It's a short line between pet 'em and plant 'em


UP TO THIS point, we've had a checkered history with pets in our house, the main problem being that every pet we get tends to, well, die.

The goldfish checked out when my youngest son, then a toddler, squirted dish detergent into their bowl when no one was looking.

It turns out goldfish are not wild about swimming in lemon-scented Joy, which my wife and I discovered when we found them floating belly-up a few minutes later.

At first I thought they were just bored, or they were trying out a new swim stroke or something. But apparently when fish start floating belly-up, they're more than just bored.

(Then again, we've always regarded their deaths as bizarre.

(Look, before the warning sirens even stopped wailing at Three Mile Island, there were fish swimming in radioactive ponds nearby. At Love Canal, there were fish doing the backstroke through toxic chemical waste like it was the Caribbean.

(And our wimpy goldfish couldn't handle a little lemon Joy? What is that all about?)

Anyway, the next pet to go was the hamster.

He croaked shortly after someone left the cage door open while feeding him.

After he escaped, he must have scurried into a hole in the playroom wall. Because night after night, we could hear him scratching somewhere on the other side of the wallboard.

Then, after about a week, we stopped hearing him.

He was gone, baby. Gone.

Then there was the lizard that went to that big terrarium in the sky.

The thing about lizards is, they're not real lively to begin with, so you don't always know when they've checked out.

This lizard just sat on a rock in his terrarium for weeks. Then one day, when he was still sitting on his rock, we noticed he was also starting to turn brown. And he sort of, um, smelled.

It reminded me of that line Dorothy Parker used when informed that Calvin Coolidge had died.

"How could they tell?" she asked.

The dog has somehow survived for seven years, but this seems to be more a matter of luck than anything else.

In any event, when my daughter asked the other day if we would buy her a rabbit, I did the only sensible thing a man in my position would do.

I went to the tool shed and got out the shovel.

Then I started scouting around the back yard for a good place to bury the rabbit when he kicks the bucket, which will probably be about two days after we get him.

Over the years, I've learned that the death of a kid's pet has to be handled a certain way.

When the kid comes to you and tells you Freddie the turtle has just died, you can't just peek in the turtle's box and say: "Yep, he's history all right. OK, what'll it be, Cheerios or frozen waffles for breakfast?'

You have to make a big deal out of it. Then you have to have a burial. Because the kid isn't going to let you toss Freddie the turtle into the garbage like he's a pizza crust.

And when you do bury him, you have to do it with a certain amount of ceremony.

You can't just plant him, grab a bowl of Doritos, and rush back to the Maryland-Duke basketball game. You have to have a little service for him.

You have to talk about what he meant to the family, how you'll all miss him and blah, blah, blah.

Here's a little graveside tip for you parents: Make sure you get the pet's name right.

When we were burying that stupid lizard, I made the mistake of saying something along the lines of: "Well, Eldon's in a better place now ..."

Right away I had two kids yelling: "Elmo. His name was Elmo!"

Meanwhile, I'm thinking: "How would I know his name? He never did anything!"

Anyway, whatever his name was, we had a real short service for him.

You try saying something inspirational about a lizard. About the best I could come up with was: "He, uh, always looked comfortable on that rock."

All in all, I'd just as soon not go through another pet funeral, to tell you the truth.

Which is why I'm praying we don't get this rabbit.

But just to be on the safe side, I have a nice plot all picked out for him. It's out back next to the bird feeder. For all eternity, he'll have a great view of the neighbor's satellite dish.

When a pet checks out in my house, he goes first class all the way.

Pub Date: 2/18/99

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