The little girls each pressed a velvet-like bunny into their chests, the girls’ chins nuzzling the sleep bunnys’ heads. A little boy let a large yellow snake wrap around his torso, the snake’s head balancing on the boy’s elbow. A woman rocked a ferret to sleep in her arms. A toddler stood amazed as the turquoise parakeet stepped onto his fingers.
This was the Pet World re-opening eight months after a devastating fire killed many a reptile, all the fish, a kitten, and many other manner of those with claws, fins, and paws last May. Within a few days, our community — composed of many like me who had spent hours in Pet World with their kids or when they were just having a bad day and needed to hold something furry — wrapped around the store that had wrapped around our animal selves. We held a vigil full of concerned children hugging the owners, employees holding each other and weeping, and lots of strollers, wheelchairs and walkers holding candles and making more noise than you’d expect at a vigil. But that’s just it: this was a vigil for a place not just of animals but of our own animal selves. I just read over my post from that time, and I repeat here a quote from Sherry Emerson, co-owner of Pet World with her husband Tim:
Tim can never forget how he felt as a child when he and his young friends were refused entry to their local pet store and not allowed to hold the animals. He knows that the total separation of humans and animals will ultimately lead to the disconnection of humans and nature. We truly believe in our mission.
That mission is a healing balm in action, bringing us back together with the more-than-human species we’re part of, even if it’s happening in a store that sells dog food, crickets to take home and feed your pet tree frogs, and fish tanks. When I brought Shay the dog to Pet World on Saturday for the opening, I was so happy by what I saw — dozens of human animals and other animals getting to know each other in laughter, delight, even bliss — that I went back on Sunday, this time taking Ken with me. Unlike Shay (who was respectful and extremely interested in everything and everyone in the store), Ken got to hold a bunny and a dove, and also pet a gecko and snake in between watching the new younger tortoises and the giant, ancient ones adored with arms that looked like medieval body armor.
The children filling the stores, along with their parents, grandparents, friends, and occasionally big or little dogs were experiencing more than an indoor petting zoo. I saw many Pet World employees showing kids of all ages how to let a bird come onto their fingers, where to put their hands when holding a guinea pig, or how to properly pet a tired lizard. One woman who worked there got on her knees to show a bunny to a newborn, both rabbit and kids having the same sized face.
I’m all for watching and being with animals in the wild without disturbing them too much, but there’s something also essential in touching animals, and through touching, finding who we are as humans and as animals. Feeling the pads of the gecko’s feet on our palms, the claws of parakeet wrapped around our fingers, the beating heart of a rabbit or kitten or hamster against our own hearts connects us to the real magic in this world.