I usually go to the pet store with my wife and kids (we sometimes take our dog to the stores that allow leashed pets) but the other day I needed to stop off after work and pick up a few things so I was there alone. Not that being there alone made much of a difference but it gave me more time to reflect without needing to answer questions with, "Yes, they take good care of the animals here" and "No, I don't think the cats would like it if we got a tarantula."
I've always enjoyed going to the pet store. I like seeing all the different animals and especially when the store has a section for adopting cats or dogs. We don't have fish or birds in our house so it always seems so exotic to see them. I like seeing the other pet owners, too, because people with common interests always seem friendlier to each other. There is a bit of guilt involved in visiting the pet store, though. I wonder what will happen to the puppies that aren't bought before they get too big. Also, I wonder if I am lying when I tell my kids, "Yes, they take good care of the animals here." Most pet stores seem to take good care of their animals but I always remember the old Woolworth's Department Store in our town (before they went bankrupt and closed). The cages were dirty and the animals were listless. I was tempted to buy them all just to get them out of there. But then, of course, I wouldn't be able to take any better care of them than the worker the store had doing the job. But, for the most part, going to the pet store is a happy experience.
Until one day. The four of us were in the store and we had made the rounds of all the different types of animals and were looking at the fish. The kids were playing the game of seeing who could see the biggest fish. Then who could find the tank with the most fish. We were at the tank with the most fish when one of the employees came up with a net and opened the tank. I thought this would be great, the kids could see somebody buying the fish and putting them in the little baggie to carry them home. But something was wrong. No one else was there. Where were the people buying the fish? Where was the baggie? Before I knew it, the employee had scooped up a bunch of the fish and plopped them into another tank. My first though was, "Oh, that's nice. They were all crowded into that tank and now they'll have more room." I didn't have that thought long. As soon as the fish hit the water from the net, they scattered. I'm not one of those people who thinks fish are very smart and I don't think I've ever thought about them showing emotion but I could tell right away these fish were terrified. And they had a right to be scared. No sooner had they started to dart for cover than the fish that were already in the tank took off after them. It didn't take long for the larger fish that had already been in the tank to eat all the smaller fish that had just been thrown in the tank. There was nowhere to hide. One or two of the new fish managed to last longer than the others (maybe ten seconds) but they had no chance. Now, every large fish in the tank was after these few darting, turning, terrified small fish. Then it was over. I felt sick to the stomach. I couldn't talk for quite a while after that.
Why should I have been surprised? Not all fish are herbivores. This is the way the world works. The bigger, stronger, faster animals eat the smaller, weaker, slower animals. A lot of animals won't eat dead food. It made sense for the pet store to grow its own food. But I just wasn't prepared for it. If the employee had said, "Would you like to see me feed these fish to the other fish?" I would have just walked away. But it would have happened anyway. The bigger fish had to eat or they would die. I just can't help it. I'd never make it if I had to kill my own food.
So, when I went to the pet store alone the other day, and saw the fish tanks, this all came back to me as intensely as it did the day I first saw it with my family. I don't know if I'll go into the pet store alone again. I think I'll be happier answering the questions with, "Yes, the snake looks like he is well fed." Oh no! There's something else I don't want to see!