Not ready for a pet, my pet

ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

What's a mum to do when the kids plead for an animal?

Many years ago, I had two rabbits.

One was white and was imaginatively named by me as "Xiao Bai" - which means "little white" in Mandarin. The other was black, so no prizes for guessing it was "Xiao Hei" (little black).

The way I remember it, I had spotted them while at the wet market with my mother. I must have asked her for them because, soon, the rabbits were in a cage in our apartment. We fed them cabbage and carrots, and I - a three- or four-year-old then - stuck my little hand through the bars and stroked them.

Then we moved to a smaller apartment, my little sister arrived, and the rabbits grew too big for their cages. My mother gave them to an aunt, who lived in a house. I cried. Months later, the news came: Xiao Bai and Xiao Hei had hopped into a jar of rainwater in my aunt's garden, and drowned.

In a way, I had murdered those rabbits.

It's hard not to believe in karma - not when my 10-year-old son has recently developed a rabbit obsession and has been pestering me to get him one.

One night over dinner, he was telling us about a cartoon he watched in school which featured a rabbit.

"The poor rabbit died," he said as he concluded his tale, his eyes reddening at the creature's fate.

I took him into my arms, and he began to sob in earnest.

"I want a rabbit," he said. "I really want one. Please?"

It took some willpower to deny a sweet, crying child his heart's desire, but I finally said no. He - and our entire family - was just not ready.

The pet debate has raged for some time in our household. My two sons, particularly the elder boy, periodically ask for an animal to dote on. A few years ago, it was for a puppy. Then it was for a cat. And now, begging for bunnies.

Each time, the answer has been a clear no. We no longer have any domestic help, and picking up after a pet, on top of the housework and cooking, would leave me with almost no time to work on my writing and publishing.

The Supportive Spouse and I have tried to temper the sting of rejection for the kids by offering them opportunities to prove to us that they are responsible enough to take care of another living thing.

Level 1: I got the kid to research living with rabbits.

To his credit, the 10-year-old got on the Internet and read all the information he could find about caring for house rabbits. He read about the types of food they eat, and how intelligent they are. I baulked, however, when we got to the line about how rabbits tend to chew on furniture.

Me: They'll ruin my stuff. And wreck the wood floors.

Son #1: No, they won't!

Me: They'll pee everywhere. And poo.

Son #1: We'll train them to do it on the litter. We'll let them roam free.

Me: And who is going to clear the soiled litter?

Son #1: I will!

I was not convinced, but I initiated Level 2.

"If you can water the plants for a year, without being reminded, and they don't die, you can have a fish," I said.

As a parent, I am all for encouraging my kids to love all animals, and to see human beings as only one small species on this huge, diverse planet... I hope that my kids will be independent enough to pick up after their own pets. Sadly, they are still being trained to look after themselves, much less nurture an animal.

For a while, the 10-year-old carried out his plant-watering duty well enough. He had a watering can shaped like an elephant, and enjoyed using it to drench the potted miniature ficus tree and my virtually unkillable, non-flowering orchids.

Then, I went to Korea for three months, leaving my menfolk to their own devices, and the routine fell apart a little. Dad became the one who had to nag the boy to do his job, or just did it to save himself the grief. When I came back, the plant population was somewhat diminished.

Back to Level 0. Have lost all your XP (experience).

But my son was not the only one who got bitten by the pet bug. While in Korea, I fell in love with a litter of puppies at a neighbourhood restaurant, and wanted to adopt one of them. It had tried to protect me when one of its siblings nipped at my heels, by growling and patrolling my perimeter.

"You don't understand," I texted my friend. "This dog is special! I've never met one like it before."

She replied, drily: "That's why it's called puppy love."

In time, sanity and the complications and costs of shipping a Korean puppy to Singapore prevailed. It was a bittersweet feeling when I arrived at the restaurant one day, to find that the puppy had been taken.

As a parent, I am all for encouraging my kids to love all animals, and to see human beings as only one small species on this huge, diverse planet. I look at my younger son hugging his stuffed elephants and wish that he can share a bond with a pet that can adore him back. I hope that my kids will be independent enough to pick up after their own pets.

Sadly, they are still being trained to look after themselves, much less nurture an animal.

"Of course, you can say a pet trains them to be more responsible, but it's also cruel for the pet to be used for 'training'," is how my friend J puts it, and I cannot agree more.

It may seem cold, but I do not want to be the one to pick up the slack and look after the pet once the initial euphoria and interest wear off, and the kids turn their attention to more attractive "toys". Having a pet would be like having a third child, and both my husband and I are not ready for or inclined towards having more kids.

In the end, I see the pet issue as an exercise in delaying self-gratification. The kids know they can buy a pet with their own money once they start earning it. Better still if they are older and have moved out. But it is also a hard truth that they must learn: that it is no joke to be in charge of another life; that once you willingly invite someone into your life, there is no turning back.

So, no rabbits for now, my pets.

•Clara Chow is a writer and the co-founder of art and literary journal WeAreAWebsite.com.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 01, 2016, with the headline 'Not ready for a pet, my pet'. Print Edition | Subscribe