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. 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 assure me that Bowzer is a lovely thing, when evidence suggests it would far rather kill than chat. They see an angel with a pure heart. I see something more Miltonian. Dark satanic engines with paws.

These pet sitting adventures never seem to live up to their promise. The parakeets whose cage door is opened, allowed to fly around the house outside of the cage for an hour a day, and would then fly right back in. The cat allowed to bathe itself in half an inch of water, and that doesn't need a litterbox because it enjoyed using the toilet just like Mommy does. The turtle that eats its lettuce leaves. Nibble, nibble. The goldfish that darts to the top of the bowl of water, eagerly anticipating the presence of food when you tapped on the glass.

These things never happened. The only consistent trend I observed was that the creatures tended to die.

It always puzzled me, this power over less sentient lifeforms. The owners would leave their pets with lustrous fur or iridescent plumage, and a week later, the fur would be mangy and the feathers a dull brown. I'd always done well with cacti and other succulents, so the fact that dogs and cats adore dying alarm me. Well, maybe not alarm so much as annoy.

Here's pet sitting from my perspective: 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 hasn't touched its dishes. I am puzzled. I take the food dishes and freshen them up a bit, stirring them with a fork, you know, so that the not-rancid stuff comes to the surface, not really knocking myself out - it's a dog, right? not a child - but still not too concerned. I mean, I'm not going out of my way to look for Teeth With Paws unless I'm in a full animal trainer costume, which they just do not make in fashionable colors or fabrics that breathe, so I have no idea what the poor creature's state of mind is. I mean, other than anger management issues. They hired a dog sitter, not a pet psychologist.

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. If you leave the door open a smidge, say, the diameter of a hydrogen nucleus, a cat is capable of squeezing through it, and before you could say kitty litter, the feline oozes to the street like a crack-addled hooker, nevermore to be seen. Despite some rudimentary efforts to lure it back with catnip, which every other cat in the neighborhood seemed to enjoy, word never seems to get back to the one particular cat I happen to be in charge of.

I intended this to be an apologetic to pet lovers, but am realizing that the target audience is busily trying to find out who I am so they can sic the ASPCA on me. So perhaps the audience ought to be you pet-sitters who are reading this and nodding your heads up and down, or perhaps you teenagers who are thinking of doing this as a summer job. To the latter, I'd like to give you one piece of advice: If your cat does a Harry Houdini, do not try to replace the cat with some stand-in you buy at Petsmart. Somehow the owners can sense the difference. I don't know how, but they can. So don't waste your money.

Fish are finicky eaters. I had no idea you could overfeed fish. Who tells you these things? I give the goldfish about two weeks' worth of food, thinking they would make good choices and apportion their food for the days the owner is gone. They certainly look awfully intelligent for fish. You would think they'd be capable of such rudimentary planning behavior. Don't let appearances fool you! They're really quite stupid things. When I check in on them a day before the owners return, I usually find them belly up. I speculate that there must have been a huge goldfish binge-eating party that first night, although I've never bothered to check this with a video camera to do ex post facto analysis. Greedy bastards. It becomes almost a moral imperative that these piscenes 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 tend to meet a similar fate. Oh, they enjoy their freedom, as their owners claim. I cut up a few bits of fruit around the coffee table, which really cuts into quality television time, but, you know, you've got to do what you've got to do, you're a professional! And then you grab a beer from the fridge and relax in front of the large screen television. You imagine the parrot gliding over and sitting on your shoulder, and the both of you saying ARRRH YE MATEY while watching Animal Planet, or maybe NFL Reruns, two bros chillin', you know? I'm here to disabuse you of that notion. When left to their own devides, the birds (usually more than one, sadly) screech, flap wings, and dive bomb for their food. Bloody uncivilized is what they are.

One time I got out the man paddle, attempting to restore order to this bunch of avian hooligans, 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. Infield fly looked a bit bemused and wasn't going anywhere. The others 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 ladder 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. It brings to mind that old adage about children being beaten, not seen, or something like that.

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

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