By Laura Malt Schneiderman Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
I've had some strange pets. The most recent one was Pint, my ferret.
My landlady told me that if I wanted a cat, I'd have to pay a $200 non-refundable deposit. So I researched furry non-cat pets. I ended up reading a book extolling the ferret as a tame, friendly, housebroken and endearing animal. I ordered my ferret and told the landlady it was a guinea pig.
Well, the book lied. The ferret, it turns out, is a semi-domesticated weasel. It enjoys biting, relieving itself in corners (often just in front of the litterbox), and it revels in causing humans fear and pain. This is not a rap on the ferret. It is really cute as it does its barrel rolls, honking with delight at the pain and fear it has inflicted. To the ferret, these are just love nips.
It's entertaining to watch your friends scream with fright and high-step it to a bed or a chair or anywhere they think the ferret can't get to. Ferrets are pretty good climbers, though, so when your friends select the sofa as their isle of refuge, they may get a nasty surprise when the ferret joins them there.
The book said you could put your ferret on a leash and walk it like a dog. As if.
I got a ferret leash and took her outdoors. A ferret's idea of a walk is a little different from mine. The ferret wanted to explore a culvert and especially a drainage pipe, which took so much time and effort to extricate her from that I gave up the walk. Shortly afterward, the ferret ran under my bed then bounced out with no leash halter around her any more. She had broken the little metal stud that held the contraption together. So much for walking my ferret.
If you have a ferret, do not hold out hope for the survival of your houseplants. My African violet disappeared one day, only to turn up as a dessicated root ganglion, its leaves having been torn off one by one in a bloodlust frenzy, the remaining stalk ripped from its soil bed and dragged back and forth behind the sofa. The carpet, stained with dirt, bore witness to the murder.
In a cleaning expedition of my apartment, I turned up a stash of my ferret's treasures: a handful of pencils meticulously culled one by one from my fiance's backpack, a peach pit stripped of every last morsel of fruit, an empty spool and a paper clip, all neatly piled under the head of my bed. I was sleeping above that peach pit for who knows how long.
Care of a ferret includes a weekly shampoo with special ferret shampoo. You have to do that or else the ferret will begin to smell like its close relative, the skunk. You heard me right.
Pint lived a long and mostly happy life, and I learned a lot about how animals communicate. The big revelation was that when a ferret bites you on the ankle, that means, "Feed me." The other big revelation was that regardless of the ferret's behavior, you must comfort her when she is hurt or scared. This was good practice for having children.
My previous strange pet was a pair of convict fish. Convict fish are called convict fish because they're striped black and white. Also, if you put your finger up to the aquarium glass, supposedly they will "pace." I discovered some other things about convict fish:
• They will kill any other kind of fish you put in the tank, usually via the Death by a Thousand Cuts (or bites). Then you will find the other fish floating dead at the top of your tank, lacking fins and tails.
• They will dig up any plants you put in the tank. You will find them floating at the top of the tank, too.
The female of my pair from time to time would bite off the male's fins or tail. I would find him cowering behind some rocks. But overall, the pair had good color, and they seemed happy. Too happy. One day I awakened to find a tank full of baby convict fish. If the convict fish had failed to charm me up to this point, the prospect of having dozens more held even less appeal. I had to beg the pet store to take them.
My pet before that was a rat. It's not what you think! It was a white rat, a lab rat. I got it because my sisters had a gerbil and a hamster, and my brother had mice. I wanted something different. I read a book that said that rats were intelligent and wonderful pets. Rats are intelligent and wonderful pets, but they are also ugly.
The rat quickly taught himself to run up my front and sit on my shoulder, where he hid in my hair and chirred his teeth happily. If I held out my arm, he would scamper across it, his oversized rump swaying from side to side.
He was not like the mice. The mice would arrange things so that one of them ran on the exercise wheel while the other took a ride on the outside of the wheel, soaring up to the top of the cage, then smashing down into the cedar shavings. We thought they were performing circus tricks for us. But one day, only one mouse was in the cage. The other, it seems, had ridden the outside of the exercise wheel to the air holes in the cage lid, through which it must have wriggled and escaped. It turned up years later as a skeleton in a laundry pipe. The other mouse disappeared soon thereafter, never to be seen again.
Like the mice, my rat also found a way to escape his cage, but only to gather up nearby bits of paper and bring them back to line his nest. I caught him in the act, swaying on the rim of the cage, a spiral of newsprint paper dangling from his mouth. And here I'd been blaming my siblings for "abusing" the rat by putting the paper in his cage.
He was not like the gerbil or the hamster. They would hop around my sisters' doll houses, all cute, eating sunflower seeds and depositing bodily "gifts" around the miniature rooms. The rat would sulk in the doll house, lying on his belly on the staircase, chin at the top, rump at the bottom.
My rat died of cancer while I was at summer camp, still able to enjoy being petted.
My cousin bested me in the weird pets department. He had an iguana named Beldar who slept in my cousin's top bunk until the Missouri winters killed the cold-blooded Beldar.
Strange pets have enriched my life. But I'm thinking I should have read some books that were more skeptical about ferrets before I bought one.