Let’s talk about pets. They are made for cuddling. They nuzzle and purr and wiggle. They show their cute little bellies, asking for scratches. When we’re blue, they bring comfort. When they act like silly imbeciles, we make videos of them and share their antics with strangers on the internet. Pets give us something to squeeze and care for and love on. Pets are made for us.
Dear reader, this perception of pets is a lie. A sugary-sweet pop-song-conception of true love at first kiss, a clean and bright and too-happy commercial, a David Copperfield slight-of-hand misdirection trick of epic proportions. And you know the thing about magic, right? It’s fake.
Still, we all fall for it.
When I was in my early 20s, my girlfriend and I moved in together. We acquired two cats. We took hundreds of pictures of those cats. Using film. We still have the negatives! In the photos, the cats are pawing at a balloon string, or laying on the floor in the sunshine. They are preparing to pounce, or hiding under the covers. They are doing normal, uninteresting cat things. But they were so cute doing those things, we couldn’t help ourselves. We had to take pictures. And pay good money to have them developed. And then show those pictures to our friends and family.
Later, my girlfriend and I got married, legitimizing our bastard cats. They had been with us for about three years at that point, and it’s hard to say whether we were more in love with each other or with them. Here’s something: we took our cats with us on our honeymoon. Couldn’t bear to be away from them for a week.
They moved with us across the country, and back. We attached leashes to them, and dragged them around the neighborhood for some fresh air. They looked on in silent horror as we brought home first one, then another child. They continued to eat and breathe and sleep. Fifteen years after we brought those two cats into our home, they are still with us. Three years ago, we added a little one-eyed kitten that had nowhere to live. That was my idea, because I am a complete moron.
By my math this means we now have three cats and two kids. At any moment, on any day of the week, some small mammal in my house is pooping or puking where it shouldn’t, or leaving little furry bits of itself all over the couch that I just fucking vacuumed 10 minutes ago. Are you fucking kidding me with this shit? It is commonplace for me to mop up urine after my son has an accident, only to walk to the other side of the house and find that one of these freeloading motherfuckers has regurgitated its dinner onto the area rug.
At this point, we are long past cuddles and scratches and purring. We are no longer in love. We are waiting it out. And here, I’m talking about the cats, not my wife.
What no one tells you at the no-kill shelter, on the day you offer a forever home to Jiggles, is that pets live a long-ass time. Especially if you feed them and take them to the vet regularly. They start out cute, age into grouchiness, resolutely remain alive, and then somehow die before you’re ready to say goodbye. These little creatures you spend a fortune of love and money on will never grow up to become valedictorian, or win the Daytona 500, or get O.J. acquitted, or own a food truck, or even cure cancer. They will simply exist for a period of time and then stop existing. And when that happens, you will cry and feel like shit and embarrass yourself in public. True story: during one of my first conversations with an old boss, she handed me a photo of a cat and said, “That’s a picture of my dead cat. She’s not dead in the picture.” Her grief was raw. People are sad when their pets die. They yearn for happiness. And they remember how happy they felt when their pets were tiny and new, instead of grown-up and decrepit and dead. And so they get a new pet. And the circle remains unbroken.
Hear me now, I beg you: break the circle, throw off the chains, let the scales fall from your eyes! Do not get a pet!
I mean, sure, if you need a seeing-eye dog, or a cow for your pasture, or Homer Simpson’s helper monkey, go ahead and get one of those. But the kind of standard, slobby pet that millions of standard, slobby Americans own? Hard pass.
And it is hard. There’s a lot of pressure on potential pet owners to make the leap. I would compare it to the phone calls I got from Sargent Hardass when I neared the age to register for the Selective Service. But instead of a grizzled military voice, it’s Sarah McLachlan’s dulcet tones you hear, mooning about angels while sad-eyed dogs stare at your from 50 inches of HDTV. What sort of monster can resist that?
Then there’s the in-person full-court press. One day, about 11 years ago, my wife and I went to the grocery store. We returned with a dog. The two cats were not amused. This wasn’t a little puppy. It was a hulking Lab-Shepherd mix, all torso and shoulders, with a crooked tail. When we met him, he was lying on his side in a cage on the asphalt of the grocery store parking lot. Many other animals surrounded him, each with its own cage. The shelter workers, with the ruthless cunning of Al Pacino in Glengarry Glen Ross, nonchalantly mentioned that if this giant dog remained in the cage for another 30 minutes, he’d be loaded into a truck, driven back to Arkansas, and ushered into Dog Heaven via lethal injection. We, being humans with emotions, fell for this bullshit. I bet the dog belonged to one of those shelter workers, and they were just tired of cleaning up his gargantuan poops.
We did the only thing we could do. We rescued that dog, and then paid the pain forward. He ended up living with my dad and stepmom, who already had two dogs at the time. He is still around. We see him every year at Christmas. I like him. He’s a nice dog. But he shows no appreciation for the fact that I significantly lengthened his life. He does not whine in excitement or kiss my ring or curl up next to me. I am just a person who lives in his house for a week every year. Meanwhile, I feel guilty every time I see him. Foisting a gigantic dog onto my parents is the worst thing I’ve ever done to them (in adulthood).
Not all pets should be saved. I’ve known several that spread chaos and apprehension wherever they roamed. Some pets bite children, or attack the mailman, or lounge in bed while robbers ransack the house. Then there’s the barking. Nothing in this world is more infuriating than an incessantly barking dog. It’s just so effortless for them, and the neurons in their dumb little walnut brains fire the bark command in a positive feedback loop until it becomes the only thing they enjoy. A barking dog turned David Berkowitz into the Son of Sam, after all. Welcome to hell.
Despite the bullshit of pet ownership, it’s easy to get caught up in a savior complex. Here is the story of a person who gave up her home so that cats could have a place to live. If you own a pet and you’re laughing at her, you are also blind to your own heart. You are not just a liar, but a damn liar. Anyone who owns a pet is a half-dozen bad, cascading decisions away from talking to a nosy reporter from the threshold of the backyard shed in which he lives now that the cats own the house.
Say you love Boston Terriers, as my in-laws do. I prefer a dog whose tail covers its anus, but to each his own. (That’s the beauty of dog breeds—there’s one for everybody.) My in-laws have owned four Bostons, and they’ve bought all the merchandise. They are living the Boston Terrier Lifestyle. They are operatives in a multi-state network of people who have banded together to provide foster homes to rescued Boston Terriers. When their current foster dog is left alone for more than a couple hours, he releases torrents of shit all over the room. When he’s not alone, he spends energetic afternoons humping the other Boston Terrier in the house, who happens to be a permanent resident. Yet these people keep tabs on previous foster dogs, checking in on their lives. The updates will always be the same: The dog is doing dog things. The updates will never be: Bailey is studying for the SAT. We think he might go into engineering! The updates will always be: Bailey took a shit in the kitchen yesterday. Then he ran around the backyard. The end.
Some people are so motivated to own pets that they persevere even if Mother Nature uses allergies to deny them access to the Big Two. How about lizards? You want a pet lizard, here’s what you do. Go to the dollar store, get a toy plastic lizard, and put it on a rock in a terrarium. Now you have a pet lizard. I’ve seen a lot of lizards in captivity, and I’ve never seen one move. Not once. They sit there under a light, staring at nothing. I’ve seen classroom lizards ignoring screaming, jostling kids with the kind of commitment usually reserved for nannies looking at iPhones. I’ve seen crickets crawling on motionless lizards at the pet store. Are we sure that PetSmart doesn’t sell plastic lizards for 15 bucks apiece?
Then there’s guinea pigs. I had one of these little bastards when I was about 10 years old. It was white; I named it Whitey. I grew up in the Ohio countryside, I didn’t know any better. I’m sure my pinko hippie father thought it was hilarious. Whitey was not a happy creature, despite my attention. I fed her and changed her pine shavings and scratched her back gently. I enjoyed watching her drink from the water bottle. I smiled at her cute little squeaks. I even let her out of the cage to roam around the living room. Each time, she would waddle under the couch and refuse to emerge. I’d coax and cajole, and she’d sit under there like a lizard. I had no choice except to pick her up, at which point she would bite me, knowing that she’d soon be returned to guinea pig prison. I loved her, and she hated me. Then she died. I returned home one day and reached into her cage to pet her, and it felt like she had been filled with lead. We buried her in the field of weeds behind our apartment complex.
Owners of nontraditional pets have it especially hard. Most of the rest of us don’t want to hear about the mating habits of chinchillas, or the elegant, smooth strength of a python as it glides around one’s midriff. I worked with a guy who was rumored to own a bunny rabbit; it was said that he treated the bunny like a dog or a cat, and let it wander the house. Once I heard about that, I never looked at him the same way again.
But even owning a bunny that thinks its a cat is better than owning a bird. First of all, putting a bird in a cage is a crime against nature. Birds fly. It’s what sets them apart from the other creepy-crawly beasts of the earth. Even penguins fly, in a way. Watch them underwater sometime. And don’t talk to me about ostriches. Those fucking things are tiny dinosaurs. Anyhow, it’s an abomination to put an animal that’s meant to fly into a tiny cage in your solarium. Here, Tweety, stare out the windows at your cousins, who are free as a … oops! Sorry!
Beyond the negative implications to your own character, owning a bird is a nightmare. We used to go to a vet that had a parrot in a cage in the waiting room. That fucking thing would scream all day long. Then it would pluck its feathers out. Parrots imprint on a person and freak the fuck out if anyone else gets close to that person. And they live forever. If you have a mid-life crisis and buy a parrot, it’s likely that your kids are going to fight over who has to take the thing home after you die. Sure, you can teach it to swear— Andrew Jackson did that with his parrot — but that’s sort of a one-trick show, isn’t it? If you’ve heard one parrot call you a dumb motherfucker, you’ve heard every parrot call you a dumb motherfucker, which is what you are if you buy one.
All this to say that I have owned all the pets, and I beg you to learn from my cautionary tale. In fact, I just heard one of the cats horking behind the couch, and I’m sure there’s a lukewarm pile of semi-soft kibble waiting there. Don’t be like me. Don’t get a pet.
Geoffrey Redick is a freelance writer and radio producer. He lives in Memphis. He’s on Twitter.