March 19, 2010

Hermit crabs and other assorted family pets

Is there any request harder to resist as a parent than, “Can we get a pet?” The nurturer in us wants our children to learn the responsibility of caring for a living creature; the overworked parent in us is unprepared to take on yet another responsibility.

Couple that with a spouse who simply has no desire to have an animal in the house and the path to pet ownership is a difficult one. The pet faction in our house is affirmative by 75 percent. However, that 25 percent negative vote is a strong one. Majority does not rule when the 25 percent is adamantly negative.

My children have gone to great lengths in an attempt to sway the decision. I can never forget the play they performed where the younger one crawled around barking and panting in a makeshift costume comprised of paper puppy ears and socks on her hands. The older one pretended to care for her, of course taking a little too much joy in yanking her sister around by a collar. The demonstration being that they were well aware of the intricacies of pet care, not that the older child likes yanking the younger one around.

I became an accomplice with my daughters last winter. I began with bird feeders scattered throughout the yard, progressing to butterfly gardening in the spring and feeding a stray cat in the early summer. Finally, it became apparent that I too was part of the conspiracy to have a non-human living creature become part of our household. We’d take clandestine trips to the pet store and window shop, spending a few moments holding and petting assorted pets.

It reached a fever pitch when I finally persuaded my husband to at least consider a fish tank. A weak compromise at best, as there is a certain art to keeping fish alive. After about six flushed fish, we realized that the chemistry involved in aquarium ownership is far too complicated for our family. The carnivore fish-eating snail in the tank did not help matters any. Eventually, and we learned far more about the circle of life than ever intended. Many tears and fish funerals later, we decided that a snail was not an exciting pet, sending us back to the pet store for possible alternatives.

There we spied the perfect pet. A hermit crab. No water or chemicals to balance, no fur to shed, no waste to scoop, no noise. But a pet nonetheless. Thus, Hermy became a member of our family. Hermy is a rather shy fellow but occasionally he will get out and crawl around, munching his assorted foods. We discovered that Hermy likes fish flakes, which is quite a blessing since we had a plethora of those, and no living fish. After about two months and a pet that was still living, we decided Hermy needed a companion. We brought home Raindrop, another hermit crab. Raindrop makes Hermy seem like a party animal, as she primarily burrows into the corner and we never see her move. We’ve brought home two more hermit crabs and learned again about the circle of life via their deaths, yet Hermy and Raindrop persist.

I was a little sad for my girls that their hermit crabs weren’t traditional pets. Hermy and Raindrop will never play fetch or snuggle on a lap. In fact, Hermy pinched my daughter one day and I thought she her heart was going to break in half. How could her pet that she loved bite her?

With many kisses and reassurances from me, as well as a really colorful bandage, my daughter came to forgive Hermy and loved him even more. She’d cautiously warn anyone who wanted to hold Hermy that he gets scared and may bite. She protected Hermy like a mother bear with a cub.

I still feel my children are a little shortchanged in the pet department. About the only time we ever see our crabs move is immediately after their baths and then they crawl around for a few moments. Then I hear the gleeful giggles as Hermy and Raindrop scamper down the hall. I know they love their pets.

One day I commented that our hermit crabs don’t do very much. Very seriously, my 5 year old looked at me and said, “Mommy, they are nocturnal aminals”, (yes that was the pronunciation, though nocturnal was said correctly). With amazement I raised an eyebrow asking, “Nocturnal?”. Matter-of-factly she continued, “That means they are active at night.” Still in bewilderment I asked, “Where did you learn that word?” My 8 year old piped in, “I told her all about nocturnal aminals,” she continued, “like bats and owls too.” As my amazement at my little biologists faded, I realized that not only are they happy with their pets, but they are learning more about unconditional love than I ever imagined.

Last night, when I went up to bed, I heard a rustling in the cage. I crouched next to the hermit crabs and saw them crawling around and playfully chasing each other. I wanted to wake my daughters immediately and tell them that Hermy and Raindrop did something. But then I realized my girls already knew that. They already knew that our crabs were nocturnal and had told me so. My girls wouldn’t need to see what the crabs were doing to believe that they did it. They went by what they knew and believed.

The faith and patience of children. The littlest amongst us teach us the greatest lessons. I’ve learned from my children how to better be a parent. They accept their pets for what they are and what they do and love them unconditionally no matter what expectations they may have had. They’ve learned that it isn’t about what their pets can do for them; it is about what they can do for their pets. Each day they have a new food that they’ve read hermit crabs may enjoy. We have the best-fed hermit crabs on the planet. Today they sampled some cat food, left from feeding the stray cats, of course! They love knowing that they keep two miniature creatures alive and thriving. The rewards are limited, yet vast. And isn’t that what it’s all about?

At one time, our family had seven happy hermit crabs. They were charming. My favorites were Forrest and his Jenny, because we bought them at the same time. We have since become dog people, but I still miss not having to pick up after hermit crabs. Nor did they need brushing, walking, or intense affection. Neither did they bark incessantly when I was trying to talk to someone important on the phone. But I still wouldn't trade our misnamed dog, Einstein, for anything. Except maybe another hermit crab.

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