Dumping Nemo: What Do You Do when Your Pet Becomes Too Much for Your Family?

What do you do when you can't take care of your pet?What do you do when you can't take care of your pet?This is a story about a family, a pet fish and a near-criminal act. Mostly, it's about knowing your limits as a mom.

We'd gotten a nice orange tetra fish, at my little girl's request. It seemed easy enough: Fill the tank with water, add a couple of drops of chemicals, watch the fish do its thing. The kids couldn't decide what to name him. "Caleb!" Max suggested, aka his best friend at school. "Rambo!" Sabrina, said, inexplicably . Finally, we decided on Frap, named after Mommy's favorite Starbucks drink. Our family is nothing if not creatures of culture.

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Frap lived in Sabrina's room, and it was her responsibility to feed him daily. Only sometimes she forgot, and I'd forget to check her on it. Two days later, it would dawn on me that Frap had gone unfed and I'd call in from the office and beg the babysitter to take care of him. I never knew you could experience working mom guilt over a fish, but evidently you could.

Frap was amusing for a while. The second we'd open the top of the tank to sprinkle in flakes of fish food, he'd zoom up there. Occasionally he looked as if he were staring right at you, about to ask if you wanted to come on in and take a dip. "Can we train him to do flips?" Sabrina asked, mistaking him for a pet dog. But the thrill of having a fish wore off pretty fast. This is because mostly, fish just swim around or hide behind rocks or plastic shrubbery. Their greatest known trick is playing dead, except often they actually are dead.

And so it went: We stopped paying much attention to Frap. Sometimes I'd walk by and, feeling bad, I'd stoop down and look meaningfully into his eyes to let him know that, yes, he still mattered. When the tank needed cleaning, it was one more task to pester the kids/husband about,. Usually I ended up doing it.

Motherhood is filled with responsibilities large and small, from making sure the kids have shoes that fit to making sure there's t.p. on the roll. If you're a working mom, you have to cram a whole lot of chores and errands into weeknights and weekends. And if you have a kid with special needs (Max has cerebral palsy), there's that much more to juggle between the therapies, medical appointments and extra hands-on help. Nevermind that we've been considering having a third child and I wasn't up to mothering a fish.

The Frap situation came to a head when we went on a road trip for a holiday weekend-and realized, as were driving home Monday night, that nobody had fed him. A car squabble ensued. "Can't we find a fish who just feeds himself?" Sabrina asked. "Unfortunately," I replied, "the fridge door would be a leeetle hard for him to open. As would walking to it." She found that very funny. Me, I was fed up. Who needed this stress? It wasn't as if any of us were particularly attached to him.

Sadly, Frap had become more of a burden than a pleasure.

I'd seen friends offering their own fish up on Facebook, without takers, and I knew Frap wouldn't be in high demand. I suspected there were no fish shelters to bring him to or tetra adoption programs. What to do? The idea came to me when I drove by Petco one day. What if I returned him? I thought. But when I called, I was told they didn't take back fish that were several months old. Hmmm. There was an indie pet store not too far away. I had a feeling they might not allow for fish returns, either, especially considering we hadn't gotten him there.

But what if I just left Frap on their doorstep?

I mentioned this to my husband, who gave me one of those Ricky Ricardo "Luuuuucy, you've cooked up a seriously kooky scheme!" looks. "Are you really going to do that?" he said. "Yep!" I said, cheerfully. "Better than flushing him down the toilet!" Not that I would have done that, but I wanted to horrify him into agreeing. It worked.

I hatched out my plan like a bank robber plotting a robbery. I had one of those thermal tote bags that kept food warm or cold. I'd put the fish tank in there, to make sure Frap wouldn't get chilly. I'd leave it on the doorstep of the pet store about 15 minutes before it opened, then make a dash for it. I'd wear all black. Because it's very slimming.

Question was, what kind of note to leave. I pictured one of those ransom notes with cut-out letters:

But in the end I went with a simple note I typed up on my computer: "Our family can't take care of this beautiful fish anymore. We hope you will." It sounded as if we'd suddenly been left penniless or had been forced to flee the country. How could they not take pity on Frap?

I decided a weekday was best (fewer witnesses around), and when I had one off from work, I leapt into action. After the kids were en route to school, I told Frap it wasn't him, it was me, and I bid him goodbye. Then I unplugged the tank and loaded it into the bag, along with the water drops and fish food. It suddenly occurred to me a bright orange tote wasn't the most subtle color, but there was no time for second thoughts.

I drove over to the pet store at 9:45 a.m., parking down the street to case the joint. The store's located at a busy intersection, and I decided I would have to do the deed during a green light so a waiting driver wouldn't spot me. I got out of the car, leaving it running. A getaway driver wasn't an option; Dave was at work, and putting up a notice on Craig's List would have left a trail ("Looking for accomplice to put a fish out of his misery, contact not-a-fan-of-fish@gmail.com").

I grabbed the tote. The traffic light turned green and unhesitatingly, I walked up to the front door, gently put down the bag and made a beeline for the car. Then I sat there, waiting to see what would happen. At 9:58 a.m., a guy walked up to the front door. He glanced down at the bag and looked inside. He pulled out the note and read it. Then he unlocked the door and carried the tote inside.

Frap had a new home! Frap had a new home!

Assuming the guy didn't flush him down the toilet.

I drove back to our house, relieved. I considered anonymously phoning the store to see if Frap was OK. I wondered if he was in a tank with newfound friends, and whether there might be a fish support group to help him get past any feelings of abandonment. I pondered whether I'd actually violated a legal law, let alone an ethical one. Dumping? Trespassing? Endangering the welfare of a fish?

I wasn't proud of what I did, and I hope this won't create a trend of people leaving their fish or ferret at a pet store's door or Donald Trump's or Macy's or anything. I'm not usually one to walk (or trot) away from responsibility. It's not like I've ever considered abandoning one of the children on someone's doorstep, though one time when my daughter had an uber-meltdown in the supermarket cereal aisle I was really tempted to walk away.

One of the most important ways of keeping your sanity as a mom is knowing your limits. I did not need poor Frap in my life. I guess the kids didn't either, because when they ask what happened to him I said I'd returned him to the fish store (not the whole truth, but not a lie!) and they didn't question it. Sabrina did, however, have one request:

"Can we get some baby frogs?"

- By Ellen Seidman

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EllenSeidman is a magazine editor, web content developer and award-winning writer. She blogs at 1000 Perplexing Things About Parenthood for Babble, as well as at Love That Max. Ellen lives in the New York area with her husband, two kids and assorted dustballs.

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