Toronto Zoo

A No-Pet Policy

I’ve always had a firm “no-pets” policy in our house. My feeling is that three children and various longterm housemates constitute a sufficient menagerie for any one household. I don’t need additional dependents that will never go to the bathroom or get their own food or even walk around the block without somebody’s direct supervision.

There are have been a couple of challenges to this policy over the years.

When my mother-in-law moved in with us, she brought along a very old cat and a somewhat younger but very unhealthy dog, both of which lived only just long enough for my kids to get attached before they went and died. At that point a campaign was launched (as much by my mother-in-law as by the kids) to have those pets replaced, and it took a firm hand (along with the obvious fact that my mother-in-law would only be in the country to look after the animals half the year) to keep our house pet-free.

My brother-in-law was the next to take a go at overturning the no-pets policy. He showed up one Saturday morning with two hermit crabs and gifted them to his nephews with the nonchalance that only comes from people who have no children. Now, the hermit crabs weren’t technically a violation of the no-pet policy, because we already had a large terrarium / aquarium, and the standard rule had been that the kids could keep whatever insects, minnows, tadpoles, or amphibians that they wanted in there. However, when the first hermit crab died in a day or two (this is sadly common, I’ve now learned), there was again some serious pressure to have it replaced with something more substantial, which was prevented in part only by the second crab still clinging on to life (it still does today, some six years later).

With those two exceptions, I’ve rarely had any challenge to the pet-free house policy, but recent developments threaten to change that. It all began with my youngest son beginning a reading program that requires him to do a certain amount of word recognition work a day. The program encourages kids to set goals for accomplishing their tasks, and then to reward themselves with something small when they reach these goals. My son said that he’d like a fish as his reward if he met his goal, which he did. So, we’ll soon be the proud owners of a fish, and maybe several, depending on how long this idea motivates him to meet his reading goals.

Again, in and of itself, the fish doesn’t violate the principle that the kids are allowed to have animals that they can keep confined to a tank, but the other kids took the opportunity to push the idea of what that really means. How about a snake, my eldest wanted to know. Snakes can live in tanks. So can bearded dragons, my middle kid pointed out. Gerbils. Guinea pigs. Turtles. Frogs. Sea horses. Tarantulas. Scorpions. Chameleons. Shrimp. Piranhas. The suggestions just kept coming.

I pointed out that the principle isn’t in fact the tank, but the relative ease of care that went with the animals we’d found to go in the tank over the years. Minnows or toads can be released back into the wild when our family goesnon vacation. Beetles from the backyard don’t require heat lamps to keep their temperature and live crickets to eat. Tadpoles can’t bite, sting, strike, or terrify people if they escape their tank. None of those creatures require us to maintain a certain water salinity, or a certain light cycle, or a certain anything. They just come and go as the kids have interest, hopefully surviving long enough to eventually find their freedom.

In other words, they aren’t really pets.

This seems to have quietened the conversation for the moment, but I think the battle might be a losing one.

Luke Hill has been the parent of birth kids, adoptive kids, foster kids, and just-need-a-place-to-stay kids for fourteen years. He’s had experience with kids in homeschool, public schools, and alternative schools. He’s been a teacher, a camp counsellor, and a coach. He’s also taught parenting courses for Children’s Aid for almost a decade. When he isn’t working with kids, he’s a writer, a publisher, and the director of a non-profit organization that supports book culture.