Caged Animals, Down Syndrome and A Wake Up Call

08.18.08


I hate cages. Animals in cages depress me. I love my children enough to take them to the zoo but I feel anxious the entire time. The rule breaker in me wants desperately to open the cages and free the animals. I feel like Lisa Simpson in running shoes, only not nearly as cool.

My boy turned 7 last week, and all he wanted was a hamster. We’ve had hamsters before and we had yet to enjoy having a hamster live with us. Hamsters are nocturnal. Hamsters are tiny. Hamsters are rodents for crying out loud! Hamsters are food for my dog. Hamsters live in cages.

Because I love my son, I found myself standing in the companion animal section of PetCo. There was one very fluffy hamster in a cage and one person who working the section with someone else. “Excuse me, when you’re done could you help me with this? I really want to make sure I get this hamster.” I asked. “Sure, let me just get someone else to help you then he replied.”

A moment later a stocky young Asian man named Joe came around the corner to help me with a big smile on his face. As he got closer I realized he wasn’t Asian but his eyes had a lovely teardrop shape and an epicanthic fold. And why was he so darned happy to be at Petco when I was all ticked off about it? It took me a moment but I realized that he had Down Syndrome (or something closely related).

I said to him, “Could you please get me that hamster, and then when that guy is done he can help me get everything else I need.”

Clearly not seeing just how rude and dismissive I was Joe said, “I have hamsters, they’re such great pets.”

“Isn’t that nice.” And I sorta twirled my hair (yes, I was in a mood), “This one is for my son’s birthday.”

“How old is he?”

“He’ll be seven tomorrow.”

“Oh, I wish my Mom would have gotten me a hamster for my birthday when I was seven. They’re really great pets and they’re so much fun to play with.” He went on and on excitedly and I was struck dumb. I had the most remarkable opportunity. I could speak candidly with someone at my child’s emotional level. Listening to Joe talk, he had all the unencumbered joy of a seven year old. Even better, a seven year old who isn’t self conscious.

Oh no! I’d been Queen Bitch to someone else’s child while I was worried about a 2 ounce rodent with a questionable central nervous system being required to live in a box. This is not who I am willing to be.

“Um, Joe, what sort of cage do you have for your hamsters?”

We spent a few minutes talking about the cages before settling on one. I picked up the box and put it in my cart. “Ma’am,” he asked, “do you think we could put the cage together here? It’s a lot of fun and we’re allowed to put them together for you.”

“Okay.” I heard myself saying. Can I tell you, though, that I never met a surface I didn’t want to scrub. The floors at Petco are disgusting. I didn’t want to be there but I wasn’t done spending time with Joe. He and I ended up assembling a hamster cage in the basket section of the shopping cart. Also, Joe didn’t really know how to assemble the cage, he just thought it would be fun. I assembled the cage, Joe told me it was fun. You know something? He was right.

Joe picked out a few doodads for the hamster and for my son. I left the store with the perfect birthday gift, a smile on my face and a newfound appreciation for childhood, in all it’s various forms.

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