I know that I'm not a bad person. Most people who know me would judge me both kind and competent, possessing a firm belief in "justice for all." I stand with pride when the flag passes by, cry when I watch McDonald's commercials on TV, have learned to make comments about the action on the field during a football game without sounding stupid and drive an American-made car - the ever popular "grocery-getter." I have even donated blood - once.

I pursue my role as a mother with equal diligence. I have learned to like children, including my own. Through trial and error, I have become a practitioner of the philosophy that a fabric softener should be used in the laundry, and that great care should be taken in choosing peanut butter. Because of my children, I support PTA fund-raisers, the local grocery store and the neighborhood milkman - all of whom would be bankrupt within a week if I stopped patronizing them.Yet, my qualifications for motherhood and patriotism are challenged every time I refuse board and room to the stray animals my children bring home.

It's not like I've never allowed my children to have pets. Why, we have even graduated from the "goldfish-in-the-bowl-stage" - graduated to such things as hermit crabs, toads, tropical fish, lizards, newts, tree frogs, rabbits and snakes. (Oh, all right, so what if the snake was dead before I finally gave my son permission to keep it. He played with it for 30 minutes before burying it among the strawberries. I'm still going to count it.)

The stray that they have their hearts set on at the moment is a small black dog that followed my oldest son home from work two nights ago. The dog, he says, managed to tail him a distance of 10 miles in the dark, at speeds up to 55 mph, while he did all sorts of evasive maneuvers in his car to lose it. This black dog is the reason my children plastered every mirror in the house last night with signs that said "Save the Dog," "Stopping cruelty to animals must begin in your own home" and "If you can't depend upon your own mother, you might as well go to the dogs."

"Weren't you ever a child?" my husband asked as he helped me remove the signs. "Did you ever own a dog?"

"Sure, I had lots of animals when I was growing up," I replied. "Cats, rabbits, lambs, a horse and, yes, several dogs. But I lived on a farm, and animals were something that stayed outside. Our children think that animals - especially dogs - are no different from the stuffed animals that adorn their beds. `Animal-do-do' doesn't exist in the mind of a child. It is merely a scare tactic used by mothers to keep children from the joys of owning a pet."

Remembering my own pets, I recall one black Labrador puppy, about the same size as the black stray now lurking at the back door, who raced through the fields with me the spring I was in the fifth grade. Petrox was her name, uniquely named after passing a Texaco service station advertising the new fuel additive on our way home with the new puppy. She disappeared mid-summer and I never saw her again. Yes, I know the love and heartbreak that comes with pet ownership.

The irony is that we already have a dog of our own. Muffin has been a part of our family for three years, and before her we had Mindy, who lived with us for 10 years. So, my children have grown up having a dog around the house.

"Why are strays so wonderful?" I asked my husband.

"It must be their vulnerability," he answered.

"Ah, yes. Vulnerability. That's the ploy you used on me when you first talked me into getting a dog 14 years ago. Why else would a sane, mature, college graduate allow a puppy to enter her house and chew up socks, shoes, toys, telephones, shed on carpet and furniture and still live."

"You're getting cynical in your old age," he said, sticking up a sign to my forehead that read: `Woe unto them who desert the needy.' Remember, the joy of pet ownership is priceless."

"Priceless!" I scoffed. "Priceless only because the cost of pet ownership adds up so quickly that the pet-owner's brain reaches overload and loses track."

My husband decided that our first dog would be a boxer. Why?

"Because that's what I had as a boy, hang the cost."

To this day, I don't think he realizes what "Hang the cost" did to our budget. Over a 10-year period, owning a boxer set us back well over $3,000. Costs such as shots, spaying, ear-clipping, licensing, food, storm doors to keep her inside the house, chain-link fence to protect the $6 rabbits, re-sodding the grass, carpet cleaning, replacing clothes, toys, carpets and furniture were never considered when he plunked the initial $150 down to purchase her. Yes, the joy of pet ownership is definitely priceless.

I mentioned the $6 rabbits. My eldest son talked us into those as a Boy Scout merit badge project.

"It would be so-o-o much fun raising baby rabbits Mother, and besides they're a good source of meat."

Well, have you ever tried eating a family pet? We had leg of lamb one Sunday for dinner. One of the children asked what kind of meat we were eating, since it was different from the roast beef we usually had.

I jokingly said, "It's one of the rabbits."

Not another bite. The 9-year-old left the table and headed outside for the rabbit hutches. In his hurry, he miscounted, and I had five very sick children on my hands.

We had the rabbits for three years. By the time we delivered the rabbits and their hutches to Wheeler Farm's petting zoo, they had multiplied several times over, but we had never eaten a one.

With the rabbits' departure, our family was "vulnerable" once again to becoming the home of another "priceless" pet.

Mothers somehow have the ability to forget pain.

"That's why a mother is willing to get pregnant a second time," my mother philosophized once. "If the pain of labor was remembered, there'd never be a second child in a family."

The absence of a dog in a home for a period of time must affect mothers the same way. They forget that the motto of all puppies is "Chew and destroy." I've often wished that the puppy stage could be bypassed - sort of like having children born at age 3, fully toilet-trained, walking, and able to dress and feed themselves from the start. Nevertheless, my memory failed me long enough to be talked into letting another dog enter my family's life.

I agreed to Muffin, our cocker-lhasa puppy, only if she stayed in the garage. But relegating a cream-colored ball smaller than a man's fist to

-Karla J. Gaines is a Salt Lake free-lance writer.