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Friday 15 December 2017

Sign of the times: Auf Wiedersehen Pets

At least you can just flush goldfish down the toilet — but puppies are an entirely different matter, writes animal sceptic John Hearne

I'm not a dog person. I usually keep this information to myself, because people who are dog people don't react well to my saying so. It's as if I've made some off-colour remark about their mother or suggested that Hitler was a decent auld skin once you got to know him.

Only it's relevant now because my daughter is engaged in a campaign to get a puppy. We were pulling out of school in the car the other day and she started in with her I-want-a-puppy routine. She does this in the special tone of voice which all women use in such circumstances. It's hard to describe, but anyone who's ever spoken to a woman will recognise it as something like this: "You have disappointed me my entire life, but now you have an opportunity to redeem yourself." It's the tone of voice that Eve used to get Adam to eat the apple.

So I point out to her what happened with the fish. Intense lobbying for a fish last year resulted in the purchase of two fish (Goldie and Skank), who promptly died. So we got two more (Goldie and Mr Wuzzles).

This time, we did as the girl in the pet shop suggested and had the water de-chlorinated and so on well in advance of their arrival. They died. So did Goldie and Skank II. On the fourth set of fish, I put down my foot, as it were. "I will have no more fish blood on my hands," I said. "If these end up in the toilet, that is it." These conditions were accepted. However, despite receiving no better care than any of their predecessors, these two, which I secretly named Flush and Float, continued to thrive. Well, live anyway.

Sometimes the water got a bit dirty: "What happened to the fish? Oh, there they are." Sometimes they got food, sometimes they got way too much food. But the point is, what meagre care they got came from me. The children had no interest in them whatsoever. I pointed all of this out to my daughter, asking her if she could even remember what she had named the fish. She couldn't.

Over subsequent days, in order to prove what a responsible pet owner she could be, my daughter lavished care and attention on the fish. Since all they wanted was a tiny pinch of food once a day, it wasn't easy to lavish anything on them. So she decided that the fish were bored. She taped a few pictures of Hannah Montana to the outside of the tank as posters and into it went most of her doll's house furniture. Between beds, couches, toilet, sink, lamp and so on, the fish hadn't too much room to swim around anymore. "I think they've enough stuff for a while," I told her. "And anyway, the water is kind of dirty."

This was the wrong thing to say, but only because my son, who's four, was listening. He decided that he would sort these dirty fish out once and for all, and upended half a bottle of Radox Herbal Bath into the tank. And so, the fishes' run of good luck ended. I found them on Tuesday morning floating on top of a thick, green liquid. Dead, of course, but, it has to be said, looking relaxed and refreshed despite that.

The ceremony was short but poignant. We all gathered around the toilet and sang Mamma Mia, which, my daughter informed me, was their favourite song. At the line "Here I go again", I pushed the handle and the fish spiralled down and out of our lives forever.

Now of course, there's a vacancy for a family pet, and the lobbying for the puppy has only intensified. "I miss the fish," she says, with a big sour puss. "Me too," I tell her, "but we have to try and pull ourselves together and get on with things. It's what they would have wanted."

She's about to say something, but I go on: "They were just irreplaceable those fish. No other animal could ever fill our lives with happiness the way they did. So there's just no point in trying to replace them with any other form of animal -- or toy," I add quickly.

She narrows her eyes as if to say "you haven't heard the last of this old man". It's not easy to outwit a six-year-old.

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