My Life with Unresponsive Pets
Closing ThoughtsOpinion

My Life with Unresponsive Pets

Columnist Chana Shapiro describes her family experiences with a fish, chickens and a turtle named after an NFL quarterback.

Chana Shapiro is an educator, writer, editor and illustrator whose work has appeared in journals, newspapers and magazines. She is a regular contributor to the AJT.

Chana Shapiro
Chana Shapiro

One afternoon when my brother Aaron and I were kids, our father took us fishing in a lake near our house while our mother stayed home with our little sister Nancy. If we caught a fish, we planned to throw it back, unless it was big enough to eat. We couldn’t bear sacrificing perfectly good worms (which didn’t deserve to die). So our mother gave us little pieces of bologna in a glass jar to use as bait.

After a long wait with our poles in the water, Aaron felt a slight tug, and he found a tiny silver fish hooked on the end of his line. Our father was about to toss the fish back, but we kids wanted to keep Finny (Aaron named him) as a pet. Our father benevolently emptied the bologna into the lake, scooped water into the jar, and dropped Finny in. On the way home, we picked up a container of fish food, and Aaron and I took turns carrying Finny in the unlidded jar.

When we got home, we pleaded our case, our little sister was thrilled, and our mother agreed to keep Finny overnight. She half-filled a big jar with sink water for his sleepover, cautioning us not to overfeed him. The next day Aaron took Finny to his third grade classroom, where the teacher cavalierly plopped our one-day pet into the class aquarium. Miraculously, Finny didn’t infect the other fish, and they all got along swimmingly(!).

The next year, we turned our attention to chickens.

As we walked through town with our mother, Aaron and I spotted adorable baby chicks in the pet store window. Try as she might, Mom could only drag us away from those chicks by agreeing to purchase two of them. Soon, my brother and I came home with a cardboard box holding our new pets. Alas, after a three-day attempt to interact with the chicks indoors in a makeshift cage, changing poop paper proved onerous, and our pets refused to concentrate on learning tricks. We relocated our pets to our backyard, where they prospered and soon became full-fledged chickens.

Ruby Reprogel (yes, her real name), who lived down the block from us, raised chickens and sold eggs. Miss Ruby encouraged us to try our own home business, but, at this point, we saw our pair as two slightly amusing fowl who ate our garbage and defecated all over the back yard. We were not eager to start an egg-generating business; we just wanted to sanitize and reclaim our back yard. Unlike our earlier (although admittedly short-lived) attachment to Finny, we had never truly bonded with our chickens. Our mother took us and our pets to Miss Ruby, who happily accepted our gift. I have to believe that the chickens were happy, too.

My brother, sister and I often rode our bikes to the library. One day, on a dirt road shortcut, we spotted a large turtle making its way across our path. It stopped and receded into its shell. We waited a bit for it to come out, and finally we decided to bring it home on the way back, if it was still there.

Our plan worked. We put our library books in my basket, and managed to find and pick up the turtle (most likely traumatized), still hiding inside its shell. We nested it in Aaron’s basket amidst a bunch of leaves.

At home, our mother refused to touch our new pet and made us scour our hands with cleanser and change our clothes. Aaron, a devoted football fan, named our reptilian pet Yelberton Abraham Turtle after the legendary National Football League quarterback, Yelberton Abraham Tittle. My siblings and I visited “Y.A.”(as he came to be called) in our basement several times a day, where we fed him and watched him do almost nothing. When Aaron and I both left home, six years after we found him, Y. A. was doing fine. Our sister Nancy moved to Boston and gave him to Aaron’s friend Chucky. Turtles can live to be 150. Y.A.’s probably turtle-middle-aged now, and if he sticks to his healthy diet of water, salad and bugs, I’m sure he’ll make it.

When we moved to New York, acknowledging my experience with non-responsive pets, a friend gave me a pet rock.

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