Not just any pet can worm its way into a parent's heart

August 07, 1994|By Susan Reimer

I didn't go to college so I could rinse black worms.

If your children have amphibians for pets, you know what I am talking about. Black worms are amphibian spaghetti. Frogs, lizards and newts eat them every day -- but only if the worms are alive and squirming. You must rinse them daily so they don't suffocate in the water polluted by their own messes.

I am not making this up. Rinsing worms is the latest indignity inflicted on mothers in the name of pets.

(And fathers, too, I should add. My husband came home late and was looking for something to microwave. He opened one of my Tupperware containers only to find black worms crawling out at him. Did I mention that you have to keep black worms in the fridge? Next to your leftovers. Poor man. On a tough night, he might actually have spread them on a cracker.)

You can also feed live crickets to the frogs. Store-bought crickets, not the ones that get in your basement and drive you nuts with their chirping. The frogs love it. They think it's Thanksgiving.

Most of us were content with a cat or a dog from the pound when we were children, but kids today want an endangered species from the Amazon rain forest as a pet. My friend Nan says it's because they look like baby dinosaurs.

Once they own them, kids ignore them. It is easy to do. It isn't like Joe's fire-bellied toads greet him at the door after school. When I abdicated my role as worm-rinser on the grounds that they were his pets, not mine, the toads actually lost weight. Joe's solution to my lectures about his neglect was to ask for a bigger tank and more frogs -- a terrarium too big to ignore.

If these vaguely prehistoric pets disappear, you can't exactly tack up posters around the neighborhood. I found a missing frog in my gym bag. Joe's friend's lizard escaped on his suction-cup claws, and six weeks later Dan's mother found it behind the microwave. Alive. She didn't want to think about what it had been living on in her house. My friend Betsy refused to do the wash until her children found the snake that was lost in the basement. The damage this does to a woman's mental health is incalculable.

"I was happy when the frogs died," says my friend Debbie. "I didn't kill them, but I was glad."

My sister's kids had a rabbit for six years before it died. (Nancy was a boy, but they didn't find that out for a while, and the kids didn't want to change the name.)

The kids cried so hard at Nancy's funeral you'd have thought they'd actually noticed her during those six years. Those tears were the reason their mother rushed out and replaced Nancy with another rabbit they can argue about feeding.

Children need pets. They need the unconditional love and friendship of a pet, although reptiles, amphibians, fish and birds come up a little short in that department. My own children were so desperate to bond with a living creature they once held a funeral for a starling that crashed into the garage window.

When Joe was younger, he tried to make pets out of shrimp. He thought they looked like miniature versions of the lobsters swimming in the fish store, so he put our dinner in his baby pool.

Children don't understand it if you don't express the same devotion to their animals that they feel. "I tell my children the same thing about their pets that I tell them about themselves," says my friend Nan, ever the diplomat. "I love them, but in a different way."

Vet bills are the truest test of this. Nancy died because my sister's husband refused to spend $50 on a vet visit for a $29.95 rabbit. He said it wasn't cost-effective.

What kind of message does that send to your children? You set a ceiling on how much you will spend to save their beloved pet, and they might think it applies to them, too.

When kids get a pet, they immediately want it to have babies. This has more to do with their acquisitive nature than their inquisitive nature, but it causes some indelicate moments in parent-child conversation. I now know how frogs have sex. But I still don't know how parakeets do it.

The next pet my kids get is going to be a lion or a hawk. Something that can catch its own food. No more black worms.

To hear Susan Reimer read one of her columns, call Sundial and punch in the four-digit code 6156. See the SunSource directory on Page 2A for your Sundial number.

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