New York City, April 3, 2011 - Maia just called to tell me a funny story – “Mom, I’m exhausted. I’ve been running around with a bowl of water, trying to rescue a fish.”
Apparently, her RA’s cat sent a fishbowl crashing to the floor, and while there was water all over, there was no flapping fish in sight. She suspects that the cat had a meal of very, very fresh sashimi.
She shuddered at the predatory instinct of the cunning feline pet. “Ugh,” she said, “I hate cats.”
But there was once a time when Maia actually liked cats. One Halloween, she dressed up as a black cat in a pair of black leggings and a black long-sleeved turtle neck, with black whiskers painted on her face.
She even nearly brought home a stray kitten we found while vacationing in a Puerto Rican resort. She sneaked milk to the whole litter, and was only convinced to leave her favorite kitty behind when I told her how lost and sad it would be without its mother.
Her fondness for felines came to an abrupt end, however, when she tried to pet a bad-tempered fat old cat in a supermarket in New York’s Chinatown. The animal snarled at her, and scratched her arm as she reached out.
That incident completely soured Maia on cats, and probably triggered her very real cat allergy! Yes, she is allergic to cats. She starts sneezing around cats. Her throat itches, and she gets teary-eyed, too. She avoids cats, but because they are devious, they deliberately follow her around with the sole purpose of terrorizing her.
There was that cat in Jakarta where she once traveled to for a debate tournament. The family that hosted her had a cat that stuck to Maia like Velcro, entwining itself around her legs, and jumping to her lap whenever she sat down.
And then there was the cat who howled, scratched and forced open the door to Maia’s room when she slept over at her college roommate’s house! The cat was so persistent, she had to resort to barricading the door with a heavy wooden cabinet!
Who could blame her for preferring dogs? Still, as a child, she was never one to recklessly pet a dog. She instinctively knew that dogs bite, and she was always a little wary of them, even when her friend Laila’s dog Marty – a harmless miniature terrier – was being friendly, excitedly jumping all over her.
Funnily enough, despite her distaste for animals, Maia was the founder and president of the Pet Sitter’s Club in first grade, and she was always called upon to take care of class pets which in UNIS (United Nations International School) were usually the snails and meal worms used for experiments in science class.
Although I knew that pets were important for childhood development, and teaching kids about responsibility, I didn’t actively encourage Maia to keep a pet. When you’re moving from one country to another every two or three years, getting a dog, cat, bird, or fish – even a plant! – was like having another child without the benefit of a child allowance.
No one picks up the tab for a pet’s plane ticket, which can nevertheless be about the same as a child’s fare, and while the quarantine expenses don’t equal an international school education, animal customs are about as difficult to get through as admissions. Just ask anyone whose pet has failed Japan’s stringent quarantine procedures.
So I was pretty relieved when Maia didn’t ask for a pet. She seemed content with her many stuffed animals – until one fateful day, when she came home gushing about, of all things, hermit crabs.
Maia wanted a pet hermit crab. I didn’t even know what a hermit crab was. I had enjoyed hairy crabs and soft-shell crabs on my dinner plate, but a hermit crab was one crustacean I had never feasted on. You won’t find a recipe for hermit crabs on the Internet. They serve a higher purpose in life. Hermit crabs are Mother Nature’s gift to children who can’t have “real pets” – real pets being the kind who shed on the furniture and need to be given baths.
Once I learned from Maia that we didn’t have to walk the hermit crab, or train it to use a litter box, I acquiesced and we went in search of her very first pet. We headed to the nearest pet shop, and to my great surprise, there was a huge bucket filled with water and lots of tiny hermit crabs swimming around. It looked like these oh-so-low-maintenance crabs were in high demand.
The burly shopkeeper asked Maia to choose her pet, and after careful deliberation, she pointed to one that looked just like all the others. He picked it up, and handed it to me for inspection. I took the wisp of a thing in my cupped hand, and quickly got acquainted with the newest member of our family. He – and I don’t know why I assumed it was a boy – buried its claws into my palm. Yelping, I shook my hand vigorously, but shaking only encouraged him to hold on even more tightly!
A good Samaritan suggested I stretch my palm open – by the way, an excellent piece of advice which the shopkeeper should have given me earlier – and to calm our soon-to-be pet, I was also told to put my hand in enemy territory, the bucket of water full of hermit crabs!
Not seeing any other choice, I plunged my hand into the water, and we waited, as Maia looked on in horror, for the hermit crab to release the mommy flesh in his claws. It did not take long for me to get my hand back, but I did wonder if I needed a shot. Maia assured me that crabs didn’t have rabies.
The shopkeeper anxiously confirmed that we had not changed our minds, and with the hermit crab safely in a plastic container, along with a small aquarium, a few rocks, some sand, and a couple of empty sea shells, we walked the few blocks back to our apartment.
While Maia thought of a name for her new pet, I did what I always do – I set up his neighborhood in the little aquarium, and littered it with the extra shells, which were to become his future homes. I quickly learned that a hermit crab lived in a shell, and that once it outgrew one shell, it moved on to the next, always carrying its home around on its back.
Our hermit crab was christened Kazaam, after a Shaquille O’Neal movie which Maia had never even seen.
Kazaam was the only pet Maia ever had. Caring for him never required much time and effort. She gave him drinking water, and the occasional slice of carrot, cucumber or apple. He was not much fun to watch unless he was moving from one home to another, but Maia was happy to have a pet she could cart to school for show-and-tell activities.Parenting experts tell us that by taking care of a pet, children learn about responsibility.
For Maia, responsibility meant deciding what to do with Kazaam when it was time to leave New York, and return to Tokyo – the crab would not survive the trans-Pacific flight. She had to choose one friend, from the several who had offered to take Kazaam in. She finally entrusted him to Laila, because her mom and dad were just as excited to adopt a hermit crab into their family.
Back in Tokyo, we considered getting a dog, and took an online test to determine what breed would best match our preferences. After some quick calculations, the website suggested that we get… an Aibo, the robotic dog from Sony.
So we gave up on the idea of a pet.
In some ways, Kazaam was the best pet we could ask for. He fit in with our family. Like us, he didn’t have a permanent home. He changed homes constantly, and carried everything he had on his back.
For a nomadic, globe-trotting child like Maia, that plucky little hermit crab turned out to be the perfect companion.
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