Saturday, June 25, 2011

Puffer Fish

I never knew that fish had much in the way of personality.

As a kid I’d had my share of goldfish, the kind won at carnivals by tossing ping pong balls into bowls. Despite my attentive care, they seldom lived longer than a year in their little plastic bowl in my bedroom. In high school, I somehow got involved in a guppy-breeding project for science class. Myself and several other students brought home various guppies, males and females, and did reports on what we observed. What I observed was that guppies are pretty, they are very prolific, and they like to eat their babies. In my 20’s, I got into aquariums and, for a couple years, had a fresh-water setup. These critters were even more delicate than the gold fish and the guppies, and I had a heck of a time keeping them alive; it seemed like the more they cost, the more likely they were to be short-lived. I finally managed to have a stable population for a while, until I decided that it would be fun to add a little crab to the mix. It was fun until the fish started disappearing, and when I cleaned the tank I noticed a pile of fish skeletons under the rock where the crab liked to hang out. Still determined to make it work, I hired an aquarium maintenance guy, Dan, to advise me and to help me clean the tank and make sure it was running properly. He was very knowledgeable and a big help, but unfortunately he came with a jealous wife who had to accompany him on his rounds. She’d sit on my bed, not saying a word, staring at me and at him as he worked on the tank. When he wasn’t shoulder-deep in the tank, she was hanging off his arm, perhaps protecting him from a sudden attack by me. It was awkward to say the least. After that, I decided that keeping fish was just way more work and expense than it was worth for the enjoyment, or lack of, I got from them.

Susie and Jilly, however, made me think differently. Susie and Jilly were puffer fish, club-shaped brown and white creatures with large expressive eyes and absurdly small fins. When comfortable, they had a smooth appearance, but when alarmed they would “puff” and their bodies would resemble a spiky balloon. There is poison in their skin, so any predator trying to eat them will be stabbed by the spikes and injected with poison. In Japan, the larger puffers are eaten as a delicacy, and several people die each year from improper preparation.

It was hard to imagine these cute, clumsy things being deadly poisonous. They bobbed around in the water like some kind of children’s toys, opening and closing their mouths and looking around with their big eyes. They seemed to be quite aware of the environment outside the tank, unlike the banal, blank-expressioned fish I was used to.

“Here is their food,” said Kate, the fishes’ owner, opening the freezer. She pointed to several different bags of frozen fish-goodies. “Don’t give them too much!” she cautioned. “They love their food.”

There was another tank containing a lion fish, Leo, another spiny poisonous critter. This one was beautiful and regal with a great plume of fins and tail, floating about in an aloof manner, nice to look at but not interactive like the puffers.

“Be sure not to touch them,” Kate cautioned. “They are poisonous. They’re not aggressive, but if you startle them you might get stung.” I assured her that I had no intentions of putting my hands anywhere near these little people.

On my first day caring for the fish, everything went smoothly. I walked into the home office room where the tanks were set up and took a look at everyone. Pumps, lights, and heaters were all plugged in and on timers, so all I had to do was make sure everything was doing what it was supposed to. All seemed well, so I proceeded to the little freezer with the food inside. Leo was floating regally, seemingly unaware of my presence, but Susie and Jilly appeared to be watching my every move. When I opened the freezer their tiny fins moved very fast and they opened and closed their mouths.

“Here you go, girls!” I said, dropping the goodies into the tank. The girls devoured the frozen brine-shrimp-and-who-knows-what-else in seconds. I gave Leo his portion and he attacked it, pulling off portions and consuming them. Lion, indeed.

Two days later, I walked into the office room and did my usual check. When I turned my back on the puffers’ tank, I thought I felt something wet on the back of my neck. “What the?” I said to myself, looking up at the ceiling for a leak. I saw nothing unusual, so I reached again for the freezer door. Splash! This time it hit me in the face. What on earth was happening? I was standing several feet from the tank, so water couldn’t just be dripping out onto me. Susie and Jilly were wiggling near the surface of the water looking excited. Could it be? I reached for the door again, but kept my eyes on the tank. I’ll be damned if they didn’t fill their mouths with water and expertly spit it at me!

A week into the job, I arrived to see things looking different. There had been a massive storm the previous night, taking down trees and fences all over San Mateo County. I’d already started my day chasing a client’s Beagle across a golf course who had escaped because of a downed fence. Many homes in the area had lost power, probably this one too.

Leo looked lethargic, and the girls were staying near the surface of their water, mouths open. I wasn’t hearing all the usual noises. I suppressed panic as I realized that the machinery pumping air into the water was probably not working! I grabbed the phone to call an aquarium store, and thankfully got someone on the line. I waited tensely, talking to the fish as if they could understand me. “Come on, girls,” I said, touching the glass front of the tank, “Hang in there. Help is on the way!” They looked at me and moved their fins weakly. After what seemed like an eternity, the aquarium service person showed up.

“How long has it been like this?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I got here an hour ago, and I haven’t been here since yesterday. The power must have gone out last night because of the storm. It must have reset everything.”

“Hmm,” he frowned and got to work. After a while, he was able to get everything back working the right way.

“Will they be okay?” I asked, eyeing my two sad-looking club-shaped friends.

“If they didn’t go too long without oxygen.”

The next day I came to see the fish first thing in the morning. I was delighted to see everyone looking active and normal. Susie and Jilly were spitting at me even before I walked near the freezer. Checking Leo’s tank, I noticed with dismay that one of the heating tubes, attached to the inside with suction cups, had been knocked loose, presumably by the actions of the aquarium service person. “Damn it,” I said, looking at the large poisonous fish cruising around next to the floating tube. I waited till he was at the opposite end of the tank, then carefully lowered my hand into the water and attempted to grab the tube. This proved more difficult than I thought, as it was slippery and the surface of the water distorted my vision. After several attempts, I still didn’t have a hold of it. Slowly, like a tank, Leo turned and headed back towards my hand. Did he look “alarmed” or was it my imagination? I removed my hand from the water, and waited. Thinking of how it would feel to be stabbed by those poisonous spines, I slowly and carefully replaced the heater where it belonged. Crisis averted, again.

On my last day, I said goodbye to my new friends and marveled at my new appreciation of the personalities of fish. Figuring the girls saw me as a friend and food-provider, I couldn’t resist sticking just the tip of my finger into their water and letting them nibble on it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A New Job, Part Two

This story is Part Two in a series. If you haven't yet read Part One, CLICK HERE.

Clutching my backpack with both hands, I walked up the stairs to my first pet sitting client’s home. There were three flats in the building, and hers was the middle. I knocked on the door and it was quickly opened.

“Hi, I’m the pet sitter.”

“Come in,” she smiled, and stepped aside to reveal an adorable pit bull puppy. He was fawn colored with a black face and big dark eyes. At the moment, he sat in the middle of the floor concentrating on a red rubber chew toy.

I went right to him, sat on the floor, and pet his cute face. Abandoning the toy, he climbed into my lap and licked my face.

His owner looked worried. “You have done this before?”

“Yes, of course.” Not exactly, but it wasn’t as if I didn’t know how to care for a puppy. Mugsy, as he was called, was Nancy’s first dog. She had just bought this flat and was excited to finally be able to keep a pet. She wanted to do everything right, from diet to training to house breaking. She had called Krystal, my boss, to set up visits twice a day while she was at work. Since Mugsy was so young and not fully vaccinated, all I had to do was let him in the back yard and play with him. Seriously, I thought, I am going to be paid for this? I got all the pertinent info: visit times, routine, where everything is kept, and I had her sign the service agreement. It’s official now, I thought, I’m a professional pet sitter. I shouldered by backpack with paperwork, day planner, and other necessities inside, and headed out the door to meet my next new client.

My next new charge was bigger, and longer, and thinner. Dolly the Greyhound was a track rescue, a lean dark brindle with a great toothy smile and a tail so long and active it was often bleeding at the tip. Greyhound racing, still legal in 15 states (not including California), produces thousands of unwanted dogs every year. By the age of five years -- or sooner if they don’t place well enough in the races -- dogs are retired, and before the creation of rescue and adoption groups, “retirement” only meant one thing … death. Thanks to these tireless nonprofit groups, many of these dogs are instead placed in loving homes where they soon adapt to life as a pet.

I don’t believe I ever touched a Greyhound before Dolly. I’d seen them in pictures -- the pointed faces, the huge thighs, the whippy tails -- but meeting one in person was, well, a whole different animal. Since then I have known and loved many of these special dogs, and they never fail to delight me with their positive energy. Dolly was typical with her wide adoring eyes, big smile, and happy-dancing feet. I was in love at once. I pet her super-short fur as I listened to her owner, Jim,talk about her. Jim and his wife Hazel were not new to dogs, but they were new to Greyhounds, so they were eager to learn. Dolly had some goofy habits they couldn’t figure out, like an inability to walk up and down stairs, and a thing for music.

“Music?” I asked.

“Yes, we heard that at the track they leave a radio on all the time, so we do that at home and it seems to calm her. She likes classical.”

At the mention of her favorite music, Dolly’s head popped up and she gave her owner a loving look with her great dark eyes.

“I’ll be sure to leave the music on,” I said with a smile.


“Mugsy, I’m here!” Two weeks had passed since my first day as a professional pet sitter. I was loving my new job and actually eager to start work each morning. I opened the door of the flat to see a great pup who was, as always, larger than yesterday. He came bounding down the stairs and stood expectantly at my feet. He was quite friendly, but also independent, and didn’t whine or make a fuss. I opened the back door and together we walked down the stairs to the yard. While he took care of business, I sat on a bench and unwrapped the breakfast I’d purchased down the street at the bagel shop. Sipping my apple juice, I watched him cavort and felt that all was well in the world. He bounded around, playing with leaves that floated around the back yard in a breeze. After 30 minutes, I gave him a cookie and locked him back in the house. Noticing the shredded (expensive looking) dog bed, I thought to suggest crate training to Mugsy’s owner. Leaving a pup alone anywhere, let alone a nice flat with new furnishings, was not the best idea. I headed out and off to my next visit.

I didn’t have to call out for Dolly – she knew the sound of my vehicle and was waiting always by the door. I could hear her tail whacking against the wall as I fumbled with the lock and pushed my way in. The house looked like it used to be a store, and the front door, or doors, were swinging glass. There was a living room, bathroom, and kitchen on the ground level and the bedroom, which was formerly an attic, was on the second level and could be accessed via a ladder. The leggy dog wasn’t able to climb the ladder; nor, in fact, was she able to climb down the stairs into the back yard. Her owners, unable to get her to take a step, had to carry her. I slipped the wide martingale collar used for walks around her neck, clipped on the leash, and headed out the door. She was a dream to walk, sweet and attentive, seldom pulling on the leash except for when she saw a small animal running. Her owners had warned me – and I had since read in a book about Greyhounds – of their ability to “run without heed.” Because of this, it was never recommended to take them off-leash except for in a very secure area. Apparently, this “ability” comes in handy when hunting or running on the track, but it can make for a challenging pet. Dolly’s neighborhood was hilly, so we had a good 30 minute exercise by the time we were done. I removed the walking collar, gave her a cookie, and went on my way.

A month later, I was cruising through my pet sitting days with ease. I’d met a few other new clients and was beginning to do some vacation care for cats and dogs. Mugsy and Dolly continued to be my favorite daily companions, however, and I always looked forward to their visits. Life was good and nothing could possibly go wrong. Opening the door to Mugsy’s on this windy Spring day, I was surprised when he didn’t appear. “Hello?” I shouted in the door, thinking maybe the client was at home. In those pre-cell phone days, immediate communication was not yet a reality, leading to some mix-ups and embarrassing moments. No one answered, so I entered the house and looked around. Finally, Mugsy, who was now four months old and getting quite tall, came walking out of the bedroom. He looked sleepy, and clumsy. “What have you been up to?” I said, petting his head. It didn’t take long to find out: in the bathroom, the medicine cabinet was wide open and all kinds of medication boxes and jars were on the floor. Pain killers, cough syrup, decongestants … all had tooth marks on them and parts of the packaging were missing. “Oh no!” I said as I looked back at Mugsy, who smiled up at me with glassy eyes. I ran down to the car and got his owner’s contact info. Thinking he was going to drop dead any minute, I called her at work and, fortunately, got her right away. At first, she didn’t seem too alarmed. In the future, I would experience this again and again as I called clients to tell them of disasters which had occurred with their pets. As grace under pressure is one of my strong suits, I wonder if my apparent calmness leads people to believe that it isn’t all that bad; perhaps they don’t get the sense of urgency if the caller isn’t shouting and crying? After some convincing, thank god, Nancy agreed to come home immediately and take him to the vet. It was a nerve-wracking 15 minutes waiting for her, and when she did arrive home she seemed shocked at his drunken appearance.

“What should I do?” she asked.

“Take him straight to the vet,” I said, handing her a stack of shredded papers. Knowing the vet would ask what had been consumed, I had picked up the shreds of the medication boxes with the product names on them: DayQuil, Advil, Pepto Bismol… Putting the pieces in her purse, she took Mugsy and I headed out to Dolly’s.

The first thing I noticed was no whippy tail sound on the wall. Red flag, I thought … where is Dolly? I pushed open the double frosted glass door and peeked in. “Hello?” I called out. My voice echoed through the cavernous house, and no one answered. Locking the door behind me, I went straight to the kitchen where Dolly’s owners often left notes for me. On the wood table was a basket of apples and a phone bill, but no note. Hmm. I searched all over the house and yard, thinking Dolly was stuck somewhere, but I saw no sign of her. I picked up the phone and dialed Jim’s work number. Fortunately, he answered right away.

“Hi Jim,” I said. “I’m here to walk Dolly, but she’s not here. Was I supposed to come today?”

Jim’s voice cracked as he told me what happened. That morning, Hazel had taken Dolly to a big field in the neighborhood where many people ran their dogs. Hazel was very bonded with Dolly at this point, and found her to be very attentive and obedient. Eager to allow Dolly some socialization, she thought it would be okay to allow her off-leash as she would stay with the other dogs and always came when called. Dolly was having a great time running around with the local Labs and Pit Bulls, until a cat darted across a yard … across the street from the field. Like an arrow released from the bow, Dolly shot straight towards the cat, right into the street, her ears deaf to Hazel’s shouts. A Toyota Corolla was coming along at that moment, and the driver had no time to stop as the dog suddenly appeared from behind other parked cars. He hit her and she went airborne, to the horror of everyone watching. The driver stopped and spoke briefly with Hazel, but soon went on his way. Since dogs were not actually allowed off-leash there and he was not speeding, he was not at fault.

“Will she be okay?” I asked, having terrible flashbacks of one of my dogs being hit by a car, having major orthopedic surgery, and never being the same again.

“We don’t know,” Jim replied. “She’s at the vet now.”

My heart sank as I hung up the phone. Tears in my eyes, I drove on to my next visit.


“How’s my Mugsy?” I called out as I entered the flat. A week had passed since the terrible day he'd eaten a cabinet full of medicines. I heard a great metallic clanging as his long tail hit the sides of his shiny new dog crate in the kitchen. “Good dog,” I cooed as I clipped the collar to his leash and took him out for a walk (quickly, as he had to pee immediately and a hesitation would equal a puddle). Now old enough and fully vaccinated, he was good to go for walks off the property. People crossed the street when they saw us coming. Adopted as a “Boxer mix,” Mugsy’s startling growth was making “Mastiff mix” his more likely breed. We enjoyed a stroll around the neighborhood, then I gave him a chewy bone and locked him in his crate. Thank god, his brush with death had left him no worse for the wear, and it had taught his owner an important lesson. She had initially resisted crate training because she thought it was cruel, but after almost losing her puppy and running up a $1000+ vet bill, she decided it wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

By the time I got to Dolly’s, I was tired. I hadn’t slept well the previous night, and the driving was making me drowsy. My spirits were raised, however, when I saw my friend walk happily up to the door and whack her tail on the wall. “Good dog,” I said, stroking her muscular body which was intact except for a few abrasions. Amazingly, the only thing she suffered as a result of the accident was shock. She had no broken bones or other permanent damage. An afternoon at the vet had pulled her out of shock and back into the land of the living, where she would never again be let off-leash in a non-secure area. I closed the swinging glass doors behind me and flopped down on the big comfy couch. It’s a little-known fact that Greyhounds, although one of the fastest land animals, are actually quite lazy. They love to lounge around, and most Greyhound owners will have a large collection of thick, fluffy beds in every room. Dolly hopped up on the couch next to me and put her pointed head in my lap. I stroked her and played with her little ears, getting very comfortable as the warm sun poured on me through the glass doors. The next thing I knew, I heard the front door opening. The couch was directly facing the front door, so there was no escape. Jim had come home early, and caught me sound asleep! Stammering and wiping the drool from my mouth, I grabbed the leash and hurried out for our walk. He just smiled.

To read part three of this story CLICK HERE.