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Putting a price on people — and pets

I know we didn’t give a thought to whether we could afford to keep a pet when we got a German shepherd pup that was dearer to us than anyone or anything we had known until then

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Years ago, a neighbour, who was blessed (I thought) with a son and a daughter, while I had only one son, declaimed to me about the cost of raising a girl child. “Girls cost money,” she said. “What with their fancy clothes from infancy, their hair clips, matching ribbons, lacy socks and princess shoes in different hues, then their food and their education and the biggest expense of all — their wedding ... the jewellery, the expensive gifts to in-laws and out-laws once, twice and thrice removed ... It’s endless.”

Stunned by the numbers that were being reeled off along with each item, and busy trying to add them up in my head, it took me some time to get down to the logical question that came without any mathematical equation attached: Why had she made all those calculations for only one of her children?

“Don’t boys cost money too?” I asked, thinking of our son’s many interests at the time and his insistence on collecting He-Man, G.I. Joes, Ninja Turtles, Superman and Batman figurines, and then wearing T-shirts and socks and carrying school bags and pencil boxes featuring the same characters. We would have been in the stranglehold of a money-lender and possibly forever be in debt if we had not reflexively shouted out that magic word we had almost forgotten existed: “NO!”

Once it came out — and it worked — it began to fly about without a second thought and we — and he — made do with what we could afford. We didn’t think far enough ahead to count the costs of what the next marketing blitz would mean for us and the years went by: With whatever we could manage to do in terms of clothing, entertainment, gifts and whatever else he needed or wanted.

‘A matter of money’

I’m reminded again of that neighbour as I read about a study of the cost of pets and which animal is dearer to keep — a dog or a cat. (Apparently, a dog costs almost double of what a cat does in its first year — and the study goes on to check out which animals are more expensive than dogs, which of Nature’s creatures are cheaper to rear than cats, etc.)

“Is everything a matter of money?” I wonder now, as I had all those years ago. Do we have to look through our bank books, tot up our savings, check out pension funds and calculate when a raise is due or a bonus is in the offing before we decide on which pet we should acquire?

Whatever happened to good old-fashioned reliance on the heart and what is dearer to us? What about that visit to a pet shop or a kennel and waiting to see which animal climbs up our leg or fixes us with its melting gaze until we feel we just have to take it home with us?

I know we didn’t give a thought to whether we could afford to keep a pet when we got a German shepherd pup that was dearer to us than anyone or anything we had known until then. We didn’t wonder about costs when we had our child. We didn’t try to figure out beforehand whether we could pay for our pet’s immunisations and the veterinarian’s fees or buy the books and clothes and toys in the market for our child or come up with the school and college fees he would need.

I’m confident that our parents didn’t do this either. If they had, at least one of their children wouldn’t have been born and definitely we wouldn’t have had a houseful (and a garden-full) of rabbits, guinea fowl, turkeys, hamsters and of course dogs and cats as well.

Are we getting to a point where it is all wrong for the heart to have its say?

Cheryl Rao is a journalist based in India.