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the guinea pig that wanted to be a rock, and other stories

All of the pets that my family has ever had have one major thing in common: They were very bad at being pets. You wouldn’t think it would be that effortful of a task for animals that have been selectively bred for centuries to want to make us happy. Yet the small parade of pets we’ve gone through has been intent on teaching me that that’s not true. At present, we have a dog that thinks it’s a cat, but past pets have been a cockatiel that thought it was a chicken, a guinea pig that thought it was a rock, and a fish. In all fairness to the fish, it was the sole exception. It was actually pretty good at being a fish, but then again, being a fish isn’t that hard a job.

Technically, our legacy of failure animals started even before we got any living ones. For her second birthday, my sister got a stick horse. She named it Rabbit. I, the ever-knowledgeable four-year-old, tried to tell her that this was a huge mistake and an impossible name for a stick horse to live up to. I wanted to rename it “Brownie,” which I thought would present an easier burden for it. I lost the battle.

Then came the guinea pig, our first actual foray into the world of animals. My mom had grown up without pets, and my dad had grown up with two dogs that did appropriately silly dog things like eat the wallpaper they had just put up, so together they figured with us they’d start small. I got Kipper for my sixth birthday. I’d been reading this book called “The Guinea Pig Gang,” so I was pretty sure I knew what to expect, which was a loveable small animal that would be expressive and happy. Kipper almost fit the bill. He was white and brown, small, cute, and utterly uninterested in interacting with any of us.

Trying to guard their kindergartener from disappointment, my parents tried pretty hard to engage with him. My favorite effort was an elaborate maze with treats spread every six inches or so and plastic dinosaurs blocking all of the wrong paths, but we also got a guinea pig-sized version of a hamster ball. Did you know guinea pigs are experts at sitting very, very still so that their spherical containers don’t even twitch? This one was, anyway. The most exciting thing he ever did was bite my cousin when she put her finger in his mouth. There’s a line in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban where Ron is lamenting the disappearance of Scabbers, the eternally boring rat, and says, “He bit Goyle for us once!” Congratulations, Kipper, you were on par with a rat that wasn’t exciting until it died. At least you weren’t a creepy animagus. I think.

After we’d had Kipper for a while, my parents decided it was my sister’s turn for a pet of her own. They got her a betta fish. She was about five, and in the midst of a great and noble tradition of naming everything either “Sally,” “Sarah,” or something extremely literal. The fish got named “Betta,” which, all things considered, is probably better than sharing a name with 15 Barbie dolls. Betta did basically everything required of a fish, even including the thing betta fish do where they threaten to fight other bettas. We didn’t have another betta, so this one tried to fight the fish on the fish food canister. At least it tried.

We got Judee around the same time as Betta. Judee, short for Judee Maccabird (she was a Chaunukah gift for my mom) was a cockatiel. Like Betta, during her life she mostly was okay  at her job. (Her failure came later.) She would chirp when she heard the garage door open and eat the millet spray my sister and I poked through the bars of her cage. My sister and I were too young to be allowed to take her out on our own and too loud for her to want a whole lot to do with us, but she liked my parents well enough. She stuck around all through my elementary school years and was a solid presence in my childhood, if one that was pretty uninterested in me. Sometimes, I liked her. Mostly, I begged for a dog.

In retrospect, we probably should have known what we were getting ourselves into with Margot. When we went to pick her up from the breeder’s house, her mother, a show dog, sat still as a stuffed animal on the arm of the couch. At one point she jumped down, slowly and regally tapped her way out of the room, only to silently return to the room a few minutes later and resume the exact same position.

Margot inherited all of her mother’s disinterest in fellow living creatures and none of her silence. She spends about 75 percent of her time ignoring us and 50 percent of her time barking. (There is significant overlap between the two). The remaining small wedge of the canine pie chart is when she is sleepy and lets us rub her tummy. She interacted with Judee once or twice: My dad introduced them. They sort of sniffed at each other and then mutually resumed casually ignoring the rest of us.

I’ve read online that birds lay eggs in captivity mostly when they’re happy, or when they’ve imprinted on something. This makes it a distinct possibility that Judee fell in love with my dog (since it certainly wasn’t any of us.) But if she didn’t, the only other conclusion is that she forgot she was a cockatiel and embraced her chicken side. When I was about 11, she tried to lay an egg, did so extremely poorly, and as a consequence flew off to bird heaven, where the millet seed is plentiful and birds are untroubled by the stomping of small children. One would think that egg-laying would be part of a bird’s skill set, but tragically, Judee couldn’t seem to figure it out.

Meanwhile, Margot kept on with her majestically misanthropic life. She’s a bichon frisé, which means that she is small, white, very fluffy, and very cute—perfectly suited for breaking the hearts of all of the neighborhood children. They try to pet her, and she wanders away from them in a vague but deliberate way. She also will not leave the house if it’s raining, and while she knows a pretty solid array of commands, she won’t perform any of them if there’s no food in it for her. We take her on hikes with us, and she flat-out refuses to let her paws touch the water of the creek.

I’m optimistic, though. She’s been doing a little better recently. On a hike a couple years ago, my dad coaxed her into the water, which prompted a gloriously uncharacteristic ten-minute burst of splashing, wiggling, and rubbing her face in the dirt. Half her normal size, with her fluff sopping wet and with dirt matted into her face, she seemed to have remembered—if only for a moment—that she was a dog. I think it might’ve started some kind of recalibration. She follows us around the house sometimes now. The first time she came up to my room and jumped up onto my bed unbidden I thought I was hallucinating, but I’ve since come to enjoy it. It’s sweet. We’ve always adored her despite thinking she’s utterly ridiculous—my sister has a full array of weird and affectionate nicknames for her, including “Wormy,” “the fluffiest of polar bears,” “tiny albino pumpkin squirrel,” and a million and one other weird superlatives. (She’s progressed past the literal names.)  So despite it all, we pretty much adore Margot, and it’s kind of touching to see her soften at the edges.

Margot probably will never fetch a ball, dig a hole, or greet me when I walk in the door. Even at her most doglike, that’s too much of a stretch for any pet of ours. But when she decides she’s interested enough to show her affection for me—once rarely, now more often—it’s always been by making a noble go at dog behavior: by licking my limbs until I’m slimy.