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Winner of the 2013 AWP Intro Journals Project in Creative Nonfiction, selected by Rigoberto Gonzalez

After working at a family-owned pet store in Ohio for a number of years, I took to entertaining myself by predicting, within moments of their walking in the door, what customers would buy. At first it was a matter of demographics and statistical probability. For example, slightly underweight males aged eighteen to twenty-four demonstrated a marginally higher interest in iguanas than the average customer, whereas slightly overweight males in the same age bracket expressed more interest in bearded dragons. White females aged thirty to forty-five with small children in tow gravitated toward hamsters or other small, easily squashable, unexpectedly hazardous pets, while white females aged fifty-five to seventy with small grandsons in tow often left with a bloodthirsty reptile, unassuming in appearance, that would be returned, for a full refund, later the same afternoon.

After a while, my successes convinced me that I could not only predict what people would buy, but also intuit why they would buy it, and I divided the customers purchasing pets for themselves into two categories: mirrorers and acquirers. A mirrorer is a prospective pet owner who, knowingly or not, worships a particular aspect of his or her own personality or appearance and wishes to see the same characteristic in his or her animal companion--the combative ferret owner, for example, or the nihilistic scorpion enthusiast. Acquirers, on the other hand, select pets based on a perceived lack and what they want others to assume about them. A young wallflower might, for example, purchase a corn snake as a way of suggesting that her isolation is by choice, a symptom of her elusive and dangerous nature.

During the time I was doing all of this sizing up of others, my own pet was a blue betta fish named Hugo who suffered from debilitating scoliosis. Viewed from above, he resembled a teal sperm, but he rarely could be viewed from this angle thanks to the unusual buoyancy provided by the gas and food matter perpetually blocked by the S curve of his body. He drifted on his side, at the surface of the water, one glassy eye forever fixed on heaven. It didn't occur to me then to consider what owning Hugo might say about me. Rather than placing myself in either the category of mirrorer or acquirer, I believed myself to be of a rarer and better class, that of the true animal lovers, and I assumed that others would share this perception of me.

When I found him, he had been sequestered in a cubbyhole under the cash register, deemed too hideous for public view. In all fairness, it was true that his appearance didn't inspire confidence in our store, or in his species. Healthy bettas were a sad enough sight. Customers often lamented the drinking cups they were shipped and stored in, to which my coworkers and I would reply, "In the wild, they live in the shallow rice paddies of Thailand," as though there existed no greater horror. Hugo was the greater horror.

For several weeks I checked his cup daily, shook it to make sure he wasn't dead, dropped in a dried bloodworm or two, and watched him spin in wild circles around and around the food. When I decided to take him home, my manager charged me full price and said, "Are you sure you want that thing?" It felt good to spend forty dollars on a two-gallon aquarium, colorful pebbles, a miniature Atlantean castle, and a plastic clump of seaweed, knowing that Hugo would have a better life with me; it felt even better to do so knowing that it would leave others perplexed and maybe a bit awed.

I'd like to think that I wasn't aware of the latter effect until after I'd already decided to buy Hugo, that I'd thought initially only of his benefit and not my own, but I can't remember now. I might have bought him because I felt an affinity for him, seeing in him a feebleness I find harder to face in myself. Or I might have needed him to remind myself and others of my capacity for good, in which case I wasn't being good at all.

I've kept pets all my life, but over the course of my employment at the pet store, I began to question whether it was ethical to do so. It started as an occasional queasy stirring or inchoate guilt. In the way that biting into a bit of gristle transforms "food" into something harder to swallow, a small disaster at the store would remind me that many of the "goods" I was peddling were capable of looking at, and possibly thinking about, me, and for an instant, everything would seem surreal and obviously wrong. In one such moment, a coworker dropped the wrong end of an electric pump into one of the saltwater tanks while cleaning and--thanks to a shared water source and filtration system--electrified nine aquariums at once, leaving their colorful inhabitants bobbing on the surface like Froot Loops. Another time, a customer mishandled an iguana, broke off its tail, and tossed both back into the cage in shock. The tail bounced and spun on the bark substrate, leaving spots of blood on the glass door with every flip, and the young man asked for a discount on either the damaged iguana or its cage mate, and a job application. There was the unmarked bag in the staff freezer containing a dead cat; the item "Pull Dead" on the nightly checklist; the flattened hamster in the stockroom that had somehow been placed in an empty aquarium that was subsequently placed at the bottom of a considerable stack of empty aquariums; the pond owner who told me, with delight, that she had dreams of decapitating blue herons with the rusty shovel she kept by her kitchen door; the man who squeezed the mouse down the length of his snake, like toothpaste in a tube, when it wouldn't eat; and of course, the rabbit that had been kept in a cage roughly one inch longer than itself, whose owner wished to return it for a refund or in-store credit when it contracted two eye infections, a respiratory infection, and a severe case of diarrhea. And there was the moment in which I heard the following story from a coworker and decided it was as likely to be true as untrue: One day the assistant manager got a call from a gentleman who said his son had just brought home a guinea pig from the flea market. The man wanted to know if the guinea pig could be kept in the cardboard box it had come in or if he needed to buy something larger. The assistant manager recommended he keep the guinea pig in either a cage or an aquarium with some wood chips. About an hour later, the man called back and said, "He swam around for a while, but he's dead now."

By the end of my two and a half years at the pet store, I had developed a pessimistic outlook on human-animal relations, and I went so far as to announce to friends and family that I was quitting the job for moral reasons: I could no longer support an industry that enabled carelessness, abuse, and neglect for the sake of profit. There needed to be stricter requirements regarding who could own animals--mandatory personality tests, comprehension quizzes, documentation or hard evidence showing that the prospective owner possessed all of the necessary equipment to care for an animal--to prevent neglect out of ignorance or apathy. But taking a moral stand implies having a sense of right and wrong, and I can't say, looking back, that I had such an understanding. I had compiled a list of wrong ways to treat animals from very obvious examples, and my logic assumed that by preventing these things from happening, a person or industry would be promoting the right ways to treat animals. But really this approach only results in a code of conduct that is not wrong, not necessarily one that is right, or alternatively, not cruel but not necessarily kind.

Many, if not most, Americans have a proprietary relationship with nature, but in the case of animals, we view some as property and others as companions, and the lines of division are largely arbitrary and inconsistent. Many cat owners claim to be owned by their pets, not the other way around. Dog owners often describe their animal companions as "members of the family" and pamper them with their own Christmas stockings, wardrobes, place settings, and afternoon outings to canine pastry shops. Not all cat and dog owners act this way, of course, and the ones who do could be considered eccentric, but such behavior still lies well within the accepted boundaries of sanity, while organizing a schedule around the whims of a leopard gecko or taking a guinea pig out for gourmet yogurt drops at a '50s-themed, rodents-only milkshake parlor does not. In other words, what goes for one animal does not go for another, which presents an ethical quandary for me.

Take, for example, the case of the humble feeder rodent. With soft fur, velvety ears, pink noses, and delicate whiskers, they meet most of our standards of cuteness; even so, mice and rats get a raw deal, more often being food for other pets than pets themselves. On one of my first days at the store, a customer approached the counter and asked for a frozen pinkie. It must have been obvious that I had no idea what he was talking about, because before I could ask, he directed me to the bottom shelf of the store's freezer, where I found an assortment of paper and plastic bags containing rats and mice. After meeting quiet deaths en masse in a C[O.sub.2] chamber, they'd been frozen in various stages of development--some the size of a sneaker, others not quite as big as a thumb--but all shared the common feature of being as solid as a forgotten TV dinner. The pinkies, it turned out, were hairless newborns, stored by the dozen in plastic sandwich bags to be sold as food for small reptiles. Some of their undeveloped feet and tails had broken off during shipping and settled to the bottom of the bags, while others had been collected in a sack marked for discount sale and labeled "Parts."

Rodents destined for live feeding spend time in the mad scramble of pet-store feeder cages. I can't speak for all stores, but when new rodent shipments came in, our cages were usually packed to the brim--say, thirty mice in a plastic container the size of a large shoebox. Sometimes one would manage to climb onto another's back, reach the bars of the lid, and hang over the frenzy, as if from a stage, preparing to fall into the crowd at the best concert of its life. And very occasionally one would be singled out by the others and partially eaten, left to run around with a black, fleshy hole in its back or head until someone noticed and lifted it out by the tail, or the wound was widened.

When I think about it, the lives of feeder mice bear a striking resemblance to those of the abject humans who populate our postapocalyptic, alien-takeover, dystopian fictions; and yet, I had time to consider their existence four days a week for thirty months without considerable distress, and even now I find myself having to create thought experiments to inspire my own concern on their behalf. How long would I have held a job at a facility keeping dozens of kittens in a glass tank, scrambling over each other and eating one another out of stress and desperation, for the sake of selling them as food to Nile monitors or alligators at a local tourist attraction? Not long, I imagine. Mice just aren't pitiable enough without mental gymnastics. Being generally fond of four-legged mammals, especially those with whiskers, and having had no negative experiences with mice, I have to assume that my lack of concern for their situation comes from being accustomed to the idea of it. Having long been associated with filth and plague, mice have come to be known almost universally as pests, not pets, and this low level of perceived lovableness has resulted in a now decades-old exclusion of Rodentia from the scope of human concern, including mine. There are few things mice can do to draw considerable sympathy from a person like me, short of being animated or getting eaten right in front of me by an even less pitiable creature.

I've heard arguments defending these apparently automatic inclinations to empathize or not empathize. There's the biblical defense that animals were put on earth for our use, but I've always assumed there was an understanding of "within reason" or "without cruelty" inherent in that proclamation, though I'm not the appropriate person to defend such an assumption. And then there are more scientific defenses, such as the argument that most animals don't have the capacity to understand what's happening to them and therefore don't care. But this argument calls to mind my friend's grandmother, who spent several years forgetting who her husband and sons were, then several more years wandering the halls of a special facility and defecating in potted plants because she had no idea who she was, where she was, or when she was. In spite of everything she didn't know, she seemed certain that she was terrified, even if she couldn't grasp how often she was terrified, which was most of the time. Again, I come back to the question of kindness and cruelty, and I think that the line between them has less to do with what the person or thing being acted upon knows and more to do with what the person doing the acting knows. So knowing that I am inclined to care more about some creatures than others; knowing that I sometimes have to think my way into compassion and that it can take me a good long while to do this or even to consider whether I should try to do it; knowing that instinct and emotion are at once influential and inconsistent; knowing, in other words, that I exhibit an emotional tolerance for treatment that my rational mind tells me should be intolerable, should I really trust myself to be kind?

After bringing him home, I decided that the best place for Hugo would be on the nightstand, as it was an appropriate distance from the windows, not too high or too low for him to watch my daily goings-on, and not in my way. Once he was established there, I set about the task of curing his constipation. Several fish-health websites suggested that variety was the key to clearing a blockage, so at three o'clock every afternoon, I sat, staring down into his tank, pushing around a shriveled bloodworm or shelled pea or chunk of dehydrated shrimp on the surface of the water with a bobby pin, trying to place it either in his mouth or somewhere along the trajectory that his twisted body would take. At first the process took up to half an hour, with Hugo hurling himself at the food but invariably whirling past it at least five times, but after a few weeks I could almost envision a semicircle drawn in the water, extending from his mouth, and we could pull it off in one shot.

For the first month, Hugo spent most of his time propped against the upper leaves of his artificial plant. It was hard to look at him otherwise. Watching him float, I imagined myself drifting over deep water, helpless and forced to stare down into the depths, wondering about predators below. This was backward, of course. For Hugo, the immense shadows came from above, from the white void of the ceiling he was constantly drawn to. At times he seemed seized by sudden terror and determination, and he would dive straight down with a splash. Then, halfway to the bottom, his forward momentum would stop and his body would quiver against an invisible barrier for a moment before falling limp and rising again, without resistance, to the surface.

In the second or third month, Hugo achieved a complete descent. The first few times were graceless nosedives into the gravel followed by the same limp rise as before, but after repeated attempts, he managed an effortful though precise parabola down to the bottom, past his castle, and back up to the top. He began to do this several times a day, then once an hour, and although he still couldn't resist buoyancy for more than a second, he at least played an active role in his ascent, which--at the risk of anthropomorphizing too much--must have felt very satisfying.

His body was still curved, but the swelling around his middle had decreased and his color had brightened. This is not to say he ever possessed a lively appearance. Every time a person met Hugo for the first time, the most she or he had to say was "hmm," and every visit after that--regardless of how many times she or he had already seen Hugo--began with the visitor approaching the aquarium, growing tense, and turning to me with a nauseated look of exaggerated pity, believing him to be dead. The scene made me cringe every time it played out, and I tried to remember to always be the first one in the room to say "hello" to Hugo and show there was no need for alarm.

I spent six months enjoying Hugo's progress, our routine together, and the pride and satisfaction that come with being both relied upon and reliable. Then one day I came home and found Hugo gray and cloudy eyed, floating at the surface as always, but with his tail fin hanging straight down. I know there are people who would laugh at me for it, but I cried. To my surprise, the crying had less to do with a feeling of loss and more to do with the sudden thought that Hugo might have lived a terrible life. I had been aware all along, of course, that he was crippled and couldn't shit, but for me there had been moments of excitement, breakthroughs, and meaning--but maybe for him, it occurred to me then, it was all just an endless series of moments inhabiting a broken body, each one instantly supplanting the last. It sounds melodramatic, I'm sure, but for the first time, I looked at Hugo and had nothing to show for all the good deeds I'd been doing, and in the absence of such reassurance I became aware of all I hadn't been doing.

I hadn't, for example, replaced his water on as strict a schedule as I could have. I hadn't bought him a heater when the power had gone out for a week in the middle of winter--a stress that could have killed even a healthy fish. I hadn't purchased an aquarium stand, although I'd intended to, so he'd spent six months inches away from the phone and an alarm clock I've always referred to as the "Sonic Boom," an alarm clock designed to accommodate deaf and blind persons, which comes equipped with flashing lights and a vibrating disk to insert under the mattress, and whose snooze function was used at least seven times every morning.

I wondered how many heartbeats he'd wasted attempting to escape the howling of the devices that surrounded him, whether maybe he'd grown accustomed to it and had ceased to think about it, as I had, but then I remembered the likelihood of his short memory. I considered that Hugo's life with me was at least much better than the one he had been living under the cash register in a plastic cup. That seemed obvious. It also seemed obvious that "better" wasn't good enough; that not being unkind to Hugo was not the same as being kind; that cruelty isn't always something one sets out to do, but kindness is.

I buried Hugo under a bush by the front stoop with his Atlantean castle marking the spot, and I regretted that if I'd invested in a tiny headstone, the epigraph might have read, "He swam around for a while, but he's dead now."

A little over a year ago, a news story broke about a husband and wife, Terry and Marian Thompson, recently separated, who owned a private zoo in Zanesville, Ohio, about two hours east of my hometown. Terry had been cited on multiple occasions for animal abuse and neglect, but the couple had maintained throughout the years that their zoo was a sanctuary for exotic animals that would otherwise be homeless or put down. One Columbus Zoo official testified that the couple kept primates in small birdcages and a bear in a cage with little room for movement, covered in its own feces, and neighbors complained of numerous animal escapes, fear for their children's safety, and sleepless nights listening to lions bellow.

All of this came to light on October i8, 2011, when sixty-two-year-old Terry Thompson took a last walk around his property, opened the pens and gates that held nearly sixty exotic animals, and shot himself to death. When the police arrived, they found dozens of large cats, bears, wolves, and primates wandering the facility. Others had already escaped into the countryside, and some were heading for the highway. Signs were placed on roadsides warning citizens of roaming wild animals, schools were closed, and everyone was advised to stay indoors. With little daylight left and the team equipped with tranquilizers still an hour away, the sheriff issued a shoot-to-kill order on any animal seen leaving the property. Of the fifty-six animals that escaped, six were captured: three leopards, two monkeys, and one bear. Of the other fifty, one monkey was presumably eaten by one of the large cats, and the remaining forty-nine--including seventeen lions and eighteen endangered Bengal tigers--were shot to death.

The story gained instant national attention, and the question asked again and again was "How did this happen?" The embarrassing answer was "No one ever said it couldn't." Prior to the incident in Zanesville, Ohio's laws regulated the import of non-native species, but nothing was required to own a nonnative animal as long as it wasn't part of a public exhibit. If the Thompsons' private zoo had contained a collection of native species, such as spotted salamanders, American toads, or red-eared sliders, it would have been regulated. But tigers? No problem.

It was chilling to consider what might have happened in the Zanesville case, and the possibilities were significant enough to motivate Ohio's legislature to create a law mandating the registration of exotic animals and banning the ownership of big cats, crocodiles, hyenas, and snakes over ten feet long, among others. Exceptions would be made for individuals who owned these animals prior to the law being put into effect. Such owners would not be required to give up their animals as long as they obtained permits for them. The new law was announced in the summer of 2012, ten months after the disaster, and upon hearing about it, I was relieved--except I couldn't help feeling that the point had been missed. The commonality among all the animals listed in the new legislation is that they pose a threat to humans, but for me, Zanesville demonstrated the threat humans pose to animals.

The day after the shootings, Marian Thompson arrived at the property to find the surviving animals being prepped for transport to the Columbus Zoo, and she pleaded with the zookeepers: "You're taking my children." I don't doubt that what she felt in that moment was despair. I don't doubt that what she had felt for her animals over the years could only be described, by her, as love. And I can accept that she believed, or had come to believe, that she and Terry were in fact rescuing those animals. It might even be true that whatever circumstances they took them from were far worse than the ones they ended up in. But that shouldn't be good enough.

In April state officials announced that five of the animals rescued from Zanesville--one leopard had been euthanized at the zoo--would be returned to the care of Marian Thompson. The state had no choice. Even the new law, which hadn't been passed yet, wouldn't prevent it. At least one official was optimistic and said, "I truly believe after all these goings-on that she will be making a good effort." It seems an odd phrase to put faith in: A good effort. Words scrawled on the top of a composition paper that needs restructuring, rethinking, and rewriting. Words said to the child whose soccer team just lost the match. Words that mean a noble and admirable coming-up-short.

It reminds me of how, when I was a child, I used to tell my mother that someday I would own a farm where cats with missing eyes and amputated legs, cats that no one wanted to take home from the shelters, could frolic and be free. It wasn't an entirely thought-out plan, and not one I've ever attempted to make a reality--now I see a lot more opportunities for birds of prey and coyotes than I do for freedom and frolicking--but I still believe that it was a well-intended dream from a charitable heart. At the time, others did too, and I received my due praise. In third grade, I wrote a series of journal entries describing an injured kitten I was nursing back to health and sheltering in the hollow of a tree in my backyard. There was no kitten, there was no hollow, but it was a nice story that earned me many encouraging stickers and compliments from my teacher. Much later on, when telling people about my decrepit Hugo and his shelled peas, I earned looks of amazement and responses such as "You must be more patient than I am." Meanwhile, I made sweeping statements about the general pet-owning population and quit a job as a way of taking a moral stand while actually doing nothing--I was told it was good to stand for what one believes in, and I felt much better about myself once I had done that big showy nothing. It occurs to me that I have been making a good effort all my life with hardly any good and hardly any effort at all.

Sometimes the idea of a thing overwhelms the reality of it. We want to believe we're good, we want others to believe it, and they want to believe it too. The problem arises when we forget to look closely and mistake seeming kind for being kind, when stated intentions become cause for congratulations or at least forgiveness, even if they are self-serving or nothing more than flights of fancy, or end up buried by the front stoop or shot on the neighbors' lawn.

There is an unpleasant part of me that still finds all the thought I'm putting into the issue of animals and people silly, because after all, there is a natural hierarchy in the world and humans are at the top of it. To that part of myself I say that, if anything, it is precisely our ability to be moral, to think things through, and to make the right decision that makes us superior. So I arrive at the very basic question of whether kindness and ownership are even compatible.

Already, I'm stuck. Kindness, as I understand it, is setting aside the self, recognizing suffering and alleviating it, being generous and compassionate, considering what would be the best state of being for another, and taking steps to make that a reality. But there are difficulties in determining an ideal existence for an animal--what would make it "happy," for lack of a better word. Without knowing what's going on in the minds of animals, or even assuming that they're just small minded, the most practical course of action seems to be trying to make their existence as natural and normal seeming as possible. In other words, leaving them be. And with this being the most obvious path to happiness for an animal, it is hard to imagine that we wouldn't want to offer it to our loved ones, our pets. And yet, as the feeder-mice vendor points out, "If we wanted our animals to enjoy a natural state, we would never have acquired them."
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Author:Maner, Karen
Publication:Colorado Review: A Journal of Contemporary Literature
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2013
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