In the past, I'd been asked to watch other people's pets, before the word got out. It seems I had a tendency to treat most lifeforms with a certain diffidence. I referred to this casual attitude as laissez-faire. Something lighthearted. Others, mostly being the petowners, called it neglect.

You see how you can go from being a lighthearted fellow to being thought of as a criminal, the difference being entirely one of selecting the right word to describe oneself. I've always felt that was my problem. Others employed words that I would not have chosen.

It is the same with pets. Pet owners of large dogs restrained by choke collars assured me that Bowzer was a lovely thing, when evidence suggested it would far rather kill than chat. They saw an angel with a pure heart. I saw something more Miltonian. Dark satanic engines with paws.

These pet sitting adventures never seemed to live up to their promise. The parakeets that were allowed to fly outside of the cage for an hour a day, and would then fly right back into their cages when the tiny little wire door opened. The cat that was allowed to bathe itself in half an inch of water, and that didn't need a litterbox because it enjoyed using the toilet just like Mommy did. The turtle that would eat its lettuce leaves. The goldfish that would swim to the top of the bowl of water when you tapped on the glass.

These things never happened. Mostly, the creatures trended to dying.

It always puzzled me, this power over less sentient lifeforms. The owners would leave their pets with lustrous fur or beautiful plumage, and a week later, the fur was mangy and the feathers were brown rather than indigo. I'd always done well with cacti and other succulents, so the fact that dogs and cats adored dying while in my charge alarmed me.

In my own defense, I must say this: when you open a friend's door to feed his 120 pound Rottweiler, and all you see are saliva-covered Cujo fangs, your tendency is to shut the door and come back at a more appropriate time, is it not? A sane person simply does not enter an excited dog's space. So I would always wait a few days until the mutt calmed down before entering gingerly, refilling his dishes with dog stuff and milk, I think, and slinking away. (Is it dogs that like milk? Or cats? I was never clear on this point.) A few days later, the dog hadn't touched its dishes. I was puzzled, took the food dishes and freshened them up a bit, stirring them with a fork, you know, not really knocking myself out - it's a dog, right? not a child - but still wasn't too concerned. I mean, I wasn't going out of my way to look for the Teeth With Paws creature unless I was in a full animal trainer costume, which I was unwilling to spring for, so I had no idea that the poor creature was pining away with boredom, hunger, and some form of kidney disease. I mean, really. They hired a dog sitter, not a veterinarian. Alas. That was the first canine that passed to that great pet shop in the sky. But it was not to be my last.

There were also cats. Cats make me sneeze when they get too close. But god bless 'em, they're not finicky eaters. However, they are escape artists. I left the door open a crack, and before you could say kitty litter, my feline charges took to the street like crack-addled hookers. They were nevermore to be seen, despite some rudimentary efforts to lure them back with catnip and cattle prods.

Fish are finicky eaters. I had no idea you could overfeed fish. Who tells you these things? I gave the goldfish about two weeks' worth of food and thought they would make good choices. They would apportion their food just as they do in the wild, one would assume. They certainly looked awfully intelligent for goldfish. Alas, the goldfish went the way of dogs and cats. I found them belly up, having binged their way through quite a hefty supply of that little flakey stuff you feed them. Greedy bastards. It was almost a moral imperative that they be taught a lesson, for the good of their kind. I'm sure the owners have moved on to a more rational, higher IQ brand of fish.

The avian contingent of my story met a similar fate. Oh, they enjoyed their freedom, like their owners had claimed. I think these were parrots or parakeets or cockatiels. Beaks with wings, essentially. I laid out a few bits of fruit around the coffee table, as instructed, and then sat back and relaxed in front of the large screen television. Well, I mean to say. These things dive bombed for their food and made an awful mess, screeching, flapping wings, and so forth. I got out the man's paddle (he'd crewed at Princeton) and took a few swats and much to my astonishment connected with one of the slower birds. In what was the equivalent of an infield single (a mere tap, really), the bird most inconveniently landed hard against the far wall's Stiffel lamp. Oh dear. This was going to be taken out of my paycheck, I just knew it.

I tried to corral the other birds, the ones still living, back into their cage. The infield fly looked a bit bemused and was rapidly fading. They buggered off into other rooms, upstairs, downstairs, flew into mirrors, smashed into bay windows. They flew everywhere but their advertised destinations, which was somewhere into their gilded cage. I quietly left the house and gave the birds a few days to sort out their feelings.

Once again, the fates played a cruel trick on me. After a bit of quiet time, they all went claw-up! Birds all over the place, in cartoonish stances; they had everything but the X's over their eyes and the tongues hanging out of their beaks.

It's been a while since I'd been asked to pet-sit. I'm moving down the rung of animals. A young man asked me to sit his ant farm while he tootles off to Space Camp, and he sounded none too pleased to be asking me, as if I were the final choice on his list of approved pet sitters. I was very cheerful on the phone, telling him I was intimately acquainted with isoptera, after all. "Wonderful," he said, "but those are termites."

Ah. Cheeky lad.

Well, I'm quite sure ants can eat wood too. We'll make a science project out of this. Not to worry.