Four ways working at Petco changed my life

As many of you know, I am expecting to graduate from law school in May, and part of the graduating process involves a duel to the death with the terrifying beast that we law students know as "the bar application." Comprising more than forty pages of inquiries and requiring the production of over twenty personal documents, it has a lot to do with why I haven't been blogging lately. 

Amazingly enough, one thing in particular having to do with my bar application turned out to provide some unexpected inspiration for a blog post. The NC Board of Law Examiners requires each applicant to provide detailed information for every job they've ever had since the age of 18. Tackling this task forced me to remember minute details of days that have long since passed.  This led me to reminisce about a job that I had all but forgotten about until now. Many of you will probably be surprised to know that during the fall and winter of 2008, I worked as a cashier at Petco.

I had a lot of fun there and worked with some great people. I also had my share of what I will refer to as "teaching experiences." Often life's most valuable lessons are learned under the most unlikely of circumstances. Here are four ways working at Petco changed my life: 

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1. I learned to pick up gigantic rats with my bare hands.  

When I started my job at Petco, I thought rats were disgusting, vile creatures. Not much has changed in that regard. The difference is that now, I am no longer afraid of them. 

Petco is notoriously under-staffed. (I later came to learn that this was mostly due to corporate mandates that the manager couldn't control.) At any given time, there are probably only about 2-3 employees trying to hold together a 15,000 square foot store.

About a week into my employment, a man who looked like he had come straight from the set of Sons of Anarchy came in with his young son and requested to purchase a large rat. That particular night's shift consisted of me and one other guy. At the time, that employee (who shared my hatred of rats) happened to be conveniently elsewhere. I tentatively glanced around looking for him, but he was hidden somewhere deep within the bowels of the store, supposedly "unloading pallets." Unloading pallets mysteriously seemed to be the most important job in the entire store. But I digress...

I realized at that point that it had come down to me, one of Hell's Angels, and a glass tank full of large rats.  I took a deep breath, gave my nicest smile, and said, "Of course, sir. Which one would you like?" In the kind of gruff, raspy voice that can only be achieved through decades of smoking unfiltered cigarettes, he replied, "Makes no difference. Rusty's pretty hungry, so he won't care." At that moment, the little boy with him must have felt it pertinent to elaborate. "Rusty's our snake," he piped in, nodding his head with a proud little grin.

I pursed my lips together and nodded silently as I apprehensively knelt down to the cabinet under the rat tank to retrieve a "size large" cardboard pet carrier. I clumsily assembled it into a little happy-meal-esque box adorned with Petco's trademark logo of a red puppy and a blue kitten lovingly snuggling each other. I held my breath, opened the lid to the tank, reached in, and closed my fingers securely around the tail of one large black rat. The rest happened quickly, but much to my relief, one large rat did indeed end up in the container. Meanwhile, all of my digits remained intact. 

Having apparently been satisfied with the rat I selected, Hell's Angel paid cash for it, then happily left the store hand in hand with his son, whose excited gait gave the happy meal box he toted the slightest of swings as it transported its unsuspecting passenger off to the slaughter. 

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2. I learned the true level to which some people obsess over their pets. 

Most everyone probably recalls the state of the economy in late 2008. Unemployment rates were at an all-time high in North Carolina. In fact, the recession was among the primary reasons I applied to work at Petco in the first place. Strangely enough, despite the economic downturn, the store I worked at showed consistent growth. Every single month. People couldn't make their house payments it seemed, but they could still find the money to purchase $15 dog toys and gourmet treats on a weekly basis. 

The largest order I ever rang up totaled just over $800.00. What was even more remarkable about it than the total was the fact that the purchase was entirely composed of size extra-small doggie outfits. 

Many people were living out of their cars during that time, yet I saw a family drop more than one hundred dollars on a delicate saltwater fish that would most likely die within a week. Very few people have the necessary equipment, knowledge, money, and time to keep exotic fish alive for very long. 

On another occasion I watched a mother of two small children spend seventy dollars on a bag of premium organic dog food. Through the sliding glass doors, I watched her leave the store and load her baby and toddler into her ten-year-old, beat-up minivan. She then proceeded to the McDonald's drive-thru (which was across the parking lot) to purchase dinner for her family. 

People routinely stole dog collars. Some actually took un-purchased flea treatments out of their packaging and dosed their animals right in the aisles. These things were done despite the security camera signs posted throughout the store. Elderly ladies would scour the shelves for cans of expired Fancy Feast, hoping for a deeply discounted price or a giveaway. I can't prove it, but I'm reasonably certain I once witnessed a bedraggled teenage boy steal a mouse from the cage and leave with it in his coat pocket,

It became clear to me during my time there that there are a considerable number of people in North Carolina who value their pets more than their financial security. Others care about their animals' health more than their own. Many routinely risk criminal prosecution to feed, collar, and medicate their dogs. I even suspect that there are a few who love their pets more than their human children.

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3. I realized that one innocent mistake can lead to mass murder

One of the shifts I will never forget was what I refer to as "the night of the minnow massacre." Another employee (not me THANK GOD) accidentally skipped a step during his routine filter maintenance duty of the fish tanks. We became aware of his error about 30 minutes later, when someone noticed that nearly all of the minnows in a 75-gallon feeder tank were floating. With so many fish in a tank that size, if the filtration isn't working properly, the pH rises at the speed of light and the water becomes lethal to the fish

This happened at about seven o'clock on a Saturday night. (the busiest night of the week) Common sense would seem to indicate that the last thing you want a store full of customers to see in a pet store is a bunch of dead pets. For a moment, I thought my 20-year-old shift manager was going to have a conniption. He managed to get his wits about him though, and quickly repaired the mechanical problem. All hands were ordered on deck to remove and dispose of the dead fish before any more customers saw them. Wanting nothing more than to be the ever-obedient cashier, I frantically began scooping dead fish out of the tank with my bare hands, about ten at the time into a plastic container that looked just like the one pictured below. The putrid-smelling tank water ran down my arms as I worked, splashing my grossly over-sized work shirt (the store didn't have my size) and dribbling down to stain the men's Carrhart pants I had assumed ownership of while my then-husband was deployed to Iraq. Attractive, I know. Needless to say, this was not one of my finest moments.  

Fifteen hand washes later, the slimy remnants of the dead minnows still coated my skin. And the smell. My God, the smell. I will never forget it. It seemed to have seeped though the pores of the skin on my hands and forearms, penetrating the flesh to settle deep within my very bones. My hands carried the odor of dead fish for about a week afterward. 

What did I learn? Life is fragile, and death reeks.

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4. I realized how adorably cute mice are. 

I mentioned earlier how one of the worst things I had to do at Petco was handle the rats. Not surprisingly,  I also had to handle mice. I can safely say that I learned enough about rodents to last a lifetime during that brief period of employment.

My work led me to discover that mice are the antithesis of rats. They are tiny, cute, and rarely ever bite. For $1.99, you could take home your very own mouse. As happy as I was to send rats straight down the path that ultimately leads into the bellies of reptiles, I hated selling mice to people if I knew they were going to feed them to snakes.

Sometimes, when the store was slow, I would open the mouse cage just to play with the mice. I even secretly designated a select few as my chosen favorites and offered them my protection, sneaking them treats and making sure they weren't sold to snake owners. 

If  you are considering a small, low-maintenance pet for a child, I highly recommend mice. Many people overlook them as an option. They are more intelligent and affectionate than hamsters, with a better temperament to boot. They rarely ever bite, and don't produce voluminous waste. (I became quite the expert on the amounts of excrement produced by different types of small mammals, you see.) They are a fraction of the cost of a hamster, and they don't smell nearly as much. Finally, it may sound a bit callous, but they aren't a long-term commitment like a dog, for example. If you take good care of them, you can expect to enjoy about two wonderful years together. If you go to a store and hold one sometime, you'll see what I mean.

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As always, thanks for reading!

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