Jared Wasserman's parents aren't wild about his current crush. One recent morning as this long-lashed five-year-old sat tugging on his big toe in the pristine den of his parents' duplex, he announced he had fallen in love. "I'd like to marry Rudy," he said.
It is an interesting choice; Rudy is male and can't talk. He is Jared's hamster. Jared and Rudy, however, have not moved in together yet. This is because the parents Wasserman like having their home pet-free.
"I've never been an animal person," said Jared's mother, Marla Wasserman. "I could do without the flies."
Rudy is part of a small population of pets in New York that can be leased or adopted part-time. He lives in a cage with Jared's name on it in Manhattan at the Art Farm in the City, an indoor petting zoo and educational center that is home to 15 kinds of small creatures like millipedes and cockatiels, all of which can be rented yearly for US$100 (for a tarantula or a frog) to US$300 (for a chinchilla or rabbit, which require more upkeep). In general they live at the Art Farm and make occasional visits to their part-time owners' homes.
If a short-term adoption of a pet is what you're after, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, among others, offers dogs and cats for this purpose; elsewhere in New York City, rabbits and snakes and even ducks are available, often gratis, to part-time caretakers.
Pets in New York City are both privileged and pitied. While often pampered to the point of fetishization by their owners, they are also often more familiar with the feeling of sisal and concrete underfoot than gravel and grass. But even for animal lovers, city pets are usually more difficult to keep than their country cousins. There are the small apartments, the roommates, the building regulations, the allergies and the lack of outdoor spaces. So New Yorkers who cannot live without the footsteps of a millipede or the purr of a cat are turning to part-time solutions.
"My roommate is sort of so-so on the whole pet thing," said Abby Zidle, 35, an editor at Harlequin Books and a longtime cat lover, who said she has taken about five temporary cats in the course of the past few years from the ASPCA, usually for a month at a time, or until her roommate says enough.
"Cats get bored," she said. "You need to care for them a lot, and I think sometimes people don't recognize how involved it can get. Getting a pet for a shorter amount of time can therefore just be easier."
Although the ASPCA said that animal fostering programs are available in nearly all of the 5,000 shelters it helps support around the country, the organization has found that the dense population of both people and stray animals in urban areas makes these programs far more popular in cities than elsewhere. Valentina Van Hise, a co-founder of the Art Farm, said that its part-time pet program is the only one she knows of.
"It's something that appeals to people in the city because people are in smaller spaces with busier lives and parents are just like, `I don't want to deal with having this thing in my home all the time,'" Van Hise said.
Sean Casey, the owner and founder of Sean Casey Animal Rescue in Brooklyn, has adopted out everything from wallabies to alligators and currently has cats, parakeets, hairless rats and a dozen other types of animals ready for adoption or part-time foster care. He said corn snakes and rat snakes are the ones people ask for the most. Cats and dogs tend to be the animals that are returned the fastest because they require more work and training than people expect.