Over the years, I have had my fair share of pets. Growing up, we had a sweet Golden Retriever named Brandy. She was the ideal family dog: a watch dog, but not a guard dog. Protective, but not overprotective. A mean bark when necessary, but no bite. Playful but not too rambunctious. And she was smart (much smarter than my parent’s current Golden Retriever, Bella, who isn’t smart enough to push open half-closed doors and doesn’t recognize you after you’ve been gone for only twenty minutes).
When I moved into my first apartment in the big city, my parents got me a cat, which I named Darwin. A tuxedo cat, he was always ready for a party. He made a great Martini and a pretty delicious Brandy Old-Fashioned. We would study microbiology and immunology together, and watch The X-Files in my tiny studio apartment. He was also fluent in Mandarin Chinese and a great cook. Every day when I came home from work, he greeted me at the door with meows, and wasn’t happy until he was on my lap or in my arms. I always said he was a cat with the soul of a dog. He was a great companion, and I miss him dearly.
I also had a number of smaller, less cuddly pets throughout the years. My freshman year in high school, I got a betta fish. I do not remember how or why I obtained such a creature; though highly improbable, I like to believe that I won it at a carnival after playing a game of skill that required amazing balance and/or depth perception. In any case, I brought it home. My dad got a small tank for the fish, which we placed on a counter top in the corner of our kitchen.
I thought it would be cute to name my new fish after my high school crush at the time. But instead of calling the fish by this boy’s first name (which would certainly be too obvious and embarrassing should he find out), I named the fish “Pepe”, after the name the boy used in the Spanish class we had together (which would be waaaaay less obvious and embarrassing should he find out). I treated Pepe the Fish well, performing the requisite duties that you are supposed to do with a fish: feeding, changing the water in the tank, teaching him Spanish, reading him bedtime stories. But, less than a year passed and Pepe went to that big rice paddy in the sky. After a short mourning period, I replaced Pepe with another betta fish, and named him Pepe Two. This cycle went on for years. At one point, we even got a female betta fish, which we named “Mrs. Pepe” (I imagined I was Mrs. Pepe, living with Pepe in our beautiful aquarium home).
I am since over Pepe (the high school crush), but my mom and I still call all betta fish “Pepe fish”.
The summer between my sophomore and junior year in college, I acquired a Mississippi Map Turtle from a researcher in the lab I worked in at the University of Chicago. She had just had a child, and was afraid that the child would drink or splash or bathe in the Salmonella-infested waters of the turtle’s tank and get sick. I named the turtle “Schmenk the Turtle”. I don’t remember the origin of the word. I think “schmenk” was a nonsense word at the time that my friends and I used that sounded cool and was fun to say; apparently, it now means “a passive-aggressive sexually frustrated, penguin-shaped ho”, according to urbandictionary.com. At the end of the summer, my dad had the privilege of lugging Schmenk, Schmenk’s tank, and me back up to college, with Salmonella-infested water splashing in the back of our Chevy Suburban.
Schmenk was great, except I sensed that he didn’t like me. He acted differently than he did at his old home. He was a sad turtle. And bedtime stories didn’t seem to work. And he kept splashing Salmonella all over the place. I felt like I was unable to give him the life he deserved. At the end of my junior year in college, I donated him to the Biology Department, after they agreed that Schmenk would only be used to study and feed and care for, and not for dissection or turtle soup. He lived out his days in a large Salmonella-infested aquarium in the basement of Farr Hall. I visited him frequently until I graduated.
By this time, I should have realized that maybe small animals weren’t for me. Besides, I had been performing research in Nectarus maculosus (the common mudpuppy), which required me to (humanely) sacrifice the small salamander-like creature before studying it. I had also been stuffing a whole bunch of already-dead critters for my “animal preparation” course, which was like a taxidermy course, but instead of displaying animals in cool positions, I drove around with my crazy professor on the back roads of Wisconsin until we found roadkill that wasn’t “too old” and “looked and smelled pretty good” (he would toss the “too far gone” ones in the ditch). The professor would then throw said roadkill in the back of the van and freeze it in the chest freezer in his lab. Later, I would thaw it, remove its innards, clean it with Borax, stuff it with Polyfill, and pose it in its “natural state”. Maybe living animals sensed that I killed and stuffed and preserved their friends in the name of science and didn’t like me…like how bees can smell fear.
In the spring of my senior year in college, I entered an online contest and won a $100 gift certificate to a big-box pet store. I am not sure why I entered the contest, and had no idea what I was going to do with a $100 gift certificate, but I certainly wasn’t going to let it burn a hole in my pocket. I did some research and decided that it would be a great idea to get a bird (at this point I had only prepared and stuffed an owl that met its fate on one of those back roads, not parrots or anything like that). A few weeks later, I went to the pet store, walked up to someone who looked like they worked there, and told them I wanted to purchase a parakeet. I stood in front of the glass box labeled “Live Birds!”, where a dozen or more parakeets were chirping or eating or pooping, and picked out the prettiest one I saw. But the employee couldn’t catch that one, so I picked out a different parakeet that was also pretty.
I named him Mulder.
Before leaving with Mulder, $25 worth of bird seed, a seed ball, a fruit treat, a cage, an instruction book, and a half-dozen toys that I knew Mulder would just love, I saw a sign:
“14 day warranty on all parakeets”
I brought Mulder home to my dorm room and showed all him off to all of my friends. I let him fly in my room, land on my shoulder, poop in my hair—all of the things a parakeet was supposed to do. We watched The X-Files together, while I snacked on popcorn and he pecked on a delicious parakeet fruit treat. We were two peas in a pod…or birds in a cage…or something like that.
A few days went by, and Mulder stopped chirping like he normally did. He stopped flying. He stopped eating his fruit treat. He grew bored of The X-Files. “What’s the matter, Mulder?” He just looked up at me. “Peep, peep.” What are you trying to tell me? I hadn’t learned birdspeak yet!
Something was wrong. I picked him up and perched him on my index finger. I stroked his beautiful feathers. “Mulder? Mulder? You’re going to be okay!” I needed to take action, stat!
I found Mulder’s receipt and called the number of the pet store. “Yes, I just bought this parakeet from you a few days ago and he doesn’t look very well and he stopped eating and flying and I think he’s dying! I need to talk to a vet, now! Please!” Mulder fell off my index finger. I cupped him in my hand.
“Uh, can you bring him here?”
“No, I cannot bring him to you! He’s sick. Please help me! Don’t you guys have a vet on call or something?”
I perched Mulder back on my finger and brought him to eye-level and pleaded, whispering, “Come on, Mulder! You can make it!” Again, he fell off my index finger and into my cupped hand. I was still on hold. I kept perching him on my index finger, and he kept falling into my hand. I started to cry. “No, no, no….” I placed him on my index finger once more, using my other hand to balance him. Fifteen minutes passed, and still no vet on the line. Perch him on my finger, fall in my hand. Perch, fall. I looked at him. His eyes were glassy. I checked his breathing. Why didn’t I know parakeet CPR?
Mulder was dead. Dead. I started to cry.
Then I realized: I had been trying to balance a dead bird on my finger for the last 15 minutes. Holy shit! I had been trying to balance a dead bird on my finger for 15 minutes! I started to question whether I was smart enough to be a biology major if I couldn’t even determine what was living and what was dead. Heck, for all I know I could have been stuffing live animals in my animal preparation course.
I cried harder.
The voice on the other line finally returned: “Hello? Hello? I have a number for a vet.”
By then, I had freaked out and put Mulder in the bottom of the cage. “It’s too late,” I said between sobs. “My bird is dead.”
“Well, if it’s less than 14 days, you can bring it back and you can return it for another one!” the voice said cheerfully.
I wrapped Mulder in paper towels, placed him gently in a Ziploc bag, and put him in the freezer in the common area of my dorm (I briefly considered donating him to the animal preparation course, but I just couldn’t do it). A few days later, I went back to the pet store, walked up to the first employee I saw and handed him the Ziploc bag which contained the dead, frozen carcass of my beloved pet.
“This is my bird. His name was Mulder. He’s dead. Here. I want a refund.” The guy reluctantly took the bag from me. “Uh, I need to get a manager.”
They offered me a new bird, which I can’t believe I took. I chalk it up to grief. Or to prove to myself that I knew the difference between living animals and dead animals. I don’t even remember what I named this new bird. Perhaps I didn’t even name him out of fear that he, like Mulder, would die (and I wouldn’t be able to tell that he died).
A day later, my new bird looked sick, too. I returned him—alive—to the pet store and got my money back. That same afternoon, I went to a small mom-and-pop pet store in the area and explained what happened. They said that big-box places are bad place to buy birds. That often, birds are sick and the whole flock needs to be culled. They let me pick out a parakeet. There was no 14-day warranty. It wasn’t needed.
I named him Bogart. I let him fly in my room, land on my shoulder, poop in my hair…all of the things a parakeet was supposed to do. We watched The X-Files together, while I snacked on popcorn and he pecked on delicious parakeet fruit treats. He lived for years, first in my dorm room, then my first apartment, and finally my parent’s house, where they got him a companion and named her Bacall. Bogart eventually died of old age. Bacall died too, a few days after Bogart. We think it was from a broken heart.