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March 2023 Issue [Memoir]


What happens to the pets that happen to you
African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis) © Giuseppe Mazza

African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis) © Giuseppe Mazza



What happens to the pets that happen to you

Until last summer, we had a dead frog in our freezer. When Bunky died, George and I thought we should wait to bury him till both our grown children were home, so we put him in a Ziploc bag and propped him on his side on a shallow shelf in the freezer door, just above the icemaker. Bunky was flat and compact and, very soon, as rigid as a cell phone. He fit perfectly. I’d always wondered what KitchenAid intended that shelf for—it was too narrow for any food I could think of—but now we knew. It was intended to hold a frog.

There are two kinds of pets—the ones you choose and the ones that happen to you. Bunky belonged to the second category. He entered our family in the haphazard fashion of pets of that ilk: tadpole kit (cubical plastic “habitat” with domed top, like nave of Hagia Sophia, sans tadpole but accompanied by redeemable coupon), left by educational-toy-oriented grandmother for granddaughter under Christmas tree; kit sidelined for years on toy shelf; kit discovered by granddaughter’s preschool-age little brother; tadpole coveted; tadpole coupon redeemed by parents; tadpole shipped to New York City from Florida in Styrofoam container; tadpole universally admired for transparent skin (visibly beating heart!) and awesome metamorphosis (weird whiskers! hind legs! front legs! no more tail!); froglet admired somewhat less; adult frog mostly ignored, except by visiting small boys, who, if they didn’t have frogs themselves, paused to pay brief homage before moving on to Legos, and by owner’s father, who, despite initial intentions to teach son responsibility through pet care, ended up feeding frog (Stage Two Food Nuggets, meted out with tiny yellow Stage Two Food Serving Spoon dainty enough for fairy) and, once frog graduated from Hagia Sophia, cleaning aquarium, first two-gallon plastic, then four-gallon glass (challenging, because frog, coated with gelatinous goo, required apprehension and temporary relocation while aquarium was emptied, refilled, and doctored with dechlorinating crystals, and damn, was he slippery).

Henry, the frog’s owner, says he was convinced for a long time that he named Bunky but is no longer certain.

Susannah, the older sister, says she definitely named Bunky and Henry approved her choice.

George, the frog feeder and aquarium cleaner, says Henry chose a “Bunky-like” name and Susannah fine-tuned it.

I have no idea.

One of the most essential characteristics of pets who enter the family by happenstance is that their lives are brief. Their dependable evanescence makes life easy for parents but hard for children. Our family’s first pet, Bunky’s predecessor, was a goldfish named Rosebell. George won Rosebell by tossing Ping-Pong balls into cups at the St. Anthony’s Church street fair, held each summer a block from our apartment building. Susannah, age four, triumphantly carried Rosebell home in a plastic bag, named her, painted her portrait, and, when Rosebell died three days later, cried so hard she had to take the morning off from camp.

But Bunky didn’t die. While he was alive and kicking—and he was a prodigious kicker—we referred to him as our “immortal frog.” Seasons passed, though perhaps not from Bunky’s point of view, since he never went outside. A year went by. Five years. Ten. Finally, sixteen.

Actually, maybe seventeen, but I will err on the side of caution because I don’t want to risk even a whiff of amphibian résumé inflation. We all agree that Bunky was at least a year old when we moved from New York to western Massachusetts, his water sloshing noisily in the plastic aquarium (this was the two-gallon phase) wedged between my feet as we drove north on I-91 in our rented minivan. It must have been harrowing for him, like a storm at sea.

On our first night in Massachusetts, after we turned off the lights, I called George’s attention, dreamily, to the bucolic sound of peepers wafting through our window from the riverbank. He informed me that we were listening to Bunky, in Henry’s room, over the baby monitor.

Bunky was an aquatic frog who surfaced only occasionally (he had lungs and breathed air, but not very often), at which time his googly eyes would protrude above the waterline, lending him a faint resemblance to a two-ounce hippopotamus. He had five diaphanously webbed toes on his hind feet, three of them clawed, and four long, thin, sensitive-looking fingers on his forefeet. He looked nothing like Frog in Frog and Toad, or indeed like any of the barrel-chested bright green mesomorphs in our children’s picture books. He was pale. Planar. Ghostly. More than a little Gollum-like.

Because he wasn’t built for life on land, Bunky lacked the sine qua non of frogdom: the ability to jump. He was like a bird that couldn’t fly, a snake that couldn’t slither. However, he compensated for his terrestrial shortcomings with his grace in the water. Sometimes he lay splayed on the bottom, like a rug; sometimes he floated, unmoving, at a forty-five-degree angle. But when he took off, he was so efficient as to seem positively urtextual. He could swim up, down, forward, backward, and sideways. The in-and-out whoosh of his hind limbs—akimbo, straight, akimbo, straight—could have been the pattern on which all frog kicks were based, his powerful webbed feet the model for all swim fins.

You may be wondering: What kind of frog was he?

I didn’t.

By both habit and temperament, I am drawn to research like a frog to a Stage Two Nugget, but I never researched Bunky. I didn’t know what species he was until he was nearly ten. A student I’d hired to help me with office work walked past Bunky’s aquarium and said, matter-of-factly, “Oh, you have a Grow-a-Frog.”

A what?

That, of course, was just Bunky’s brand, which I had long since forgotten. A little googling revealed that Grow-a-Frogs were African clawed frogs (Xenopus laevis). We’d always thought that because Bunky looked so odd—as if a regular frog had been bleached and then put in a panini press—he had been specially bred in some kind of Frankensteinian laboratory. It was mind-blowing to learn that he had wild cousins frog-kicking around the wetlands of sub-Saharan Africa.

In one fell swoop, we also learned his gender. We had always honored Henry’s assumption that Bunky was male, just as we’d honored Susannah’s assumption that Rosebell was female. But now we had evidence. At night, Bunky sometimes emitted a two-syllable ribbit, a sort of creaky hee-haw: the sound we’d heard over the baby monitor. We read that only male African clawed frogs made this sound, and that it was a mating call.

I often wrote late into the night. Bunky shared my circadian rhythm. For years—ever since Bunky’s aquarium had migrated from Henry’s room to the kitchen counter—I’d been going downstairs for a snack at 2 am, and there he’d been, softly calling for a mate he would never meet.

Hind limb of an African clawed frog © Heather Angel/Natural Visions/Alamy; a scanning electron micrograph of an African clawed frog tadpole © Dennis KunkelMicroscopy/Science Source; and an image of the <em>Xenopus</em> pregnancy test from a 1938 article by Edward R. Elkan in the British Medical Journal . Courtesy Lisa Jean Moore

Hind limb of an African clawed frog © Heather Angel/Natural Visions/Alamy; a scanning electron micrograph of an African clawed frog tadpole © Dennis Kunkel Microscopy/Science Source; and an image of the Xenopus pregnancy test from a 1938 article by Edward R. Elkan in the British Medical Journal. Courtesy Lisa Jean Moore

How could I have been so incurious?

Before writing this essay, I finally learned a few things about African clawed frogs.

They have no tongues, no teeth, and no eyelids.

Their owners have fed them crickets, cockroaches, earthworms, mealworms, bloodworms, slugs, and wood lice, which they shove down their throats with their fingers because of the no-tongue thing. (I’ve watched a video. It’s pretty cute.) Bunky would probably have loved to eat a wood louse. It never occurred to us to feed him anything but Stage Two Nuggets. That’s what the instructions told us to do, the way you’re supposed to use Swingline staples with your Swingline stapler. Which, obediently, I always did.

In 1930, the basis for the first widely used pregnancy test was established when a zoologist in a South African laboratory discovered that female African clawed frogs laid eggs when injected with ox hormones similar to those present in the urine of pregnant women.

In 1962, the African clawed frog became the first cloned vertebrate. The British biologist who conducted the experiment was knighted and awarded a Nobel Prize.

In 1992, four female African clawed frogs flew on the space shuttle Endeavor so scientists could study whether reproduction was possible in zero gravity. A supply of male frog testes was on board. Astronauts crushed the testes and used the sperm to fertilize eggs obtained from the female frogs. Tadpoles resulted. “We don’t see any reason to suspect that fetal development could not be accomplished normally in the absence of gravity,” said a NASA scientist. “That includes humans.”

I realize that a psychiatrist might say this essay is an attempt to atone for my lack of interest in Bunky when he was alive. A lot of good that does him now.

We pay more attention to pets that pay more attention to us—the smart, warm-blooded, furry kind that fortify our egos, communicate with us, ease our loneliness, jump onto our laps while we watch TV.

Over the years, our family acquired several pets of that kind, and we lavished time and money and love on them. Chosen pets. Pettable pets.

Silkie was our starter mammal. Once Susannah had seen a picture of a long-haired “teddy bear” hamster, no other variety would do. Two pet stores mendaciously claimed to have them in stock. At the third pet store, Silkie was selected, after careful inspection, from a handful of legitimate candidates that looked identical to me but not to Susannah. During Silkie’s tenure in our household, he was frequently held, extravagantly complimented, and housed in a twin set of terraria connected by an ever-ramifying system of bendable plastic tubes and kitted out with an exercise wheel and a lookout tower.

Biscuit and Bean followed. Bunky’s removal from Henry’s room to the kitchen was a tacit acknowledgment that Bunky had lost his original luster and was no longer really “Henry’s pet.” Henry was obviously in need of an upgrade: a guinea pig. Biscuit was the most beautiful guinea pig at the pet store. Two days later, Henry decided Biscuit was lonely and begged us to drive back to the store and reunite the family by bringing home Biscuit’s brother, Bean. This time, Henry thought up the names all by himself, and contributed a decent amount to the feeding and cleaning detail. Henry and I built a bi-level habitat out of closet modules about six feet long and three feet wide, with a carpeted ramp leading to the second floor, and furnished it with Quonset-hut-shaped sisal hideaways. In warm weather, when we ate outside, we set up a giant pen on the lawn so Biscuit and Bean could graze on grass, like Swiss cows in their alpine summer pasture.

A couple of years after Silkie’s death, Susannah convinced us she was ready for the big leagues: a dog. Although she was allergic to most dog hair, a campaign of experimental sniffing established that she was not allergic to dachshunds. Her allergies would eventually abate, enabling her, many years later, to adopt two rescue dogs of heterogeneous ancestry, but Typo came from a purebred litter of long-haired dachshund brothers I had zeroed in on after months of googling and phoning. Following the instructions in an article I’d read on how to evaluate dog temperaments, Susannah dutifully banged a pot with a metal spoon to assess sound sensitivity and dragged a towel across the ground to assess curiosity. Though these exercises merely perplexed the puppies, one of them confidently identified himself as the winning candidate by walking straight toward her.

Susannah accompanied Typo to puppy kindergarten and devoted dozens of hours to sit, stay, and come practice. She called him Typo because she had read that dogs respond best to names ending with long vowels (Toto, Fido, Lassie, Snoopy), and, like her parents, she was a compulsive proofreader—though she assured her friends that nothing about Typo was a mistake. Over time, he also accreted a sizable collection of nicknames, including Mr. T, Mr. Guy, Mr. Fellow, Mr. Sweetpie, Monsieur le Rinpoche, Best Dog, Favorite Dog, Nicest Dog, Rumischnaug, Naug-Naug, the Typositor, and Sir.

While Bunky was drifting around his aquarium, largely overlooked, Typo was knocking all our socks off. Our infatuation never flagged. He was the softest dog we’d ever petted, and when he galloped his gait looked like a sine wave, and it took him only twenty minutes to learn how to use the newly installed dog door that led to a spacious fenced yard of which he could avail himself whenever he wished, and he once walked eight miles with George (which, by leg-length ratio, we calculated was the equivalent of ninety-six George miles), and whenever we returned from the supermarket he greeted us with the romantic ecstasy of a soldier reuniting with his lover in the final moments of a World War II movie, and . . . well, you get the idea. I could have written ten thousand pages about Typo. Instead, I sang him songs. I didn’t exactly make them up; they crept into my head, unbidden, before I had a chance to apply even the most rudimentary literary or musical standards. For example:

Typo, Typo, you are a dog!
I’m so glad you’re not a frog
It’s not that we don’t love Bunky
But you are so much more hunky
Typo, Typo, Typo, you’re a dog!

But actually, we didn’t love Bunky.

Bunky was the anti-Typo. An unpettable pet. Cool to the touch. Squishy, but not soft. Undeniably slimy. Impervious to education. A poor hiking companion. Not much of a companion at all, really. Couldn’t be taken out of his aquarium and placed on a lap. Never learned his own name. Never came when called. Never sat. Never stayed. Never snuggled. Never greeted us at the door. Lived in water that, according to George, smelled like poop. Ate food that, according to Henry, smelled like feet.

A photogravure of an X-ray, 1896, by Josef Maria Eder and Eduard Valenta. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

A photogravure of an X-ray, 1896, by Josef Maria Eder and Eduard Valenta. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Some people love their African clawed frogs.

The proprietor of Karen’s Frog Page was once so worried when her frog had a lump in her belly that she took her to the vet for an X-ray. She had swallowed sand.

Maurice the Grow-a-Frog has his own Facebook page, with 820 followers, on which his birthday was celebrated annually until his passing in 2016. The next year, on what would have been his twenty-eighth birthday, his owner posted a photograph of him superimposed with colored hearts, stars, diamonds, and the note missing you today maurice.

A member of a British amphibian forum reported an escaped frog: “help!!! how has he vanished in thin air!? if he has miraculously gotten out of his tank—will he survive long? the room is carpeted. Im gutted, he is very much loved.”

Some people loved our African clawed frog. Or at least took more notice of him than I did.

Until he moved away from the neighborhood, Henry’s friend K.C. took care of Bunky when we were on vacation. George once dreamed that Bunky was so happy to see K.C. that he leaped out of the water into K.C.’s hands. In the same dream, K.C. told George that Bunky’s aquarium had tidal currents.

Our friend Carrie, who succeeded K.C. as Bunky’s frogsitter, has told me that at first she thought Bunky was strange; she’d never seen a frog who looked so un-Kermitish. Then she decided he had personality. She likened his swimming to water ballet. Sometimes she sat in front of his aquarium and watched him watching her. She’d run her finger along the glass and he would swim beside it. She called this their “special one-on-one time.”

George remembers early mornings when he, Bunky, and Typo were the only ones awake in the house. He felt that Bunky was being responsive, in his way, when he swam up to feed on the Stage Two Nuggets that rained down from the little yellow spoon, sweeping them toward his mouth with his forefeet in what George thought of as a gesture of enthusiastic welcome, like a friendly minister telling his congregants to come right on in. It would not be an overstatement to describe George’s attitude as fond, even though he disliked touching Bunky, whose skin reminded him of boiled okra, and hated cleaning his aquarium, especially the bridge and the doughnut-shaped castle—polyresin “environmental enrichment products” designed to relieve the boredom of confined frogs—which, even after vigorous scrubbing, retained a thin film of crud. Like Carrie, George believed that taking care of Bunky had grown into caring for Bunky. He also wondered if the relationship might have a tinge of reverse Stockholm syndrome.

I understood. I felt more of a bond with Silkie because I cleaned his plastic labyrinth with a bottle brush while I showered. (One of the core activities of parenthood—though nobody tells you this in advance—is dealing with pet feces.) We all felt a bond with Biscuit and Bean, and a far greater one with Typo. There’s a direct relationship between how much trouble pets are and how much you value them. That may be one reason why parents love their children: they are vessels of infinite depth into which effort is ceaselessly poured.

Ease of care, ranked from most to least:

1. Bunky
2. Silkie
3. Biscuit and Bean
4. Typo
5. Susannah and Henry

Amount of love generated, ranked from most to least:

1. Susannah and Henry
2. Typo
3. Biscuit and Bean
4. Silkie
5. Bunky

I wrote most of this essay in a one-room cabin, behind an old farm, which I started renting on and off when Bunky was fifteen. The farm has a small pond I walked past on the way to the bathroom in the main house. Every morning I stood by the pond, listening to the frogs—green frogs (Lithobates clamitans), whose call sounds like a single note plucked on a loose banjo string—and waited until I spotted one jumping into the water. This was the life a male frog deserved: sitting in the rushes on a beautiful summer day, big and fat and macho, proclaiming his territory, his virility, his joy.

Once I saw a frog in the shallows, heaving like a bellows and squirting something into the water. I wasn’t sure whether I was witnessing the miracle of reproduction or the miracle of defecation. The cabin has no internet, but the bathroom does, so I retrieved my laptop and sat on the toilet watching frog porn. Turns out I’d witnessed something called amplexus: a male frog was squeezing the belly of a female frog who lay hidden beneath him, encouraging her to release eggs while he released sperm.

When I returned in the afternoon, there was a translucent scrim on the water with a zillion tiny black dots that looked like old-fashioned button candy on paper tape. Soon there would be a zillion tadpoles.

All I could think about was Bunky. A celibate, not by choice.

“The Frog, Rockport, Maine,” by Cig Harvey © The artist. Courtesy Robert Mann Gallery, New York City

“The Frog, Rockport, Maine,” by Cig Harvey © The artist. Courtesy Robert Mann Gallery, New York City

During Bunky’s sixteen (or seventeen) years, only two interesting things happened to him.

One morning, George came downstairs to find a mouse in Bunky’s aquarium.

We live in a farmhouse built in 1813. We used Bunky’s aquarium as a kind of bulwark, braced against an axe-hewn post behind the kitchen counter to prevent mice from entering through a hole we’d chinked, not entirely effectively, with steel wool.

This mouse must have squeezed through an unidentified, unchinked hole a little higher than the one behind the aquarium, felt the warmth of the kitchen for a moment, lost its grip on the post, and plummeted into the water.

Was this the best day of Bunky’s life or the worst? Did he think that a comrade, more or less his size, had finally joined him, at first swimming vigorously, just like him? Since he had never seen a female African clawed frog, might the mouse be one? Or was this a frightening invasion, the surface churning, the sacred space breached by an alien intruder? After the mouse stopped moving, did Bunky nudge it to see if it was all right? How could anything come to grief in that safest of elements, water? Why do I feel such a strong need to anthropomorphize Bunky?

The second interesting thing was that Bunky starred in a film.

When Henry was taking a high school video class, his teacher lent him a camera to shoot a two-to-three-minute short. He and George set the table with cloth napkins, a full set of utensils, and the good red plates. Henry panned slowly around the empty place settings while, for reasons that have been lost in the mists of time, “Help Me, Rhonda,” by the Beach Boys, gathered to a near-deafening crescendo. At that moment, the camera reached the last plate, upon which reposed Bunky.

Henry remembers that he and George conscientiously researched how long an African clawed frog could survive out of water to make sure no amphibians would be harmed, or even made mildly uncomfortable, in the making of his film. (Longer than you’d think. Sometimes they migrate overland to another pond if theirs dries up.)

He does not remember what inspired the mise-en-scène, though apparently there was some discussion of Luis Buñuel. Maybe he wished to interrogate the fundamental principle that you don’t eat your pet: the line that divides pets from livestock. Or maybe he was just a teenager. I think he asked himself: What is the single most WTF-inducing thing in my house? And the answer was Bunky.

I often fantasized about releasing Bunky. Henry suggested it once, partly because Bunky bored him and partly because his innate sense of justice troubled him; he felt bad that we couldn’t take Bunky for walks, like Typo, or out to graze, like Biscuit and Bean. The little stream in the meadow behind our house looked enticing. But the instructions that accompanied the original tadpole had been clear: If you release your frog, it will die. This may have been a ploy to keep us ordering Stage Two Nuggets until our hair turned gray. (Bunky was a loss leader, like the $50 printer that winds up consuming $500 in ink cartridges. To ensure uninterrupted patronage, Grow-a-Frog offers a Lifetime Guarantee and will send you a free replacement froglet “if you experience a loss.”) But it was probably true that Bunky could not have survived long outdoors. If he wasn’t eaten by raccoons, the winter frost would kill him. Also, African clawed frogs are an invasive species. When released into the wild, they threaten native fish and amphibians by eating them, outcompeting them, or transmitting diseases and parasites to them. It is illegal to possess, transport, or sell African clawed frogs in twelve states, lest their owners be tempted to let them go.

Some parents, of course, might simply orchestrate an “accident” by which a frog whose gleam has faded could conveniently exit the family. Even George, who bore more tender feelings for Bunky than the rest of us did, remembers being taken aback when once, while he was reordering Stage Two Nuggets, the woman on the phone casually mentioned that Bunky’s species can live for two decades or more. Bunky appeared to be in the pink, or rather the pale greige, of health. Of course, we would never have harmed Bunky. We were nice people, nice enough that whenever a mouse evaded the steel wool (and didn’t fall into Bunky’s aquarium), we caught it in a Catcha Humane Smart Mouse Trap baited with peanut butter and drove it to an undisclosed release point a mile from our home. We were nice enough that we were committed, through one of the many unwritten contracts that parenthood requires, to keeping Bunky alive for the long haul, even if we hadn’t anticipated quite how long that haul would be. We just weren’t nice enough to make his life worth living.

Now we get to one of the things in my life I regret most deeply. I know that sounds ridiculous, as if I’ve never hurt a human being, and yet my shame is real. In fact, I feel the unpleasant thrum of adrenaline rise to my face as I write these sentences.

Bunky’s aquarium was way too small. Way way. I’d always suspected it. When he was thirteen, I finally decided to do something about it. Aquariums were the only thing about African clawed frogs I ever researched while he was alive. I filled a whole folder, labeled aquarium–bunky, with printouts of online articles. The consensus was that the minimum tank size for African clawed frogs was ten gallons. Bunky was living in a space less than half that size.

It’s amazing how easy it is to avoid doing something important by overthinking it, an activity with which I am all too familiar.

Animal Crackers, the pet store where we’d bought Biscuit and Bean, didn’t stock any ten-gallon aquariums of the right proportions. (Long and wide is better than tall, so as to maximize lateral swimming area.) Exotic Fish & Pet World might, but it was four towns away. And really, wasn’t ten gallons just the minimum? Wouldn’t fifteen be even better? Come to think of it, why not twenty? But twenty gallons would be asking a lot of George. (Note that I wasn’t stepping up to the aquarium-cleaning plate myself.) Even with a filter, which Bunky’s current aquarium didn’t require, the water would need to be changed, and the aquarium would be too heavy to empty into the kitchen sink, and scooping out twenty gallons would take forever. Speaking of filters, which would be best, an under-gravel filter, which one online frog forum compared to a jackhammer,or a sponge filter, which produced noisy bubbles, or a hang-on-back filter, which buzzed if grit got trapped in the impeller well? What if Bunky, accustomed to silence, found his new aquarium hellishly loud? Also, if we got an under-gravel filter, we’d have to buy gravel, and I’d read about a frog who choked on a fragment of aquarium gravel and would have perished if its owner had not intervened with tweezers in the nick of time. Should we purchase more environmental enrichment products, since African clawed frogs like to hide, or should we follow the online injunction to “keep cage accessories to a bare minimum as this frog has strong legs and could send objects through the aquarium glass”? Also, where would we put the new aquarium? It wouldn’t fit on the kitchen counter, and the big table in the den was already occupied by Biscuit and Bean.

The perfect is the enemy of the good.

I never bought the aquarium.

Martha White, E. B. White’s granddaughter, once met a parrot named Zimmy who, when he had been shut in his cage too long, lay on his back, kicked his feet in the air, and squawked, “I love you! I love you! Let me out!”

Unlike Zimmy, Bunky had no way of telling us he was unhappy, and in any case would have been unlikely to say that he loved us. But I always felt that he knew his aquarium was too small without ever having lived in a larger one, just as he knew his Stage Two Nuggets were meh even though he’d never eaten a slug, just as he knew he was lonely without ever having seen a female frog. He knew.

Bunky knew there was something more, just like Gus, the famously neurotic polar bear, born in captivity, who used to live at the Central Park Zoo. Gus swam compulsively, in a figure-eight pattern, for up to twelve hours a day. When we took Susannah and Henry to see Gus, I could hardly stand to look at him. I later learned that Gus’s enclosure was less than .00009 percent as large as his range would have been in the wild.

A student of mine who came for lunch looked at Bunky for a long time. Four-gallon aquarium. Two environmental enrichment products.

“Like, that’s his life?” he said.

When Henry was small, he loved Grimms’ fairy tales. We read them so often that the front cover of the book fell off. One of his favorites was “The Frog Prince.”

One day a princess loses her favorite possession, a golden ball, in a deep well. She asks a frog to retrieve it for her and offers him her pearls, her jewels, and her crown. He tells her that he cares nothing for her riches, but he will bring her the golden ball if she promises to love him and let him eat off her plate and sleep in her bed. The princess promises, but after the frog fetches her golden ball, she forgets all about him. Eventually, he hops up to her castle. She finds him repulsive and does not want to touch him, but her father, a man of principle, forces her to share her dinner and her silken pillow, after which the frog turns into a handsome prince who marries the princess and carries her off in a carriage drawn by eight white horses.

As I was writing this essay, I googled “frog prince moral.” I expected “Things are not always what they seem,” or, perhaps, “Listen to your parents.” Instead, I found “Think twice before making promises we can’t keep.”

One morning when Bunky was sixteen, or maybe seventeen, George came downstairs to find him motionless. Bunky’s head was stuck in the hole in his castle. He had died in his environmental enrichment product.

George had to wiggle Bunky back and forth to get him out.

Our neighbor Nicholas, a farmer who knows as much about animals as anyone I know, said he thought Bunky knew he was dying and retreated to the closest thing he had to a refuge, as a dog might retreat to a corner. But maybe he was just saying that to make us feel better.

Susannah and Henry had been small children when the tadpole that became Bunky arrived in our mailbox. By the time Bunky died, they were adults. Susannah lived in California, Henry in Alaska. Neither missed Bunky, but Susannah told me recently that she might possibly have loved him; she just didn’t like him very much. When we told them about his death, they both remember feeling it was undignified and lonely.

George was quite sad for a few days. He had always assumed that Bunky would die of old age, in his sleep. Getting trapped in his castle seemed an awful way to go. However, George got over it. He washed the aquarium, carried it to the basement, and put a CD player on the kitchen counter, where it had once stood. George is a very kind man, but, after all, Bunky was only a frog.

I was the one who grieved most. Over the years, I’d imagined that Bunky’s death might be, if hardly a cause for rejoicing, at least a convenience. Now I fervently wished him alive. He seemed suddenly precious to me because I had failed him and there was no possibility of making amends. He would never have enough space to swim freely. He would never have better places to hide.

I mourned for all the frogs in too-small aquariums. All the fish brought home from fairs in plastic bags. All the turtles bought on impulse, vegetating in plastic lagoons. All the baby alligators flushed down toilets.

George and I agreed that we should wait until Henry and Susannah were both home before we buried Bunky under the weeping cherry, next to Biscuit and Bean. We joked about it, but we were also serious. We never considered throwing him in the trash. We wanted to honor him in death as we hadn’t in life; otherwise we’d be like a family whose photo albums get thinner with each succeeding child, until the last one has no pictures at all. (Come to think of it, we’d never taken a single picture of Bunky.) So Bunky went into the freezer. He’d spent more than a decade on the kitchen counter, so he didn’t have to travel far.

Yet it always seemed to be Christmas when Henry and Susannah were home together, and the ground was too hard for grave-digging. I was the one who continued to insist that all of us had to be there and everything had to be perfect, like the relative who has never contributed to Grandma’s care and then insists on the most expensive casket. Months turned to years. We got a new refrigerator. Its freezer lacked a dedicated frog shelf, so we filed Bunky’s Ziploc at the back of the second shelf from the bottom. Sometimes we worried that a guest might find him while rummaging for the English muffins and become alarmed. But mostly we didn’t think of him at all. It’s easy to forget you have a frog in your freezer when he’s behind the frozen tamales.

Bunky spent six years in the freezer.

Wait, you had a dead frog in your freezer for six years?

Well, when you put it like that, it does sound a little strange, but . . .

But what?

What is a pet? Is it an animal you love, as we loved Typo? Is it an animal you are responsible for, as we were for Bunky? Do you have to be able to pet a pet? Must there be reciprocal affection, or is it enough merely to have a guest in your midst that has a different number of legs, or perhaps no legs at all? Is it enough to house, feed, and bury an animal, to keep it alive for sixteen years, or maybe seventeen, and never understand the first thing about it?

George and I finally went ahead and buried Bunky without our children. Waiting for them started to feel artificial and foolish. Bunky had spent most of his life as our frog, not theirs.

I retrieved Bunky’s Ziploc bag from the freezer. When he was alive, he had looked almost albino. Though he was still pale, the reticulated pattern of his skin was more apparent now. In his delicacy and nakedness, with one foot crossed over the other, he reminded me of a Hans Memling crucifixion. I’m not implying that he seemed Christ-like. He was a frog! But if you’d looked at him then, you’d know what I mean.

It was a summer afternoon after several days of rain, and the ground under the weeping cherry was moist and soft. Using the green trowel he bought for planting tomatoes, George dug a hole about eight inches deep, much deeper than Bunky required, so foxes couldn’t get at him.

I emptied Bunky into the hole, facing the tree.

George, the family member who never forgets grace at holiday dinners, said, “You used to put your face up against the glass when I fed you in the morning. You came right to the surface and snapped up your food.” He paused. I could tell he was searching, with some difficulty, for something else to add. “You . . . you . . . you did everything a frog should do.”

I said, “I’m sorry, Bunky.”

We filled the hole and tamped the dirt.

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August 2020

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