by Michael Dymmoch
At this time of year the Anti-Cruelty Society is busy vetting prospective pet owners as parents try to fill requests for kittens or dogs. One of the disadvantages of pets is that children are rarely born with the capacity to research the care and feeding of small non-human beings, so parents have to step in and be the back-up when a child forgets or the cop when a child takes his bad feelings out on smaller creatures. Abusive parents demonstrate abuse ; pets give abused children a chance to practice cruelty before they pass the behavior on to their own kids. Children come programmed to learn, whatever the lesson.
Great parents show their children how to become loving adults, demanding that a child think “How would you feel if…?” My mom was such a parent—great. I’m sure she used that line on me, though the first time I remember hearing it was when she stopped a younger sibling from stomping on an ant hill—“How would you feel if a giant smashed your house and killed all your brothers and sisters?” It’s one of those questions that generalizes to other situation, even acts as a brake to road-rage. (Along with “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”) I know how it feels when some thoughtless driver cuts me off, so I know that guy’s parents fell down on their job.
Properly supervised, pets not only teach children how to care for others, they teach children how to deal with the ultimate road-rage situation—loss of a loved one. The accidental death of a mouse or hamster can show older children the necessity of caution. Death of an old pet, or one afflicted with an incurable malady, can prepare us to deal with the inevitable when our parents go, or friends, or those whose deaths we cannot contemplate—partners, children…
My mother always let me have pets—dogs, cats, guinea pigs, even snakes and a ten-pound snapping turtle (as long as I didn’t bring those in the house). The donkey I talked her into buying when I was 15 (in lieu of the horse teen girls covet) taught me to deal with difficult people. Mom let me keep the pregnant pony I brought home to keep the donkey company. And the pony demonstrated the miracle of birth to all the neighborhood kids when she foaled in our back yard. My younger sister raised the foal and learned the tragedy of carelessness when it was struck dead by a car. The foal’s death inoculated me—as much as possible—against the shock of my sister’s death-by-careless-motorist a few years later. When the donkey finally succumbed to old age, I learned to let go, which prepared me for my parents' deaths.
At this end of the year, I’m taking time to remember all the great teachers I’ve had—starting with my parents—who were never thanked properly for the gifts they gave me, many of which were pets.
Have a blessed holiday, whichever one you celebrate, and a healthy, prosperous new year.
And please consider saving the live gifts for after New Years.