Monday, May 26, 2014

ZHITNIK: HE'S A TOY, HE'S A PET, HE'S A FRIEND

In the mid-1990’s, MLEM and his wife took their schnauzer to the nearby Shore Mall for a photo-op with Santa Klaus. While on the long line, Nervous Nellie, (the pooch's actual name withheld to protect the guilty), deposited on the otherwise glistening, sea foam green ceramic flooring, an oblong, dark mocha-colored tribute for ol’ St. Nick.
SANTA PAWS...NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH THE 2010 DISNEY MOVIE, "THE SEARCH FOR SANTA PAWS..." IS A HOLIDAY TIME, MONEY GENERATING GIMMICK WHERE PEOPLE HAVE THEIR PETS PHOTOGRAPHED WITH A GUY IN A SANTA KLAUS SUIT.

Lickety-split, Mrs. MLEM reacted to the emergency. She whipped out a Kleenex and disposed of the nitrogenous waste nugget in a convenient trash can. However, this episode embarrassed her so badly that she insisted on penalizing doggie-dearest by taking him immediately home. Unfortunately, upon marking his territory, the canine criminal wouldn’t budge.  When Mrs. MLEM’s frustration turned to neurotic anger, MLEM panicked by tugging on the leash and dragging their precious twenty-five pound beast a couple of feet.

When the others on the Santa Paws line responded harshly, it was discovered that the remnants of the previous Santa gift were being schmeered. Thus the bright, unsullied, sea foam tiling now had been customized with an optional brown racing stripe. I call it a racing stripe because the dirty look MLEM got from his misses caused him to scoop up the dog and run for the sanctuary of the parking lot.

MLEM had no luck with animals. When his kids were six and four, he bought a bird feeder and set it in the yard. During breakfast, through the back window, the three of them watched in vain as the free meals were ignored. Ten fruitless mornings later, his children began to lose interest in this tradition (that never was). All seemed lost until a small feathered-friend ventured over to everyone’s delight. Oh how cute it was to see the tiny flier peck away at the tasty treats...then suddenly, a much larger bird swooped down and snatched the little fellow off his perch and carried him away. MLEM said, “My kids were traumatized...and I even had bad dreams over that.”

It was about the same time that MLEM won a goldfish (in a baggie) at a carnival. He bought a plastic bowl and left “Midas” as the centerpiece on the kitchen table. I’m not sure what the shelf-life of a sideshow prize goldfish is but after a month, Midas expired.

In his infinite wisdom, MLEM thought a valuable life lesson on grief could be learned by having everyone say some kind words before flushing the glittery floater down the toilet. At the bathroom gathering MLEM started by saying, “Midas always put a smile on my face. While I had my coffee, I noticed how fast he swam when I fed him. It made me happy to see him happy.” When he encouraged his son to say a few words the six-year old said, “I never liked him.  He was just a dumb fish. I don’t care he’s dead.”

Fortunately, at my house, we have had plenty of positive adventures with our pets. On many occasions, I have mentioned to my readers how great our nine-year dog Roxy is. I also said three froglets (Frenchy, Pierre and Lucky) have graced our home. But until now, I have never given our guinea pig the props he deserved.

My son Andrew was five and a half when we bought the chubby South American rodent on September 4, 1999. At that point, my boy named our new critter, Cutie. The name was fitting and was further endorsed by my wife Sue. However, due to the little pellets (or as I called them, zhitniks) our furry darling left behind (everywhere he went), I called him Zhitnik.
UNLIKE A HAMSTER (above), A GUINEA PIG IS SMALLER THAN A WHITE RAT AND MUCH BIGGER THAN A GERBIL. HAMSTERS ARE LESS DESIRABLE BECAUSE THEY SLEEP DURING THE DAY AND IRRITATE THEIR OWNERS AT NIGHT BY BITING THE CAGE AND RUNNING ON THEIR SQUEAKY WHEELS.

For Andrew (and the rest of us), Zhitnik became a perfect blend of a toy, a pet and a friend. Unlike a bird, a fish, a dog or a cat...for a five-year old, this was the ultimate hands-on animal. Whether in the guinea pig’s two-foot by five-foot cage or scurrying on the family room floor or in my boy’s arms, this rascal could be safely handled.
NORMAN ROCKWELL WOULD HAVE BEEN EVEN MORE FAMOUS IF HE CAPTURED THE JOY OF YOUNGSTERS WITH THEIR GUINEA PIGS.

Andrew developed a special voice and spoke as the guinea pig. His gravel-toned personification identified Sue as, “Marm-Eye” and me as “Dard-Eye.” Then my boy combined funny dialog while imitating Zhitnik’s seemingly round-the-clock hunger cry of, “Wee-wee-wee.”

In addition to vitamin enriched pet store food, our little buddy went crazy for lettuce, (he went bonkers every time he heard the refrigerator open). We liked to joke that Zhitnik’s birthday fantasy would be getting dropped into a restaurant’s salad bar.
ZHITNIK'S ANTI-FANTASY WAS BEING SOMEONE'S LUNCH. MY FRIEND JERM (above) IS A WORLD TRAVELER.  SINCE I KNOW HIM, HE'S BEEN THROUGHOUT EUROPE, CHINA, INDIA, THE MID-EAST AND ICELAND.  WHEN HE VISITED PERU, HE FOUND OUT THAT SOME CULTURES CONSIDER CONEJILLO DE INDIAS TO BE A GASTRONOMIC DELICACY,  (YES THAT'S A GUINEA PIG ON HIS PLATE).  YUCK !!!

Considering that Zhitnik was a vegetarian and that he got plenty of exercise, he was rotund. When we let him loose on the floor, he’d slowly waddle and then suddenly scoot away. These elusive inspirations to run gained him many moments of freedom, hidden under and behind furniture and in closets.

Zhitnik was not always a team player. To keep his teeth sharp, rodent instincts caused him to gnaw on things (anything). These tiny nibbles tickle even the most sensitive skin of little humans but they do damage walls, all things wooden as well as wires, (TV, stereo and computers).

For the most part, "The Rat" avoided mischief. To reward good behavior, Sue's usual routine combined cleaning Zhitnik's cage and bathing him in the kitchen sink.
ZHITNIK WAS WASHED SO FREQUENTLY THAT HE NEVER HAD A CHANCE TO SMELL BAD. WE SHOULD HAVE CALLED THE GUINNESS WORLD BOOK OF RECORDS BECAUSE HE WAS THE CLEANEST GUINEA PIG ON THE PLANET.

One time Sue didn't have time to bathe Zhitnik when she cleaned out his cage.  To keep him from running amok, she temporarily set him on the outer edge of our entertainment center. This narrow ledge was a foot long but only two or three inches wide. She must have gotten distracted because she went to sleep with Zhitnik stranded four feet in the air.

When I came home at 4:30AM, I turned on the lights and found the poor shivering bugger marooned, (a minimum of six hours). Maybe he was afraid of heights because he was clearly no dare-devil. He had plenty of down-time waiting for a rescue party so luckily, he didn’t have a decent angle to chew anything.  But in fear and protest, he littered his slither of space with zhitniks.

Sometimes the four of us would watch TV together. Zhitnik was so calm that he would hang-out on my shoulder or be still in someone’s lap or hands.
YES, OUR WHOLE FAMILY HAD HOURS OF FUN WITH ZHITNIK.

The vonce was also permitted to run along the arms and back wall of the sofa. It was during one of those moments that we discovered that in addition to being a great pet and even a friend...that guinea pigs can be a toy too.

While sitting together, in the same vain as, “Musical Chairs,” the three of us would pass Zhitnik around like a hot potato. Instead of the odd man out being unable to find a place to sit when the music ended, our game’s loser was the person who got the inevitable tiny squirt of guinea pig pee on them, (I should have copyrighted that idea. If marketed properly, I could have parlayed that quarter thimble worth of piss into a million dollars).
ZHITNIK WAS PATIENT AND LET ANDREW PLAY MANY DIFFERENT GAMES WITH HIM...INCLUDING, DRESS-UP.

Andrew’s adorable chum was portable. He brought Zhitnik to friend’s houses and to school for Show and Tell.

WHEN ANDREW GOT OLDER, HE TOOK ON THE RESPONSIBILITY OF TAKING ZHITNIK OUTSIDE.  HE REMAINED DILIGENT BECAUSE I POINTED OUT THAT THE SKIES OF OUR NEIGHBORHOOD WERE INVESTED BY HUNGRY HAWKS, (CHANCES ARE, MLEM's FIRST BIRDSEED CUSTOMER WAS SNATCHED-UP BY SUCH A PREDATOR).

On May 17, 2004, Zhitnik passed away.  There's no way of telling how old he was when we got him but he was an important part of our family for four years and ten months. I’m confident that he lived “high off the hog” while coming close to reaching his six-year life expectancy. Therefore, it’s bittersweet to remember that this past week marked the tenth anniversary of his death.

TIME MARCHES ON. A YEAR LATER, (MAY 2005), THE PLEASANT MEMORIES OF ZHITNIK FADED AS ROXY BECAME ANDREW'S NEW PET.

When Zhitnik died, I had no idea that MLEM had gathered his family to eulogize their fallen pet. So I thought I was being original when I encouraged ten-year old Andrew to invite his friends from our street who loved Zhitnik, to say good-bye.

LACC came with her boys and brought small bunches of flowers for all the adolescant mourners. Zhitnik was placed in an envelope box and lowered into a pre-dug grave, (next to our shed). To keep the somber moment from being too serious, I reminded the kids that I called Cutie “Zhitnik” because of all the zhitniks he left behind. They smiled, (poop humor gets them every time).

I addressed the group, “Zhitnik was a like a toy, a great pet and a wonderful friend all rolled into one. I will miss him.” Andrew said some kind words too but the others were bashful.

Last week, I looked at the one gnawed wall in the computer room closet.  I guessed it was a memorial and never mended due to the joint respect my wife and I had for our esteemed pet. When I mentioned that to Sue she said, “Ugh, I never noticed. Get the spackle!”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I liked your ZHITNIK story. It reminded me of all of the family pets we had. Two rats, Bert and Ernie, I couldn’t warm up to a rat but the wife and daughters loved them and swore how much smarter than a dog they were. A rabbit, Thumper, with his own large backyard cage. Countless goldfish too numerous to remember their names. Three dogs, Goldie and Max who were both sweet loving pets who are now in doggie heaven. Now we have Tito who is afraid of his shadow, barks like a madman when he nears a noise at 2am and keeps constant vigilance against invading mailmen. His intelligence is somewhere between a rock and a door knob. In discussions with my wife I keep telling her Tito, although being raised Jewish, insists he is a Christian Scientist and wants no evasive procedures to keep him around. She insists this is a lie. --- SLW