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From Canaries to Rocks: A Hardy Pet Is a Good Pet

Affectionate and relatively indestructible – those historically have been key qualities of a good starter pet. And a healthy appetite is good — but within limits. Take, for instance, a certain pet groundhog owned by historian Katherine Grier's grandfather. The groundhog was booted outside for chewing on the wallpaper, and then most likely met its demise at the end of a neighbor's shotgun. Stories of unusual pets — with sometimes unfortunate endings — filled Grier's childhood, and she recently wrote a book tracing the nation's relationship with pets, Pets in America: A History.

A pet's appeal is easy to understand, says Grier, a University of Delaware professor. We like the company, she says, and at times, pets are just easier to get along with than members of our own species.

Here, she talks about Americans' pets of choice over the decades — good and bad:

According to your book, Pets in America, songbirds, especially canaries, were the pet to have in the 1800s. What made the canary so prized?

Americans lived in silent households really until the radio came along, and caged birds of all kinds were sort of the ambient sound in homes. In fact, cages were designed so that people could carry them from room to room, so they took the bird with them almost like a transistor radio.

Were songbirds ultimately good pets?

If you knew how to care for them, they were very good pets. Canaries in particular are surprisingly hardy; they seem to be able to tolerate the kind of uneven living conditions found in homes.

Why did songbirds eventually fall out of fashion?

They're still around in significant numbers. There are an estimated 15 million to 17 million birds kept in American households today. But, per capita, they're less popular. And I really think it's because, as their role as background sound fell away, they weren't needed any more.

What has replaced them as most favored pet?

Cats and dogs – it's estimated now that there are about 88 million owned cats and 75 million owned dogs in the United States. Those are the single most popular group at this point, unless you count the ubiquitous goldfish.

When did turtles become popular?

Turtles were not popular really until the mid-20th century. Maybe as early as the 1930s, you would see ads for those small green water turtles. As a child of the 1950s, I had one, too, in a little plastic aquarium with a fake palm tree. They were common dime-store pets, they were easy to raise, and they shipped pretty well. But the life spans of those animals were not too long, and I would have to say their lives were probably not very happy. The children who bought them didn't really know how to care for them. They could buy canned turtle food, but the turtles had other kinds of problems, from inadequate exposure to daylight to water problems. Then it was discovered that they were carriers of salmonella, and that was sort of the end of the small green turtle as a dime-store pet.

Did your turtle have a good life?

My turtle, I tried to take good care of him. I enjoyed watching him and making an obstacle course and sort of trying to play with him, but ultimately he didn't live to be an adult animal. ...

That's a big part of having a pet — learning about death.

Yes, for children, pets have always been a way to learn about the realities of death.

OK, you're a historian, and I realize this is a little beyond your professional expertise, but what, in your opinion, makes a good starter pet?

You want an animal that's pretty hardy. I would suggest freshwater fish. I also think that rats are incredibly good starter pets. I know that people will go, "Yuck!" But rats are hardy, they're affectionate, they're pretty clean, they can tolerate a lot of handling. They really are friendlier than some of the other small mammals, like hamsters. People can carry them around in their pockets, and rats really do seem to get to know their owners.

I take it you would want to get your rat from a pet store?

Yes — don't catch your own pet rat.

(Editor's Note: Veterinarians advise that rodent pets aren't for everyone and should be spayed or neutered. Rodents can be prolific breeders.)

Why are we so crazy about pets?

I think people get a lot of different things from pets. They get companionship, and I think you have to look at pets and their association with our leisure. People like to walk their dogs; it's a chance for us to get exercise. Some people keep pets as status symbols — you see that especially these days, with fashions for the really small dogs. Though I think some of those dogs may have a tough life, because it's hard on them to be carried around the way they are.

So it's hard to be tiny and pretty and pampered?

Yes, in fact, those small dogs are fragile and have health problems; some of them are hypoglycemic because they're so small.

Are inanimate pets still popular — you know, pet rocks and Tamagotchis?

Those seem to have fallen away. The pet rock was a joke from the 1970s. The Tamagotchi is an electronic pet that is often sold in small little units you can carry around like key chains. I'm not quite sure I understand them, I find them sort of creepy. You can't cuddle it. And it's this computer pet that if you don't care for it, it will die. I suppose there's a lesson there, but because it's not a real creature, I don't know how meaningful that lesson is.

Over the years, what sorts of animals have turned out to be huge mistakes as pets?

I wouldn't use the word "huge," but there are exotic animals that should never be made into household pets. You'll probably get mail from people saying, "I love my monkey," but I'm not sure that primates should be kept as household pets. And a lot of reptiles have problems as pets. It's hard for them to thrive, and they take a very long time to die, so people don't even realize they're not treating their reptile well until it's at death's door.

You also want to think long and hard about where an exotic animal has come from – was it captive-bred in a farm setting or was it caught in the wild? That is not a good thing — wild-caught animals sometimes die in large numbers before they reach pet stores.

Katherine Grier is a professor at the University of Delaware's department of history, and she is curator of the traveling exhibition Pets in America. The exhibition is currently at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington, Mass.

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Vikki Valentine
Vikki Valentine is a senior supervising editor on NPR's science desk. She oversees the network's health coverage across broadcast and digital platforms. Previously, Valentine was the network's climate change, energy, and environment editor and in this role was a recipient of a 2012 DuPont Award for coverage of natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania.