Pet Owning Competency Standard

by

06/27/2002

106th St. & Broadway, new york, ny 10025

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

“You can tell when a person’s just not ready,” the young man in charge of birds at Petland Discounts told me as I pressed my face against the glass atrium to get a good look at the small animals so close to danger.

“Have you ever had to say no to anybody?” “There have been occasions.” “What have those people been like?” “A person’s gonna say, ‘Oh, I wanna bird,’ and ask a billion questions on the spot. Most people do research.”

Intrigued by the issues of competency in pet ownership, I made almost daily visits to the Petland located near my house between 105th and 106th on Broadway. I asked the other guy in charge of birds how he kept irresponsible people from buying the pets.

“I don’t sell any birds to people that I don’t, you know, like.” “Yeah. How do you determine that?” “Just ask them a lot of questions, and they have to, you know, show a genuine, you know . . .”

A genuine interest in not abusing birds? “… Show genuinely that they care for the bird and want a relationship with the bird, and are going to look to meet the needs of the bird. If they’re more interested in sort of superficial things like prices and stuff like that, I sort of scoot ‘um out.”

I asked a guy placing cat toys on a rack how he discriminated between a good potential pet owner and a bad one.

“By the way they talk, by the way they act, maybe they come in unruly, or drunk, or you know something to that affect.”

Staggered by the thorough evaluation process and extensive protocol for screening potential pet owners, I wandered home to consider whether I would pass inspection for owning a pet. I decided to return the next day and pose as a potential pet owner.

I came up with a few stock questions that would prove my worth as a pet owner. “Do the pets ever die in the store?” “You’re gonna have to talk to the manager about this.” “I don’t need to talk to the manager. I’m just wondering if they get sick a lot.” “He could answer that better than me.” You would be surprised at the gruff and chubby old men that manage Petland. There are two of them and they have no time or tolerance for bullshit. Found incompetent by the staff at Petland, I was twice ushered to these angry men. The first time I decided to admit what I was up to and thought the prestigious Columbia name might get me out of a little trouble. The fat face frowned at me over the gray aluminum desk.

“You’re writing a humorous article?” “Yeah, it’s not gonna . . .” “Well, you’re gonna have to go to a different kind of pet store for that information.”

He leaned back and inhaled off his cigar, daring me to utter another word. I nodded and quietly picked up my bag. Standing on Broadway in front of Petland, I felt humiliated. I couldn’t even ask pet worthy questions.

The second time I got sent to the manager, I decided to continue playing the customer. He might not feel comfortable accosting a potential pet buyer. Having been prepared by the employees that I was a customer with a lot of questions, the manager tossed an impatient look my way as he cruised through the store on important pet business.

“What kind of questions are we talking about?” I offered the manger my stock question about whether or not the pets died in the store, which I thought would show a lot of concern because, as a competent pet owner, I’d only want to purchase a pet from a competent pet store. Having forgotten my second stock question I threw out my reporter’s question about whether or not bad potential pet owners often tried to purchase pets. The manager stopped what he was doing and looked at me.

“The questions you’re asking . . . you could guess the answers.” Unbeknownst to the manager my faith in my competency as a reporter was shattered, and I forgot all about wanting to be a competent pet owner.

“Obviously the animals do die. And as far as what kinda people buy pets, all kinda people buy pets.”

All kinda people buy pets? Was the pet owning competency standard only shared by the employees?

“Do you buy the pets in your store?” “Yes.” “Do you have a lot of pets?” “You mean me personally?” “Yes, personally.” “Three dogs.” “Oh, nice.” Three dogs in the city. That’s great. Unless this guy lived in a barn, his dogs were probably home trying to hang themselves. I decided from then on to deal only with employees, as they were the only people in the pet industry with any standards or integrity.

I came back a few days later curious as to whether or not the employees felt like they were competent enough to own pets. I met up with the second bird guy.

“Do you buy some of the pets here?” “Who me?” “Yeah.” “Um, you mean for personal . . .?” He was scared. I think he was up to something. Probably buying pets when he knew he wasn’t up to code.

“Yeah, just for your own, for yourself.” “No, not really. I’ve got pretty much my own collection now.” “What kind of pets do you have?” He pointed at the glass atrium filled with cages, “Birds.” “Nice. Where did you get your birds?” “I’ve had them.” “Oh. Ok.” His ambiguity led me to believe that he had failed every competency test in the metro area and had resorted to catching pigeons in the park, the only option for the incompetent pet owner. I decided to buy some fish. I buy fish all the time and they die all the time. Every time. I’ve never tried to return them, but I’m thinking about it. I decided to mention this to the cashier as a little small talk.

“Maybe you should talk to the manager about this.” I was ready to run. I didn’t want to talk to the cigar man again. I just wanted to make a joke. I tried to explain this to her, that I just thought it was sad.

“I’m just a cashier.” I keep buying the fish even though they always die. I try to spread myself out across Manhattan. I go to all different Pet Lands around the area. I’m constantly waiting for a wanted sign to appear on the door. I buy fish and a week or two later they’re floating belly up in the tank. I bought a filter and rocks and plant life, which the employees assured me would help keep my fish alive. It hasn’t. They die all the time. Last week I had three fish: two red ones and a black one. I added the black one after the other two stayed alive for a month. I named the black one Monte. Monte seems to have killed the red fish. They died within two days of his arrival. Monte’s looking sick these days. If he dies, I think I’ll just leave the tank empty. I can’t bear the shame of passing under the pet competency radar anymore. I’m incompetent, and I’m ashamed.  

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