When it comes to animals, I simply couldn't make up anything better than the stories I run across.
The day before Easter, for example, I'd written against impulsively buying a baby bunny as a holiday gift. The morning that column appeared, I moved the guinea pig, Jeepers, into a larger cage, setting the old cage -- battered and smelly -- out front next to the garbage can. I meant to scrub it out later and store it in the garage.
That night, I was walking to a neighbor's house when a car slid to a stop next to me. I fought back that little twinge of panic we all feel these days and was relieved to hear a slightly agitated female voice and the sound of a crying child drift out of the car when the window came down.
"Is that your house?" the woman asked, pointing to my front porch.
"Why?" I said, still a little cautious.
"Please! Do you live there? Is that your rabbit cage?" Her voice was getting higher and the child had started to sob.
"Rabbit cage? Um . . . yes, it's mine," I agreed.
"Can I buy it from you? We got a bunny at the store today and he's running all over the house, making a mess. What do you want for it?"
She hadn't bought a cage when she bought the rabbit because it was too expensive, by her reckoning. What did she plan to do without a cage, a water bottle, food, shavings and a dish?
"I didn't think about it," she said.
I sighed and dragged out the cage.
"It's yours," I said. "But tomorrow you need to get the rest of the things he needs. And get a book on care."
"Oh, thanks!" she said. "I will. Tomorrow. I promise."
I'd like to think I got through to her, but I'd guess the little rabbit -- in my cage, no less -- is at the shelter by now.
It doesn't have to be that way. The best decisions about pets are made after careful consideration. If you're not sure what kind of pet -- if any -- will fit into your family's life, it wouldn't hurt to get a preview of what it would be like to have a pet.
Your child may be able to care for a friend's pet while the family is on vacation. A trip to the library beforehand to research the animal's care can whet a child's appetite for reading.
While the animal is in your care, be alert to potential problems or annoyances -- from allergies to smell. If everything goes well, both you and your child will be better prepared to pick out and care for a pet of your own when the time is right.
If the woman in the car had done that, she could have avoided her panic drive. And had she decided after careful consideration to purchase a pet, she would have been prepared to care for it well and pass the lesson of caring to her child.
That, after all, is the best thing a pet offers a child.
I like my guinea pig. He's cute and friendly, and seems almost as happy to see me as the dogs are. But I hate dealing with the cage. Guinea pigs are messy, and Jeepers is no slouch when it comes to kicking the contents of his cage all over the floor.
The cage should be cleaned every four or five days, but I often don't get to it until the weekend. By then, I have to steel myself for the task. As a result, I've spent a lot of time experimenting with ways to keep both me and the guinea pigs happier for those two extra days.
The best change was in the cage itself. The galvanized metal cage I had before was hard to get completely clean. I switched to a cage with a hard plastic bottom and stainless-steel bars. The cage snaps apart for easy cleaning and the surfaces are too slick for odors or debris to stick to. A simple wipe-down with a soapy sponge cleans it beautifully.
Before I put the cage back together, I put down a layer of inkless newsprint -- available in inexpensive roll ends at many newspapers -- followed by an inch of corn-cob litter. A couple inches of fresh-smelling pine shavings finishes the job. It's so easy to do I've been more inclined recently to add a midweek change.
The result is an absorbent, comfortable space -- without the rapid odor buildup. Truth to tell, Jeepers and I are both enjoying the improvement.