At the annual reptile and amphibian show and sale last week, Thing 1 became enamored of the Australian Blue-Tongued Skink, a particularly silly-looking lizard with stubby feet and, yes, a blue tongue. The man holding the skink assured us that it was laughably easy to take care of ("Give him some dog food every coupla days, that's about it") and nearly as harmless as a stuffed animal. Thing 1 has been craving a pet ever since he had to give up his gerbils when we moved West, so we relented and purchased Skinky for him.
My son and Skinky quickly became good friends. They would sit together on the couch, watching shows on Animal Planet, or work together on obstacle courses on the kitchen table. Thing 1 was very gentle and careful with his new pet, and was only disappointed at the animal's desire to burrow under the substrate in his terrarium for most of the day, emerging only to eat and to bask in the heat of the heat lamp.
Two days ago, I started to be worried about Skinky's health. I could see the skink-shaped bulge in the substrate, but he didn't seem to be coming out to eat. That evening, after the boys went to bed, I opened the cage and tried to rouse him...only to discover that there was nothing in the bulge but wood chips. I felt around all over the cage. No skink.
Well, he couldn't have escaped by himself. The terrarium was locked, and his stubby little legs couldn't have gotten him out anyway. One of the boys must have taken him out the previous day and...what? Dropped him by accident, and then been too embarrassed to say anything? Released him into the wild? I had no idea.
It couldn't have been Thing 1--he would have said something. And anyway, he had spent the day telling his grandmother all about the lizard, and how he wanted her to see it. Thing 2, on the other hand, had been awake early in the morning that day--before either Thing 1 or I had gotten up. He had had the time to do the crime. But could he really have reached all the way into the cage and gotten Skinky out? And what would he have done with him?
The next morning, after a semi-exhaustive search under every bed and couch and behind every shelf, I asked Thing 2 if he had taken the lizard out of its cage. He said no--and betrayed not a hint of guilt. He said, "Maybe bad guys came in and took him." Uh-huh. In fact, when we got to his school, he accosted one of his friends in the hallway and said, "Did you take Skinky?"
All right, I said to myself, so he's a sociopath. At age 3.
Thing 1 seemed to take the news pretty well. He was sad and worried, but not heartbroken. He had no illusions, though--he knew his little brother had done it. The more the little one protested, the more Thing 1 said, "I can see right through you." This made the very literal-minded Thing 2 shout, quite indignantly, "No you can't!"
Somehow, the babysitter was able to get the truth out of him last night. And when I spoke with him this morning, he admitted it. He had taken Skinky out of his cage, opened the front door, and let him go. "He's cold blooded," he explained to me. "He needed some air." Then, seeing the look on my face, he added, "It was an accident?"
No, I said, as gently as I could. Dropping him might be an accident. Taking him out of his cage, opening the front door, and leaving him outside--that's a bad thing, but it's no accident.
I tried to explain why it was such a Bad Thing--taking what's not yours, hurting a living thing, lying...all that. It only kinda sorta made an impression. I made him apologize to his brother. Then I made him bring me his beloved and treasured pirate hat, which I cut to ribbons in front of him. He looked devastated. I said, "I know this is something that you love. Well, your brother loved his pet. And you took it away from him, and you hurt it, and now he will never have it again. And if you feel sad right now, that's exactly how your brother is feeling."
That seemed to do the trick.
And as I walked away to make their breakfast, what did I hear the bereft Thing 1 say to his little brother? Not, "I hate you." Not, "How could you?" But: "That's okay. I'll get you a new pirate hat some day."