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the essay

Children are sweet creatures but somewhat wily when it comes to pet ownership. When my own kids launched their Puppy Campaign a few years ago, there was only one possible response: No.

"But Mom, we need a dog," came the anguished rebuttal. And they probably did.

My children's father had died a few months earlier. We had all been recovering from the demise of our beloved chocolate Lab, Zeppy. And the year before that, we had faced the passing of my own wonderful father. The business of death was weighing on us and the thought of a puppy prancing around our ankles had some appeal.

But my husband's death had brought many new responsibilities. I had moved us back to Ontario from Montreal and begun the challenging work of relaunching my business on a solo footing. Another dog?

"No," I said.

"Please Mummy, just a little one."


"Wouldn't you love another dog?"


Well, yes. Zeppy had been a beautiful and playful charmer whose boundless love had accompanied me through 13 eventful years. He had sniffed at grass, trees and dirty socks until his hips gave out and his pain became more than I could endure. I couldn't bear the thought of losing yet another best friend.

"A cat then."

"No, silly, Mummy doesn't like cats. I'm allergic."

"Please Mummy, just one cat?"

Two pairs of perfect blue eyes pleaded up at me.

"How about a nice house plant?" I said.

Phil the Philodendron and Brancher the Palm Bush moved into our house and did not die.

But the quest for a pet continued. A gecko, a hamster and a bunny were vetoed - repeatedly - and I had finally forbidden all talk of a new pet. I was beginning to think I had won the day when, one perfect summer Saturday, my son roared into the kitchen and asked for a jar with holes in the lid.

"How cute," I thought. I showed him the jar supply, punched some holes in a lid and returned to my routine. Hours later, I noticed seven large jars lined up along the back of the kitchen counter, loaded with grass, leaves and dirt.

"What's in there?" I asked.

My son grinned. "Slugs and snails!"

They seemed harmless enough, so the next day we bought a tank. The critters could stay if the kids looked after them - and ensured they had zero impact on my life.

My son fed the snails faithfully for weeks, even after the slugs had mysteriously disappeared, and he cleaned their lair without grumbling. One crisp October morning, we noticed the inside of the tank was festooned with hundreds of baby snails.

I felt faint.

Cleaning the tank was out of the question - we might inadvertently kill some of the babies. Weeks went by and the tank became a foul monument to pet ownership; the colony moved into the garden without a fight.

I was so relieved to be rid of the snails that I foolishly agreed to replace them with fish - "as long as they have zero impact on my life," I warned.

Four fish moved into a squeaky clean tank and expired one by one. Calls were made to the fish store. Replacement fish were purchased. The "zero-impact" concept was working poorly, and after many months of fish replacement I put my foot down. "When Swimmy and Swummy are gone there will be no more fish."

We were running late one morning when we caught Swummy chomping on poor Swimmy's fins. Outraged, I filled a large bowl with water and put Swummy in the clink. We returned home that evening to find Swummy lying motionless on the kitchen floor, presumably in a failed effort to finish his snack.

Now down to one lone fish I started to relax. One fish is not such a big deal, I thought. Relaxation is dangerous in our house, however, and one morning I noticed two tiny fish darting around the tank. "Look Mummy, Swimmy had babies!" my daughter cooed.

"Impossible. That mother has been alone in the tank for three months."

Nevertheless, the babies existed and they were kind of cute. We segregated them for their own protection and they are still scooting around the tank.

Although my children seem mollified, printouts about the care and ownership of turtles have started appearing on my placemat. It occurs to me that the circle of life and death, love and pets is endless and eternal, one of those issues generations of parents have confronted. I'm not crazy about the idea of a turtle, although the inevitable babies might be sweet. And I'm still not sold on the idea of a dog, the animal my children really want to welcome.

"You need a boyfriend," my son said to me the other day.

"Why on Earth do you want me to get a boyfriend?" I asked. I am just starting to feel I've got this widow business figured out and I still like that "zero-impact" idea. A boyfriend might be a time-consuming project, one I'm not quite ready to manage.

My son looked nonchalantly up at the ceiling and shrugged. "Sometimes men like dogs."

I looked at my boy, surging bravely toward manhood, and nodded. "I guess the right one would have to."

Susan Crossman lives in Oakville, Ont.

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