Thursday, January 10, 2013

dead lizard in the freezer, and other tales of woe

I may as well tell you now, there's a hamster in there too.

Yes.  This is the same freezer where I stored 20+ whole chickens for winter (we're down to 16, btw).

I wonder how you feel about house pets of the desk-top variety: fish, reptiles, rodents?  

I don't feel good about them at all. 

Even before I understood that reptiles and fish use electricity to run heat lamps and filters, or that hamsters and bunnies require litter and bedding that cycles weekly into the trash, or that all desktop pets require enclosures--aquariums or cages that get old, nasty, and inevitably, empty, I did not like the idea of them.  It's just not right to breed animals for captivity, or alternatively, to take them out of their natural habitats, and stick them in a glass enclosure full of mostly plastic crap, for a lifetime of handling and observation.

Of course, I planned never to own one. 

Until we had kids. 

For all the good my convictions did me, they may as well have sent me home from labor and delivery with an all-purpose habitat tucked into my new-mother's kit.  Here you go Mom: some complimentary jumbo pads, some sample formula, a bulbous nasal sucker thingy you'll always be afraid to use for fear it might slurp the brains right out of your newborn babe's head, and a 10-gallon aquarium to help you teach junior about power, captivity, bacteria, and tragedy before he reaches the tender age of seven.

Our saga begins when Gareth's aunt gave him two hermit crabs for his sixth birthday.   Allstar, with his shell painted like a shiny new soccer ball, would not last the day.  By bedtime, he lay limp and motionless on the bottom of his sparkling new terrarium as Gareth wailed in his bed nearby.  Was it the shock of the move? Probably.  It would take Sporty, our more stoic crustacean, a full month before his legs shriveled up and fell off in what seemed, at the least, an uncomfortable death.  Happy birthday Gareth!

Years later, that same aunt gave Olivia a tropical fish.  We killed Fluffy in just a few months, forgetting that we couldn't turn down the heat for a weekend away in the dead of winter with a warm water creature swimming about happily in a room temperature bath.  We returned to find Fluffy floating belly up, like a silvery pink ice cube in her newly arctic bowl. 

Pescacide.  We really didn't mean to do it.
To her credit, Olivia managed to keep her replacement fish, Cotton Candy, alive for two and a half years - a rousing success in what has proven since to be a dubious record for our family. 

After the fish, Olivia begged for a hamster.  She argued that she'd proved her worth as a pet care provider with Cotton Candy.  Besides, Gareth had a lizard, so why couldn't she have a hamster? 

Yes, Gareth had a lizard.

So we got Tucker, a teeny panda bear hamster that Olivia adored.  Tucker endeared himself to us quickly, but like a rodent on crack, he ran maniacally on his wheel all night. We marveled at his energy until, after a mere six weeks, Olivia found him curled and precious, but stone cold dead, in his nest.  Apparently, Tucker had just plain tuckered himself out.  His little heart must have given way.  We buried him tearfully, as all good pet owners will do, in a shoebox in the back yard.

He's a good distance from the compost heap.  I promise.

To console Olivia, we acquired Oreo, another black and white hamster, this one sort of fat and very lethargic. Oreo required an entirely new habitat (more plastic crap), just in case Tucker had been sick.  Oreo was a girl, but she came with heavy assurances that she "probably" wasn't pregnant. 

And she wasn't. 

But after about 5 months of watching Oreo do absolutely nothing, my kids called me in hysterics one afternoon. Oreo was finally doing something!

I'm a tutor, so I took the emergency call while sitting with a student who also knew Oreo.

Gareth: Mom, you have to come home.  Something's wrong with Oreo.

Me:  Hon, I'm with a student.  What's the problem?

Gareth:  Mom, I'm telling you, you need to come home.  Something's wrong with her.  She must be having a baby.

Me: Oreo's not having a baby.  She couldn't be pregnant; we've had her for too long.

Gareth:  OK (huffing patronizingly), then tell me what's coming out of her!  There's blood!

Me: What? How much bl--?

Gareth:  OMG! There's a foot.  Mom! I think there's a foot coming out of her!

Olivia:  Shrieks. of joy? terror?

Me: What?! Tell Olivia to calm down--I can't hear you. How can there be a foot? What kind of foot? [what kind of foot? what did I think, a hoof was coming out?]  That's not possible!

Student: Mom, Ms. Deb says there's a foot! A foot!

Student's Mom: A foot?  Really!?

Me: No, there cannot be a foot.  THERE CANNOT BE A FOOT.

Gareth: Mom, I'm telling you, there's a foot....OH!...Oh, I don't know.

Student:  Oreo's having a baby!?

Me:  I don't think so, honey.

Student's Mom:  Is it possible? How long do they gestate?

Gareth:  Mom, what do I do.  Ew! What is that!? WHAT IS THAT?!

Me:  I don't know--I think a month.  Definitely not five months.  Gareth, calm down.  What's happening now?

Gareth: I don't know, but there's definitely something coming out.  Maybe it's not a foot.  It looks--oh gross!

Olivia: just plain shrieking

Student: Oreo's having a baby!

Sadly, (but really, thankfully), Oreo died by the time I got home.  The poor thing really did suffer.  Looking back, I wonder if she had "wet tail."  She didn't have all the symptoms, no diarrhea, and she ate pretty well, but it explains the lethargy, and wet tail can culminate with "rectal prolapse."  Yes, Oreo's rectum turned inside out and came out of her anus. 

The kids were traumatized.  Olivia wanted to bury her right away, but it was rainy and dismal outside.  I had to get dinner on the table.  Dad wasn't home.  So we put Oreo in the freezer to await some sunshine.

As awful as that experience was for everybody, the death of a desk-top pet is not the only thing that can go wrong with them.  Have you ever thought about what happens when they live?

Like a foolish bride who focuses on the wedding day without considering the weight of the marriage, we bought Gareth a bearded dragon for Christmas when he was seven (before the hamsters).  We presented it to him on Christmas morning with great anticipation of his ecstatic reaction and only a vague grasp of the 6 to 12 year commitment we had just made to putting lettuce and crickets in a cage.

Some people have a real affinity for reptiles.  I don't think we are among them. Lizards don't come when you call, snuggle under your chin, or even look at you with anything but the coldest curiosity. And you can forget about fetch.  Gareth tried to love him, but he was frustrated by Twister's unwillingness to be held, and stung by his early attempts to bite. 

Really.  I have no idea what we were thinking.  A pet you can't really bond with that requires very specific heating, lighting and nutrition?  Feeding and caring for Twister became a source of daily nagging and frustration for Gareth, and a source of angst for me.

I couldn't believe I had to endure so many years with this poor creature trapped in my house where he had no hope of ever feeling the Australian sun on his thorny back.  And without that sun, he didn't thrive.  By the time we figured out that our drafty old house, with its then meager insulation, was just too cold (despite our use of various expensive heating elements), his legs had been irreparably damaged.  He would  flop awkwardly about his enclosure for life.

After six long years of that (a span that encompassed the lives of 2 fish and 2 hamsters), Gareth found Twister sunken in his substrate one day, flatter than usual, with little grains of sand collected around his eyes. 

Twister was gone. 

Nobody cried, but I think we all felt a deep sadness, not so much for the life lost, but for the life lived.  He needed something better; we'd owed him something better, but we didn't have a desert in our back pockets. 

We resolved to at least give him a dignified burial. We wanted to respect his little lizard life.  But it was pouring and cold outside; Gareth had an indoor soccer game; I had a grant due. 

So we put him in the freezer for safekeeping.

And that's when I found Oreo. 


We had forgotten to bury her.  It'd been months. 

If you think that's bad, now I have to confess that it has since been over a year since Twister joined Oreo in that frozen purgatory between life and our backyard garden.  I completely forgot about them until the same student who bore witness to Oreo's dramatic final hour looked at me this week and asked:

Where did you bury Oreo?

Me (choking on my water): Oh! Um, we didn't bury her...yet.

Student: Then where IS she?

Me (stalling): Hmm?

Student: Where is she!?

Me (mumbling): Um.  I think she's in the freezer.

Her eyes bugged out.  I tried to change the subject by reviewing the rules of silent-e.  I hoped desperately that she wouldn't think to mention anything to her mother about the crazy tutor who keeps dead pets in the freezer with her winter larder.  That can't be good for business.

Now that she's asked me once, I know she'll soon ask again, so I suppose I've stumbled upon New Year's resolution #2:  Bury all frozen dead critters.

Got it.

As for future desk-top pets?  There won't be any. 

I can affectionately thank Allstar, Sporty, Fluffy, Cotton Candy, Tucker, Oreo and Twister for teaching me, not so gently, what I always already knew: it's just not a good idea.


  1. if your plant dies, will you put it in the freezer or bury it? just wondering. (insert sarcastic smiley face here) love ya!

    1. ugh! after i posted this i realized the parallel to dead plants - kind of hoped no one would notice that!

      but to answer your question, dead plants go in the compost! :)

  2. oh it was me with the n mistaken replay to check publishing comments, and so after reading it i should add ooooo's to them...nightmares of deskpets-
    love your blog, will pass on, Carmela

  3. I don't know whether to laugh or cry at this Deb!
    I feel your pain, though (luckily) we haven't had such bad luck... I have similar issues with small pets in terms of their gear(though we have the dwarf hamsters)--their containers, their bedding (though, if you have a shredder, that is so under control for hammies. Babies though...if hammies are bad, babies come with a lot of gear! (this is a topic on our minds here, as we consider the possibility of a #3 vs doing our environmental duty and stopping with self replacement)

    I think though, my foot really goes down with the idea of getting pets that (if they got loose, or if we had to adopt them out and the adopter chose to dump them) are potentially invasive.

    1. i know what you mean. when i was writing it i didn't know if it was funny or just horrifying.

      we had dwarf hamsters too. poor Tucker. he was really cute!

  4. I can't believe I never knew this story. This makes you a sitcom candidate along with my life story sitcom. I can see the episode now, with canned laughter & everything. Your writing is so so funny. I vote funny over horrifying - at least to me! Thank you for that levity I needed tonight!:)

    1. or maybe so so horrifying, we can only laugh...?