets we could buy almost anywhere. The gecko dined on live crickets. The crickets had to be purchased weekly, and I called local pet stores like a drug addict looking for a score. “Do you have the crickets?” I whispered into my phone at work. “Are they fresh?” I asked while I held my hand over the receiver. Before they could be fed to the gecko they had to be dusted with a special, vitamin fortified powder. I was grateful we didn’t have to cook them. Every time we opened the cardboard box in order to dump crickets into the vitamin dust shaker, several of the crickets would break free to take their chances in the wilds of my teenage son’s room. Our home was filled each evening with the musical chirping of crickets. The bugs that made it into the terrarium were stalked and consumed by the gecko with a frightening efficiency, which led me to ask Robert “How big does this thing grow?”

The gecko passed away unnoticed. We were used to seeing him immobile and hiding under the rock ledge in his cage, and it wasn’t until the crickets began multiplying joyously that we thought to examine the lizard. He had mummified in the dry heat of the terrarium, his little body stiffened and his mouth open in a sort of surprised smile.

I think sometimes that the perceived difficulties posed by pet ownership are not the fault of these creatures, but they are perhaps caused by some flaw, some deficiency in my own character. Pets provide companionship and love, and in return ask only that we care for their needs. It’s hard to imagine a more carefree pet than a fish that you only have to feed once or twice a week, but I can’t seem to work up the initiative to replace the beta. Andrew is lucky that he is self-sufficient, he can fetch his own meals and he very rarely requires a walk.

The snails continue their cleaning duties in an aquarium they have to themselves. I think they’re entertaining and lovely with their striped and spotted shells. They find their own dinner, and I only need to drop in a feeding tablet every month or so. They are perfect pets for this point in my life. Evenings I pour myself a glass of wine and light a candle or two, put Marvin Gaye on the stereo, turn on the blue light in the aquarium, and sit back to ignore the show.



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