Have you tortured pets for your kids yet?

Working in a pet store can be a lot of fun and it can really stink. The best part is that you can handle and care for and learn about all the amazing animals without having to actually own them (although you’ll end up with a zillion before you know it). The bad part is that it’s the worst of retail combined with living creatures. If you’re lucky, you’ll work at a store that has a policy against selling animals to people you don’t feel right about selling them to and management and coworkers that support that policy. You will have customers that will tell you you are a horrible animal torturing bastard and customers that will spit on you for being an animal rights activist. In the same day.

Anyway, it’s been many many years since I worked in the pet trade but I was reminded a few weeks ago that there are definitely some nuggets of wisdom I can share.

Don’t lie to your kids about your pet dying. 

I’m not saying there aren’t legitimate reasons why you shouldn’t lie to your kids about your pets dying. If, as happened to a friend of mine, I lost a pet right after a parent died I know I’d be hard pressed not to. But in ordinary circumstances, you’re going to have to explain it eventually. Once, there was a customer in her 40s who nostalgically told a coworker about her beloved 11 year old hamster. Hint: they only live about 2-3 years. Do the math.

A pet costs more than the sticker price.

The worst customers were the ones that would complain that I didn’t have a magical salve to cure their parakeet from being mauled by their cat or whatever. Yes, dear customer, that $15 parakeet was more expensive than you could afford.

A pet is the cost of the pet, plus its supplies (some of which you might not discover you need until later), replacement supplies (for broken or outgrown stuff), toys, veterinary and other medical care, food… Don’t forget the emotional costs either. If you can’t deal with your kid being upset or having to learn about death…

Always read the labels on pet products.

This is directed to the woman that tried to accuse me of selling her a sickly bird. In reality she had switched it suddenly to a pellet diet that it didn’t recognize as food. It takes 2 days for a parakeet to starve to death. It’s awesome your other parakeet had no problems, but you didn’t know what you were doing and didn’t read the warning label on the bag of birdie kibble. Note also the recent kerfuffle over the “homeopathic” dog calming remedy that contained 13% alcohol. Or instructions on how to properly warm and light your reptiles without killing them, and making sure they’re receiving the correct spectrum for their vitamin D needs.

In fact, let’s just say you should pretend you already own the pet and then spend some time on forums for the pet of interest absorbing knowledge. Read books, etc…

Then you would know that the bacteria cycle is the most important part of a fish tank setup, or that live food in a small tank can kill your snake or lizard. Don’t get me started on the kid who wanted to feed a live hamster to his young Columbian Red Tail Boa. As awesome as the look on the kid’s face would have been when he saw the hamster BRUTALLY DESTROY his snake, it obviously would have been no fun for the snake. Of course, just because I said that, someone is going to come along and tell me how they feed hamsters to snakes all the time and there have never been any problems. Good for you, have a cookie.

Also… fish and other pets do not grow to the size of their tank/cage/whatever. It is a myth. They just die young and probably horribly from poor living conditions.

No matter how long you’ve been doing something the wrong way that doesn’t make it right.

Just… no. It does not win your argument and only makes you look really really awful. Seriously. Stop.

Don’t treat categories of animals like a single species.

Not all reptiles have the same temperature, humidity, and lighting needs (most need special lighting for their vitamin D production, some do not).

If a parrot eats some of your scrambled egg or a chicken wing it isn’t a cannibal.

Don’t treat some groups of animals as less worthy of humane care than others.

It’s not “just” a fish/reptiles/birds/bugs, people. They have nervous systems, brains, complex behaviors. Some have social behaviors, parenting behaviors.. etc…

Now, sometimes you’re going to have to make sacrifices. Some pets need or just do better eating other animals, live or dead. No vet is probably going to treat your beta fish (there are vets for fish, however) in the area. It’s the casual dismissal of whole groups of animals that’s the problem here. Hell, I don’t like treating plants dismissively, either. Acknowledge and respect organisms.

Use your knowledge to shop ethically.

This doesn’t mean “never buy from a breeder”, or “only adopt”, or “avoid chain petstores.” It means, know about the animal you’re getting, know its needs and potential problems, and review the sources. Also decide what issues matter the most to you, personally. When I worked in a large chain petstore, we had some of the most caring and knowledgeable staff and management. The nearby competitor chain was terrible. Near my house, the chains were reversed (basically, in terms of corporate policy they were both ethical, but who is running the actual store matters). Meanwhile, I’m surrounded by a mix of ethical and unethical mom and pop stores. Breeders can be all over the place.

One mom and pop pet store near me looked very nice but it was something of a disguise. They disciplined their parrots by shaking them to the floor if they bit. Their stock was from a source not dissimilar to the chain store I worked at but they obfuscated that with their language. However, they had the nicest hamsters because they let any random kids or strangers handle them through the open top lid. Don’t know if that stressed the hamsters out, but I can say, if I was going to buy a hamster I would only buy one from someone who hand raised the babies or only from that store… because I seriously hate being bitten by hamsters.

So, decide where you draw the line on your needs and ethics. Know how to judge. Is a breeder who sells at a loss, and genetically tests their animals and does everything by the book an ethical source to buy a flat faced show breed cat from? Are such cats ever ethical? Are dogs that can’t birth without c-sec ethical? Is it ethical to own wild animals (pretty much all reptiles, birds, fish, and invertebrates in stores and from breeders)? That’s for you to decide.

Examine why you are buying a pet.

When you say you are teaching your kid responsibility or about the life cycle, what does that mean? Are you going to let the kid kill the pet? How is the kid experiencing the life cycle with this choice? Is it a short lived pet naturally? Does it breed easily and you have a plan for the offspring?

Your kids will grow up and remember how you treated your (shared) pets.

Yes, your kid will remember when you didn’t take it’s best friend to the vet for something treatable but inconveniently pricey. How that kid absorbs that into whatever life lesson is in that action will vary.

For starter pets, consider pets outside of those usually considered starter pets. Or better yet, dump the “starter” idea.

Goldfish, hamsters, parakeets, frogs, turtles, and anoles are common starter pets. However, their needs and habits often make them unsuitable as “starter pets”… whatever that means. Starter pet usually implies easy and inexpensive to care for.

Goldfish grow huge, are social, and require a huge tank (30 gallon and up depending on the variety). They are also supposed to live for decades. Yes, you have failed as a pet parent.

Hamsters are nocturnal and will make a lot of annoying noise at night. They tend to bite unless handled frequently, which risks biting to begin with. You can see I’m not a fan of hamsters. The common hamsters you see in the store, the Syrians, Teddy Bears, whatever are also highly territorial and will rip each other to shreds. At the pet store there are so many in a tank, and they are young, so aggression related fatalities are minimized. The sick and weak are quickly cannibalized. I guess you can tell I’m not a fan.

Parakeets can live to almost a decade but birds can be very sensitive. They aren’t a terrible choice but are very social animals requiring a time commitment and it is difficult to find parakeets that are hand raised, which offer the best experience.

Frogs can be easy or difficult depending on the species. This is because of their water needs. A pacman frog can grow gigantic, requiring feeder mice as a food source, but require little maintenance. However, they like to hide in their substrate, and will be difficult to see. Other frogs will require only water or a mix of water and land which provides its own challenges. The water-only type also has this mysterious urge to escape out of the holes in the lid of the tank, near the filter or cord exit holes and then inconveniently dry out and die. Frogs also tend to be hungry and aggressive towards smaller animals. Mostly because they are hungry. Some are toxic and can poison the water of a small tank, harming other pets when they aren’t busy trying to eat them (I’m looking at you, Firebelly Toad!)

Turtles. Get Huge. Require Expensive Filtration If You Don’t Want Your House To Smell Like Sewer. Have Special Lighting Needs. Can Be Expensive To Feed.

Anoles are inexpensive and do not have the lighting needs of many other reptiles. They also do that cool thing where they change color, although that is frequently a sign of whether or not they are stressed. Problem… they are super fast and feeding and cleaning their tank can be a huge challenge. Chances are, you’ll be chasing that lizard all around the house a few times a year.

To summarize, “starter” implies easy or disposable. All pets are commitments.

Plan for the pet’s full life cycle.

Not the imaginary perfect life cycle. Its real life cycle. You know, the one where you discover it has parvo a few days after it comes home, then gets pregnant by accident, and no one wants the babies, and then it gets sick or old and dies. And has some kind of personality problem or you’re a bad trainer or both. And when you have to go on vacation and there is no one or only expensive options to watch your pet. Or when the pet lives so long it becomes yours when the kid goes away to college. Or you lose your job or get evicted. That life cycle.

And please don’t dump animals into the environment. At best they die quick, at worse they suffer. And even worser-worse they contribute to that whole invasive species thing.

Don’t take in wild animals as pets.

The world isn’t going to end if you or your kid bring in some tadpoles or something but generally it isn’t legal. And depending on your area you may bring in something endangered (we’ve got some endangered newts near me). Not to mention, there tends to be a lot less literature on how to care for them properly. If you or your kid has an interest in wildlife, check out some of the conservation groups, rehabbers, and shelters in the area. They often have open houses, and perhaps volunteer opportunities or workshops. Or hey, maybe you as the parent can participate, get licensed… wouldn’t that be awesome? Just don’t rehab herons. The Internet says they are super amazing at trying to stab your eyes out.

Alternatively, consider livestock.

Groups like 4-H have programs for raising and caring for livestock like rabbits, chickens, horses etc… Obviously, you will need to look into any requirements and whether or not slaughter is involved and if you’re comfortable with that.

Consider hunting, fishing, hiking, bird watching, etc…

You can have amazing experiences with animals without having to own one at all, and there are activities for everyone’s taste. Check out your local nature parks and ask at the desks for information on local groups and activities. No need to try to simulate the brutal, inconvenient, and messy life cycle in your own home when you can go outside and just watch nature do its thing. If the pickings are slim locally, they can often offer referrals. If not them, try the local wildlife rehabbers.

Also, have you considered developing other skills with this? Like, say, painting and sketching wildlife? Seriously you and your kid will be amazing drawing from life instead of from photos and other sketches. That’s how the pros do it.

All pets suck. Don’t do it.

Just kidding. I think pets are awesome. Honestly, I think it is so important to the human race that people interact with animals on a personal level, I can’t even put it into words. Not a fan of anthropomorphizing animals (and no, your pet isn’t a “kid”), but going in the opposite end is just so much worse. It is so worth it, you should ignore all the judgmental crap I just spewed at you. Just do your best to research, do your best to provide for contingencies and problems, and do your best to keep your pet and keep it healthy.


J.G. Hovey

Just another person out there in the world. Follow the author's other endeavors at: A Parent With Glass, and ALTsapiens, and G+.

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