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A late request to Santa sends elf on a hunting trip to bag a bird

by John L. Smith

Beware the precious child’s last-minute request at Santa’s knee, for it’s bound to be something sure to force a parent to run through a wall of fire to fulfill.

We made that mistake this year, waiting until the final week to wade through the winding bread line of shell-shocked humanity for a moment of the Meadows mall Santa’s time so that our 6-year-old daughter could make her breathless request.

What would it be? A doll that rode its own radio-controlled scooter? A stuffed pony the size of Secretariat? Some veterinarian’s instruments capable of completing heart and lung transplants on said stuffed pony, or our own mutts?

Nothing so simple.

Instead, our sweet Amelia made her simple request of the department store St. Nick: yellow canaries.

An easy play, you ask?

Perhaps, if you think it prudent to pay more than $100 apiece for small yellow birds that aren’t the least bit durable.

I’m not talking marginally durable, as in capable of performing heavy lifting or arm-wrestling a Teamster. I’m talking about durable as in able to wear Barbie clothes and consume copious amounts of Goldfish crackers and apple juice, the standard fare at a 6-year-old’s tea party, without a peep of protest. When I say durable, I mean as tough as a steel-toed boot.

Our daughter loves all animals and wants to become a veterinarian. The fact the pet mortality rate at our home exceeds the percentage of loss to plague during the Middle Ages has not deterred her. She’s grown at ease with prolific pet death, and now floating goldfish and strangely still frogs barely faze her.

But the canary request was a real curveball.

I didn’t know they’d cost so much. I figured that with so many coal mines closing throughout America the supply of canaries would greatly exceed demand.

But I was wrong.

Not only were healthy canaries hard to find, but their cost exceeded our pet mortality threshold. Thankfully, our stray dogs, Sparky and Genevieve, have iron constitutions and docile temperaments. The lesser creatures in our home have, shall we say, done less well. Suffice to say we’ve flushed a quarter ton of goldfish in our day.

Undaunted, I set off on a canary hunt.

I was forced to enter a series of pet superstores during the awful Christmas crush. I love my animals, but I refuse to let them pick out their own kibble. Try as they might, they can’t read the labels.

In addition, there was always the potential for an accident. Compound that animal atmosphere with the frenetic pace of the holiday season, and you have the ingredients for Rod Serling-sized weirdness.

One store, which I’ll identify only as Crazy Poopland Full of Neurotic Pet Owners, was a particularly egregious offender. The store offered pet supplies for parrots and pythons, hamsters and horses.

As I waded through pet shoppers, a woman dressed to kill strolled with her Shih Tzu and didn’t appear to notice when her little darling dropped a bomb in aisle 4. Call me uncultured, but I was unaccustomed to having animals dump their bad news right where some unsuspecting schlep might step.

Near the bird department, I experienced another first: A pet Santa. An owner dressed his miniature Doberman in a leather Harley jacket and cap. The poor beast looked like a canine member of the Village People as it strained in Santa’s grip. I imagine its actual Christmas wish included ripping the throat out of the guy who dressed him in such a humiliating outfit.

Finally, I arrived at the birds, including the $100 canaries.

Working quickly, I ran through a variety of scenarios that might appease my daughter.

“Look, honey, it’s a can opener. Santa must not have heard you correctly.” But that would never fly.

So I bit the bullet. But instead of the canaries, I chose mostly yellow parakeets. They’re quite durable, I’m told. And at one-fifth the cost, the eventual funeral service and mysterious appearance of replacement parakeets won’t set us back an arm and a leg.

My ordeal ended, I watched my step. As if to punctuate the moment, a dog obviously overcome by nervous exhaustion lifted his leg near the checkout stand.

And who says animals can’t read our minds?

John L. Smith’s column appears Wednesdays in the Nevada Appeal. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.