Saturday, January 11, 2014

For the Love of a Stinkbug

I have girls. They love all living creatures. They want to care for, to name, to nurture something living--apparently anything living.

I have held a firm "no pets" stance from day one. I've explained that in this house we are caring for five children and that there are no extra resources with which to nurture animals. I've explained that I like animals, I even like pets, but that pets are extra work and cost extra money, neither of which we can afford. The girls understood, but nothing could shut off that nurturing instinct.

It began last summer. They had a brilliant idea that they could catch a pet for free, keep it in a habitat they designed themselves, feed it what they found in the backyard, and keep it a secret from their mother. They whispered and plotted. They snuck shoe boxes, toilet paper tubes, and plastic zip-shut baggies. They worked for hours with scissors and scotch tape and came up with some very impressive habitats for small beings. Now all they needed was something to live inside.

The searched the backyard for ants, spiders, and june bugs. They enlisted the expertise of a twelve-year old neighbor boy. And, much to my dismay, they succeeded in catching some creepy-crawlies. Eyes wide with excitement, they transferred the doomed subjects to their exquisitely crafted death-row boxes, loaded up with grass, leaves, and tiny bottle-caps full of water. But, try as they might, their pets never thrived. Most escaped through unforeseen cracks in the infrastructure, a few died of malnutrition, and one poor fellow drowned in his watering hole.

Disheartening as this was to the girls, they did not give up. With the fall came the influx of stinkbugs from the local apple orchard. The brown marmorated stink bug is a pest, imported from abroad, that is now swarming the US. They are icky, stinky, pesky little creatures, that seemed to pop up all over our house this fall--much to the delight of three little girls: an endless supply of pets!

After capturing their first stink-bug, appropriately named "Stinker," Naomi pleaded with me to research online what she should feed him. Reluctantly, I googled "stink bug" and made Naomi read all about how these pests were destroying the ecosystem around us. She didn't seem to mind that, but was delighted to find that her darling bug enjoyed apples.

Stinker was kept for days in a styrofoam and plastic enclosure, given a hand-crafted tiny blanket to cuddle with, and fed a diet of apples. Unfortunately, Stinker was attempting to hibernate for the winter and was less than rewarding for the efforts, but that did not dissuade Naomi and Hannah's loyalty to him.

I watched from afar, and sighed. Finally, I broached the subject with Matt. "Do you know the girls are keeping a stink bug for a pet?" I asked. "Do you know he's named Stinker, sleeps on a hand-stitched bug-sized blanket, and holds the hopes and dreams of our girls in his tiny, smelly body?"

"That's really sad," he sighed.

Then the words snuck right out of my disbelieving mouth, "I'm starting to consider getting them an actual pet. Maybe it would be good for them to pour their energy into something a little more rewarding. Maybe a hamster or a gerbil? What do you think?"

"I don't think we should rush into it," he replied wisely. "Let's see how it goes with the stink bug."

I'm not sure what Matt was hoping would happen with the stink bug, but eventually Elijah ripped the cage apart and Stinker disappeared. His loss was briefly mourned before another habitat was constructed and another poor chap was captured.

"His name is Soldier," Naomi announced to Hannah with a note of sadness in her voice. "He was so brave… He lost two legs trying to run away from me."

"You broke two of his legs off?!!" Hannah yelled incredulously.

"I didn't mean to, Hannah!" Naomi retorted, "It just happened."

From the sidelines. I sighed again, and wondered…

Then came Marble-rock, then Vase, then Dessert Pattern, and I wasn't sure whether to weep for their broken hearts or vomit in disgust, but either way I knew I had to put an end to this.

Actually, once I settled in my mind that they could in fact handle the responsibility of caring for a gerbil, and that we were really going to do this, I began to feel a little giddy with the excitement of surprising them with a real pet. I could hardly wait for Christmas this year.

I researched gerbils on the internet, shopped behind the girls' backs, and stored the supplies in the basement, where they were forbidden to go. Gerbils came highly recommended by all sources as playful, social, gentle critters, active in the day, and easy to care for.

Instead of overwhelming the kids with this on Christmas morning, I decided to buy the gerbil three days before Christmas, and present it to the kids on Monday morning, December 23rd.

I drove to the store and picked the prettiest, healthiest-looking critter while Matt put the kids to bed. I left her happily nestled in her new home in the basement and went up to the kids' room to tell them about the surprise coming tomorrow.

"Daddy and I have decided," I began, "that getting all your Christmas presents on one day is a little too overwhelming. So we're going to let you guys open one big present for all the kids tomorrow. It's something you can all enjoy together for a few days while you wait for Christmas."

Naomi, Emma, and Toby were ecstatic with excitement, but Hannah scoffed. "It's a puzzle," she stated dryly. "I just know it is. I don't really like puzzles."

"Well…in a way it is sort of puzzling," I answered, picturing the kids opening the gerbil supplies and wondering what they were for.

"I knew it," Hannah sighed. "I don't even care."

I laughed at her characteristically unstable attitude, twinkled my eyes at her, tried to assure her that this is one puzzle she might like, and tucked the kiddos in bed.

The next morning, everyone but Hannah was excited. They rushed to eat breakfast, get dressed, and make their beds. When we finally let them tear into the box, a silence fell over the crowd. They sat and stared at a box that read, "Hamster Haven," and wondered what this might be.

"Oh, look at that!" Matt teased, "A really big stink bug house."

They laughed uneasily, and wondered.

The next box they opened contained a small food dish. Elijah pulled it out and announced gleefully, "Look! A new that!" They also pulled out gerbil food, a hideaway stump, and an exercise ball. Smiling nervously, and furrowing their brows, they looked to Matt and me for answers.

"What in the world is that stuff?" I asked.

"Well," Matt began, "we saw how much you guys loved keeping stink bugs, and then Mommy found a really big one. So we thought you might need some supplies to help take care of it.

More nervous giggles erupted. "You're teasing, Daddy!" they assured themselves as I slipped away to the basement.

Words fail to describe the delight on their faces when I emerged from the basement with their new pet gerbil. Saucer eyes, and hushed voices huddled around the cage and adored the new addition. After a moment or two words began to flow so fast from Hannah's mouth that I could never record them all here. It was something like:

"Oh! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!! I can't believe it. I can't believe you actually got us a real pet! I can't believe I have a gerbil now! I've dreamed about having a real pet like this, but I never thought, never ever thought you'd really let us have one! … I don't really have a gerbil. No. This is just a dream. I know it is. There's no way I actually have a pet. Nope. I'm going to wake up and I won't have any real pet…except a stink bug…but I'm going to enjoy it now. I'm going to enjoy this dream! Even though I know it isn't real. I like dreaming that I have a pet gerbil. She's so pretty. She's so funny. She's so cute! Ow! My neck is really hurting because I keep pinching myself to wake myself up, because I know this isn't real, but I don't wake up. I can't believe you actually got us a pet gerbil!!! …"

That wasn't even a fraction of what I heard that day, trust me, I was just happy she kept breathing. Naomi and Emma enjoyed the gerbil more quietly, with sparkling eyes. Toby and Elijah were ready to rip into some different Christmas presents within five minutes. It was decided that the gerbil was named Lilly, and she seemed happy to join our family. She eagerly investigated her new cage, rearranged her bedding, buried her food, sniffed the air, nibble the carrots the girls fed her, played in cardboard tubes, and generally behaved like the world's most rewarding pet ever.

Lilly's been with us now three weeks and the girls continue to clean her cage, feed her treats, and stock her up with an endless supply of toilet-paper tubes for chewing and playing; and they continue to be grateful for her. This morning when Hannah found a stink bug in the house, she promptly and voluntarily carried it to the back door and dumped it outside.

Mission accomplished.

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