Growing up, my parents didn’t allow me to have real pets. The kind of pets that follow you around the house and miss you when you’re gone.
I had to get by with third-rate pets instead. If it was slimy, cold-blooded, and dull, I could have it. But a cat or a dog was out of the question. My parents contended that my sister and I would eventually get bored, and it would be up to them to exercise the pet and pick up the poop. This argument was based on no evidence besides their prejudice against children. I knew they were wrong. If I’d had a top-tier pet, I would have cherished every scoop of poop, every ounce of puke on my lap. Because in exchange, I’d have gotten the unconditional love that my parents never openly expressed.
The first creatures I was entrusted with were ants. Around the age of six, my parents gave me an ant farm: a narrow acrylic box filled with sand. I carefully captured the new ant farm inhabitants from the backyard, with only a couple of squashed casualties. But once the ants started wandering around the box, I quickly realized that this was the same as watching ants outside. So I gave them back their freedom by releasing them in the trash can.
The following pet iteration was with silkworm caterpillars. I kept eight inside a shoebox. After a few months, the caterpillars turned into cocoons. Every time I opened the box, I hoped for a colorful butterfly to float into my hand. Instead, I got a cross between a moth and a hairy tarantula. It couldn’t even fly — it laid creepily on top of its pile of eggs, waiting to die. I didn’t need to wait for all the cocoons to hatch to know I’d had enough of caterpillars.
“I want real pets,” I’d tell my parents daily. Eventually, they succumbed to my systematic application of the world’s most effective child negotiation strategy: begging and crying. They brought home a goldfish. Not super exciting, but a classic pet.
“This is your pet,” my mother said as she poured the scaly blob from the plastic bag into the fishbowl. “I’m not feeding it. You are.”
“Yes!” I told her without hesitation. “I’ll do it, don’t you worry.”
I was determined to show the adults I could handle any pet they threw at me. I’d get experience with menial pets, and one Christmas morning, under the tree, I’d find a Golden Retriever puppy with a red bow around its neck.
I followed my parents’ instructions to a tee: one pinch of flake food, twice a day. After a week, I woke up to find the goldfish floating lifeless on the water. We replaced the goldfish, but the next one survived only four days. I was worried my parents would blame this disaster on me and put it on my record, but they brushed it off as “a natural lifespan for goldfish.”
I then upgraded to pets with a name. I got a red-eared slider turtle which I called Macarena (I failed to realize the irony of naming a notoriously slow animal after the dance craze of the 90s). I took care of her for two years until my parents decided to remove the tank’s water while she was hibernating. She dried to death.
This tragic incident had a silver lining. My parents, burdened by the guilt of the negligent homicide of the turtle, finally allowed me the privilege of warm-blooded pets. I went to the pet store and chose a pair of Russian dwarf hamsters. They were the smallest, cutest hamsters I’d ever seen. We named them Hugo and Hugolina, after the trolls in a Danish video game I used to play with my sister.
Hugo and Hugolina made their hatred for me very obvious. Whenever they saw my hand coming, they scurried to the edges of the cage, desperately fighting the inevitable. Whenever I’d pet them, I’d sustain several vicious bites a minute. But I didn’t mind. I replaced their food and water every day with a smile on my face. I could finally care for fluffy, cuddly creatures — another stepping stone to nobler life forms who’d appreciate my dedication.
One day, we got home from shopping to find Hugo and Hugolina lying belly up on the cage floor. My parents, the responsible adults who claimed to “always know best,” had forgotten our little furballs on the balcony. After hours in the scorching Portuguese summer sun, they’d been fried to death.
I was 10. As I stared, speechless, at those little snouts frozen in a contorted expression of agony, I decided to take a break from pets. At least until I could keep them safe — from my parents.