The Pet Library

The 1960’s were a time in which, if something could be imagined, it could be done.

For proof see:

  1. Paper dresses
  2. The Grateful Dead
  3. A lot of unwashed, hairy, natural, armpits.

What we didn’t know then: some things are better left in the imagination stage.

My mother is not an animal person. She’s never had a bond with an animal. Not her fault, just the way she is wired and was brought up. Maybe she never met the right animal. My dad was an animal person. Unfortunately, it was a matriarchal household.

I do give my mom a lot of credit.  Despite her fear or dislike of certain animals, she thought it would be good if we kids grew up unafraid of animals. She stuck with things that could be contained in a tank.

“Moooom….”, I would whine, “I want a pony, puhleeeeze….?  I’ll do anything.”

“Jane”, my mom would say with fake cheer, “how about some nice guppies?”

Any ten-year-old who is still playing the I Want A Pony tape is going to be stumped by a come back of “guppies”.  It made me wonder about my mother’s sanity. Who comes back with “guppy” in a negotiation about ponies?

Pony = Heaven, Cloud Nine, and World Peace

Guppy = dirty fish tank that stinks. Plus, they are suicidal. (I eventually gave in on the guppies, so when they didn’t work out, I’d have pony leverage.)

What is wrong with her?

My brothers had turtles in a tank. I suspect my mom was slightly masochistic.  She also let them have snakes, as long as the tanks were outside.

One day, after a particularly grouchy I Need A Pony fight, my mom said: “why can’t you be happy with fish?”

I replied, “I want something warm-blooded, that you can hold. Like a mammal.”

She was stunned that I knew what a mammal was, and felt she should reward this somehow. She checked with her friends.  Maybe I could “borrow” someone’s hamster for a week.  That’s how she found out about the pet library.

Apparently some groovy nature-loving hippie thought it would be a great idea if kids could check animals out for a couple of weeks.  Just like a book library!  You went in, got a card, and began checking out animals. That way, you could see if you liked guinea pigs before you bought one, therefore potentially saving a life.

Parents, in those days, often took Rover out to a nice home at a farm, where he had lots of room to roam.  A farm that we never managed to visit.

Armed with my new Pet Library card, accompanied by my reluctant mother, we hit the Pet Library.

I think: Ooooooooo….rats!  Aren’t they cute?  Look at those twitchy whiskers!

I look at my mom.

“Plague” is written on her forehead in black Gothic letters. I keep my mouth shut. No rats.

There’s a tiny, golden brown hamster sitting on its haunches, itty-bitty hands up by his mouth, cheeks bulging, stuffing himself with food.

Involuntarily, my mom says “He looks like that cartoon.”

Jane sees big, flashing, red arrow pointing down at golden hamster. “That’s the one I want to check out, mom!”, I say with as much excitement as possible.  “How did you  know?!”

Her face falls. She studies the hamster closely.  I see an Ixnay forming on the horizon. Drat. The librarian walks up. “Isn’t he adorable?”, she says. “That’s Howard.”

“Do you have anything smaller?”, my mom asks.

That’s when I know Howard is coming home with us.  The only mammal smaller than Howard is a mouse. If rats = Bubonic Plague, mice = Polio, minimum.

An hour later, after a lot of imploring by mom to check out the cute little lizard in a tank, we walk out with Howard The Promised Mammal Hamster, in his cage, with a bag of food, and list of care instructions.

I eye the rabbit on the way out the door.  If I take exemplary care of Howard, maybe my mom will cave in on a cute little Easter bunny? Eventually?

I sit on my hands the entire return drive, so I will not reach into the back seat, and remove Howard from his cage.

I think the fight is over.

We pull into the driveway. My mom picks up her purse, and (yes) gloves. She pats her hair, and turns to instruct me: “You can set the cage up in the garage, on the dryer.”

WHAT?!? NO. I didn’t plead, whine, beg, manipulate, lie, prostrate myself into every possible chore so Howard would spend his two weeks in the garage. 

I mentally check my ammo like a Marine. I’m going in. Without cover.

I gently set Howard’s cage on the dryer, then sink on the stairs, and break into heaving, wailing, inconsolable sobs. I “accidentally” bang my knee on the side of the stairs (Ow. Maybe a little too hard, shoot that hurt!).

My mother is no fool. She knows a mercenary when she sees one. But she seems to believe the banged knee was an accident.  Maybe because I looked surprised?  I mentally add “look surprised” to the artillery cache.

After prolonged negotiation, (basically, I wore her out) we reach a compromise: Howard can go into my bedroom, after he’s placed in the soon to be cleaned out Dead Guppy Tank.

I was a little sloppy on the scrubbing in my excitement. I might have just rinsed it? Swiped at the green stuff?

I hadn’t hit the 4th grade biology section on bacteria yet.

Howard was everything I wanted.  I did all my chores. I kept his bedding clean, his water fresh, his food bowl filled.  I loved him, and carried him all around my bedroom, pretending to be outside, showing my friends. It seemed to tire him out.  I let him rest in his tank.

He was dead by day 10. And he was due back at the library in four days!  I arranged his little body to look like he was curled up sleeping.  I consulted my friends: how was I going to get a replacement hamster?  If my mom knew this one died, I was NEVER going to get another chance. Luckily, one of my friend’s mothers loved animals, and had a soft heart. I broke my piggy bank and counted all the change while she drove us to the pet store.

Uh-Oh. No brown hamsters. None. I came home with a white one. I was afraid to use my mom’s mascara to dye it. What if mascara is toxic? I had to keep the new hamster alive long enough to be returned.

I buried Howard. Did everything but irradiate the tank to clean it, in case Howard had a disease, filled it with sawdust, and introduced the new Howard to his tank. I waited a couple of days. The suspense was killing me.  Live, little hamster, LIVE.

“Mom?”, I say, “I think I’d like to take Howard back to the library early, and maybe see what else we can check out?”

My mom waits in the car.  “Howard” is back in his cage. I put him in the back seat.

“Wasn’t he…?”, my  mom says. I look at her blankly.  “What?”, I say.

“I thought he was brown”, my mom says, frowning.

“They turn white when they get older”, I say. “It was on the (mysteriously lost) paper”.

My mom accepted this.

I bite my nails. They are not going to be hamster-stupid at the library.

We walk in. I plunk the cage on the counter, and race off to go look at the rabbit. No intention of taking the fall.

The librarian looks at my mother. “I see Howard has changed”, she comments, checking him back in.

“Yes”, my mom says, looking around distractedly for me, “he got older.”

I’m hiding under the rabbit table.

The librarian sighs. Her shoulders sag. “They do change dramatically from time to time. Well, at least you returned him”, she says. “That’s more than most people do.”

“Mom?”, I say, suddenly at her side, “can we check out a rabbit?”

The librarian glances at me, as if in collusion with my mother, but still getting in a jab: “I don’t think your mom can afford to borrow a big pet.  Rabbits are expensive.”

My mom is so relieved to be off the hook for the rabbit, she doesn’t catch the innuendo. “That’s okay”, I say, turning to my mom, “I think I’ll be more mature in a couple weeks? We can come back. Maybe a guinea pig?”

Win-win. Mom thinks I’m grateful: I’m giving her a break. The librarian thinks I know it’s not the same hamster, and I’m helping protect my mom who made the switch.

I used up all my money on Howard.

I can’t afford to replace a guinea pig. Or handle the intrigue.


17 thoughts on “The Pet Library

  1. Oh! That was great! Did Howard ever bite you? Hamsters aren’t the most social creature, really preferring to be left alone. When I worked for Big Box Pet Store, Hamsters were often returned for biting.

  2. Too funny!! I had completely forgotten that when I was in elementary school you could “borrow” the animals during the vacations. I remember bringing home a guinea pig for several of them. I usually lost interest before they were due, which was probably the whole idea.

    My kids had a rabbit for awhile. It was cute when it was little, but it was the dumbest bunny ever and it seemed to forget who we were overnight. Every day it would look at us in total fear and it would take all day to return its equilibrium. Eventually we gave it to our town farmer who had a home for rabbits kids got tired of.

    Fast forward three years and my daughter wants another rabbit. My husband looks at me in disbelief when i suggest going to the human society since they are having a sale on adopting rabbits. I had a plan, though. I bring my daughter up there with a friend and they hold every.single.rabbit. At least three of them nip the girls. After 2 hours of rabbitting, I ask my daughter which one she wants. “I remembered that I don’t like rabbits,” she says. Bingo! Now we know where to go for a (free) rabbit fix.

    As for me, I want a baby goat. I’ve almost got the town farmer to agree that we could keep him just for a week or two!

  3. I’m beginning to think had we all known each other in elementary school, we would have terrorized the world.
    In a good way.
    (That would have been a BLAST.)
    All that pony/pet addicted brain power would have had us all riding in a matter of days: trailed by our dogs, cats, bunnies, snakes, birds, hamsters, turtles, rats, guinea pigs, lizards, tarantulas, and potato bugs. Do we see guppies – or any kind of fish – on the list? No. Because you can’t ride with a guppy in your pocket…

    1. Whoops. To some of us, this may appear to be a challenge (Aarene & Funder… cough cough) and we will try to ride with a guppy in our pocket?
      How about a nice potato bug? They’re hardier.

  4. Wow how cool is that. I am quite sure I would have driven my parental units nuts on a daily basis if I knew about this pet library.

  5. This was great 🙂 My parents were not dog people at all. I did, however, have mutiple hamsters in sucession all named Peanut. I have since made up for the lack of canines in my life with three rescues and a fourth fostered rescue–who, if she doesn’t get adopted, will have a lifelong home with us.

  6. Jane, I’m beginning to think we share more than our first name. My Mom’s famous mantra is “a dog or me!” And, as most healthy households go, this is a matriarchal one. A family friend asked us to pet-sit her lapdog. Mom couldn’t find a polite way out of it, but kept the dog in the garage. The bugger wouldn’t stop yapping and only served to prove my mother’s point that pets are a nuisance. Worried that the neighbors would complain in the middle of the night, my Dad finally brought it in, put it in the basement, and brought a sleeping bag to give it company. To this day, I resent the fact that he didn’t tell me about that to let me be the one sleeping with the dog.

  7. Whenever I read stories like this, I wish that 8-year-old Jane and 8-year-old Marissa could meet each other. We would have had such a good time. And probably gotten into quite a bit of trouble with pet librarians.

    1. Sorry this is late, I fished it out of the spam filter. Strange.
      FYI, guys, if you’ve commented before and your comment doesn’t show up, it’s probably stuck in the spam filter, which I forget I have, therefore forget to check. Nudge me with an email?

  8. I was lucky enough that my dad went behind my mum’s back and got us a kitten (actually, he got him a kitten, but we can share). Once Tinsel (a silver tabby Chinchilla Persian) was in the house, he was there to stay. There’s no way you can take a kitten away from kids after they’ve had that first purring hug. But she stuck to her guns – she made sure my dad or one of us did every cat-related chore, from feeding, to vacuuming the furniture, to trips to the vet. But you could on occasion sneak a glimpse of her with a cup of tea, reading a book, and Tinsel curled on her lap.

    1. This was a totally savvy librarian. Gee, like another librarian I know…

      Her resigned response helped me dig out from under a mountain of “OH NO, I murdered the hamster!” guilt.
      I realize now I didn’t put that in the story, but I felt terribly guilty and sad. (And worried sick about returning a white hamster.)

      She wouldn’t have been that…depressed and resigned had other pets not been checked out, never to return. Pet library: good idea only in theory.

  9. Is this a true story?! Only in California would they have pet libraries!!! Although I quite like the concept. Ha ha…wonder if I could donate Hazel for a month when she gets to driving me crazy? 😉

    1. True. If I remember right, it was in Oakland, CA. I never paid any attention to where we were driving when I was a kid. Either in or near Oakland. 🙂 Hey. I should ask my brother, he’s older, he’ll probably remember where it was!

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