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By Barbara Perlmutter, LCSW (Stepfamily Consultation and Counseling Seattle, Washington)

"Baaaarb! Come quick!" five year old Jack screeched from the bedroom," Sophie is eating BT!" I raced into Roxie (age 8) and Brook's (age 11) bedroom to find my allegedly harmless eleven-year-old dog border collie Sophie with BT, Jack's box turtle, held determinedly in her jaws like a prized soup bone from the neighborhood butcher. All three kids were wailing as I attempted to extricate the apparently lifeless turtle, with its gnawed and scalloped shell, from Sophie's reluctant jaws. Thus began my first evening of babysitting my future husband's three children. Bedtime stories were sacrificed to the tear filled wake as we planned for BT's service and burial, awaiting Steve's return from the class he was teaching.

stepfamily and pets

In the first year of my relationship with Steve, I began to read articles and talk with friends about being in a relationship with someone who had children. Everyone talked about stepparenting, finances, and the "ex". No one mentioned pets. They should have.

I've always known that pets are important family members. It turns out that more than 60% of households with children in the US have pets, and 40% of these have more than one pet. Dogs lead the pack, with cats close on their tails. These households are also twice as likely to have pets such as fish or birds. Pet popularity knows no class or political affiliation. Ever since Woodrow Wilson, there has been an uninterrupted parade of presidential pets through the White House. Pets are a predictable part of the American family life today.

So there I was. I looked at this man I loved. Not only did I see a man with a son named Jack and two daughters named Brook and Roxie. I also saw a man with a dog named Pepper, a salamander named White Fang, a cockatiel named Gali, a rabbit named Floppy, a gerbil named Waldo, as well as BT and his brother Sheldon. As if this weren't enough, there were continual stories about Sidney, the long deceased and now legendary Australian Shepherd who was the family dog prior to Steve's divorce.

Over the years that we dated, several unheeded warning signs presented themselves. First there was the three-hour evening of chasing Waldo from room to room, from bed to bed, behind piano and under the fridge, until, tragically, it got squished when the couch was moved in an attempted rescue. Then an injured crow named Midnight found refuge for several months in a cage on the back deck. There was the day that Floppy was nearly electrocuted chewing on the lamp cord. And always there was Brook, the juvenile vegetarian and radical animal rights advocate who brought home every at-risk bug, tadpole, and crustacean she encountered.

Despite these ominous forebodings, I barely gave the issue a thought until moving day several years later. Sophie and I arrived in a most orderly fashion with our meticulously sealed, labeled boxes and relatively manageable contributions to the new household. And then there was Steve... cages of all sizes and shapes, leashes of all lengths and colors, bags and containers of food for all creatures great and small. All of the animals arrived in the big yellow rental "ark", except for the goldfish left behind in the back yard pond of the old house. It suddenly occurred to me that pets were to be a formidable factor in our stepfamily.

The adjustments were immediate and challenging for all. First there was Sophie, a hitherto "only pet", treated as deferentially as a child, who had never missed a meal and had never seen the inside of a kennel. As an elderly dog, she was a bit set in her ways and was used to having peace and quiet. She had never developed a fondness for kids or other dogs. Pepper was obliging in becoming immediately submissive to Sophie, a relationship that endured, other than one incident the first year in which there was a disagreement over a pilfered pork-chop at a family barbecue resulting in a $200 visit to the emergency vet for a few stitches.

Suddenly pets became an "issue". First, where to put them. I did not want any cages, smells or messes in our small eat-in kitchen. So, the turtle tank went to Jack's room and Floppy's hutch found a place in the back yard. Gali originally moved into Brook's room; but Brook was now a teenager, leaving for school early, often staying out late, and living at her mother's house every other week. Gali began to show signs of depression from the long, lonely dark days. So Gali, of course, ended up in our kitchen. Sophie's advancing years brought increased shedding and incontinence, which precluded access to the living room. So the dog beds, of course, also ended up in the kitchen. Before long, our kitchen, the room I most love and frequent, had become a menagerie, with bird seed husks on the floor, two dog beds and an unsightly "dog-proof" gate, easily leaped over by the ever rambunctious Pepper and chewed through by the ever persistent Sophie.

Over time I began to feel overwhelmed and resentful about the inordinate amount of pet care falling to me. The kids were getting older and developing new interests. The hours Roxie had previously spent pampering and outfitting Floppy were now spent pampering and outfitting herself. Jack began to grow resistant to the smells and chores of the turtle tank and the dogs sharing his room. Brook had tired of carrying Gali on her head and teaching him new songs.

One day a light bulb went on. Not only were there three children needing care and feeding, there was also the host of creatures demanding constant attention. Having been raised with animals, I came to understand the lament of my own mother, "Why am I the one who always takes care of the animals?" Despite the kids' declining interests in the pets, however, there was all-out resistance to my attempts to find the animals more appropriate homes. Regardless of my somewhat shaky parental status as "the step mother", my strong values around caring responsibly for pets prevailed. A new home with another rabbit was found for Floppy, who, to our surprise, gave birth several months later to a litter of bunnies. The turtle tank went to Jack's classroom and delighted dozens of his schoolmates. Pet chores were reassigned. Brook was now given the task of feeding the dogs and taking care of Gali's cage, and Jack became the after school dog walker. Roxie' interest in pets had all but disappeared.

As the years have gone by, our stepfamily has continued to evolve and change, as has our step pet life. Brook, now in college, left behind the dog feeding and cage cleaning tasks, which have been taken on by Jack, Steve and me. Roxie, now living with us full time, still resists any pet involvement, opting for the garbage, recycling, and kitchen floor duty. Just weeks ago, Sophie, aged 16, still never having seen the inside of a kennel nor having missed a meal, had to be put to sleep, to our great sadness. Pepper is lonely, but still can muster up some mischief now and then. The other day, missing Sophie, I said to Steve, "I've been thinking about getting a cat." Steve replied, "Maybe we should wait until Gali dies. You know—cats—birds—" "How long do cockatiels live?" I asked, hopefully. "I think 35-40 years," he admitted. "Maybe we better think about a hedgehog instead."

I often think back to the night that Sophie gnawed BT. I felt painfully responsible and feared for our future together. Later that evening Steve had returned and joined us on the couch in our grief. A mournful half hour passed, when suddenly to our disbelief and joy, BT's head poked out apprehensively from his chewed and ragged shell. Slowly, he peered around the room and stretched out his legs, one by one. The kids squealed with delight as the burial plans were abandoned and the Popsicle stick cross was dismantled. I went to bed that night with new hopes for the possibility that all of us, and our pets, might someday become family. In the eight years since that night, we have.