“Can we have a dog, please Mum, please?” How many parents over the years have heard that plea from their kids? They promise to walk it, feed it, pick up after it and all the other jobs associated with pet ownership but you know deep down in your heart that this will never happen. If Mum isn’t willing to take on the total responsibility and care of this lovable four-legged creature, then do the animal and yourself a favour and just say no. I said, “No”. But this didn’t mean we wouldn’t get a pet. Forty years ago, Charlie, our very first stray cat, plunked himself on our doorstep and won our hearts. Cats, all strays, have been a part of our family ever since.

Now every family needs a pet and most parents try to accommodate this need. But sometimes having a pet is not in the cards. It gives me great pleasure to tell you about my brother’s venture into the pet kingdom. First let’s meet the family – Dennis, my brother; Donna, his wife; Bev and Stacey, their daughters. This story takes place in the early 1990s.

Shortly after getting their first pet, it was discovered that Stacey was allergic to cats. This meant that a home had to be found for their cat, He/She. The name originated as a result of Dennis, a farm boy, not being able to tell the sex of this feline. For a couple of years, this family was pet free as Dennis had successfully convinced the girls that for health reasons, they could not have pets. However, in the summer of 1994, while on holidays, the stage was set for change. I will call this story, “A Fish Tale.” It is important to note that dollar amounts quoted are at the 1994 value.

A Fish Tale

Bev and Stacey spent one afternoon during their vacation, collecting several beautiful shells from the ocean. When they returned home, they washed them, admired them and put them away where all good souvenirs go – in a box in the basement. However, the girls had not quite forgotten them. They had a plan. A few weeks later, they said to their dad, “We should put those beautiful shells we collected into a tank and get some fish.”

Now how much work can fish be? You don’t have to walk them. You don’t have to spend a fortune on shots every year. They don’t shed hair all over the place nor do they scratch or chew the furniture. The perfect pet if you have to have a pet. So that day, Dennis took the family down to the pet shop to pick out some fish and a bowl. Not an expensive venture or so he thought.

The girls chose a 20-gallon tank that cost $125.00. “Well let’s pick out the fish,” said a shaken Dennis.

“Oh, you can’t do that,” replied the sales clerk. “You will have to take the tank home and set it up first. You will also want some gravel to put on the bottom of the tank.” So Bev and Stacey excitedly decided on the size, shape and colour of the gravel as Dennis dug into his pocket for another $25.00.

Now the sales clerk was just warming up. “Have you a proper stand to set this tank on?” he asked. “You realize that when this tank is full of water, it will weigh at least 200 pounds.”

“We have a stand.” Dennis quickly assured him. But unfortunately, this was not so. When Donna and Dennis scrutinized their table at home, they realize that it could not possibly support the weight of the tank. Back to the store.

“How much is that stand?” asked an increasingly poorer Dennis. “$65.00,” came the reply.

Believing that they could get a better price and quality table elsewhere, the foursome left the shop empty-handed. Donna’s mission was to phone the other pet shops in town to compare prices. This research showed that the store they had been dealing with had the best deals so back the family traipsed to pick up the stand. $65.00 less in Dennis’ wallet. The tank was finally put together, filled with water and the gravel installed. But something was missing. Stacey broke the silence by saying, “Dad. It looks awfully bare. We should get some ornaments.”

So an embarrassed Dennis returned to the store for the fourth time that day. He was welcomed with open arms. A “No Fishing” sign, a skull and a sunken ship were purchased for $25.00. “Bring in a sample of the water tomorrow and I’ll check the pH level for you.” said the helpful clerk.

The next morning, three excited Connells returned to the store, sample in hand only to be informed that the pH level was too high. However, not to worry, for six dollars they could buy some drops to bring the pH down to an acceptable level. So the drops were added, the seashells attractively positioned, the fluorescent light put in place and the tank was a beautiful sight to behold. The family marvelled at what had been accomplished in only five trips to the pet store at the cost of $246.00. Remember, no fish yet.

The next day a second sample of water was tested. The pH level was worse than the previous trip.

When the desired results were not attained on the third day, a frustrated salesclerk said to Donna, “You didn’t by any chance put seashells in the tank did you?” Apparently, this was definitely a mistake. That evening the 20 gallons of water were emptied, the tank washed, the gravel rinsed, the water replaced and the whole process of testing the fresh water began again.

Trip number eight yielded the same results – pH level too high. By now the sales clerk was starting to feel sorry for this family. Because they were generously contributing to his holiday fund for the coming year, he suggested that they borrow his tester and when the water was right, they could bring it back and buy the fish. But all did not go well. On her second time testing the water, Stacey dropped the tester and it broke into little pieces. Another trip back to the store plus $8.00 to replace the clerk’s tester.

An exhausting week of daily testing followed before the water was finally deem fit for fish. Pet day had arrived! Bev however, being a typical 12-year-old, could not accompany her family on this momentous occasion as she was busy socializing with friends, so Donna, Dennis and Stacey returned to the pet shop to buy their fish. Being fair-minded, the three each picked out two fish. Six fish, $20.00.

The next day Bev chose her fish, four in number. But wait! That meant she had two more fish than Stacey – not fair. Solution – six fish in total  were purchased to even things up. By the way, another 20 bucks.

Now does the story end there? Oh no, this was just the beginning. Four fish died within the first week from overfeeding and a fifth one met a messy death when it was sucked up by the filtering system. Ammonia levels in the water skyrocketed due to the food decaying and bacteria formed. The solution to this problem naturally involved more work and more money. And finally, four more fish, a more exotic type, were acquired to the tune of $40.00 to replace the dearly departed.

The moral to this story is twofold. First don’t take your kids on holidays (they couldn’t use those shells anyway) and secondly, never assume anything will be easy or cheap when dealing with pets.

Since Dennis‘ family is a typical one, it goes without saying that the kids lost interest in this whole fish scene and Donna was stuck with the weekly job of treating the water with chemicals, washing all the ornaments, changing the water monthly, etc. And Dennis, well he is still trying to figure out how those little fish cost him close to $500 which in 1994 was a tidy little sum.