Why Every Child Should Have a Pet

My Experiences with Pets Are Some of the Most Valuable Memories of MyChildhood For my entire life, I've lived with at least one pet. My family has owned, or currently owns, seven cats, five dogs, four hermit crabs, three rabbits, several gerbils or mice, and a multitude of fish. (I hope I'm not forgetting anyone here!) Some of my most vivid childhood memories have to do with these pets. In fact, I remember them as well as the members of my immediate family, and perhaps better than my extended family and friends. This is because they were a constant part of my life. As with my younger siblings, I didn't play with them as much as some people do, but they were still part of my family - quite literally, when I was a child. My pets were like my children, my siblings, or my parents, depending on who it was. Marshmellow, my rabbit, was definitely like a child to me. Sophie, my beautiful cat, was like a sister to me, or even a best friend. And Sapphire, our dependable dog, was certainly maternal. Almost as well as I know the sound of my father's voice, I remember the feel of their fur. I remember the way each reacted to being touched or picked up - the rabbits were skittish; Jess, our chubby cat, loved to be held and to sit on one's lap (especially if one was trying to do homework), while the adventurous and hyperactive kitten Callie would claw to get down after about five seconds. Each had their favorite spots around the house or outside; Sapphire loved to nap by the tree on the far side of the house, while Jess preferred the sunny spot in the basement. Each was so unique. Perhaps this is why they felt - feel - so much like family. Regardless of whether they returned our affection (the dogs certainly did; the cats pretended not to; the rabbits simply seemed scared of everything), they were obviously the objects of it - even when they peed on the carpet, or chewed the furniture, or scratched our hands. They taught me, too, about death. As much as living with pets has always been a part of my life, so dealing with their deaths has been a near-constant. About a month after my birth, our aptly-named cat Meow died, and ever since most of the twenty-plus pets we've owned have passed on, the most recent of which was a dog, Posie, who met her untimely death last autumn. And that unexpectedness was a part of it - while some died predictably, either from old age or from being put to sleep if they were sick and in too much pain, some died suddenly due to an accident. One rabbit ran away, and another broke its back after my father accidentally dropped him onto the ice outside; a dog and a cat have each been hit by a car. And then there was the tragic death of our several-month-old kitten, Sasha, who suffered from feline leukemia. With these deaths I've grown accustomed to the pain of saying good-bye to someone I love, in a manner less painful than it is for others the first time around when they lose, say, a parent or a sibling. This is not to say that I am prepared for those things - only that I was not entirely sheltered, as many children of my class and nationality are. I know the strange strain in my parents' voice when they call to say that someone in the family, including pets, has died. I remember the heart-wrenching pain of burying my beloved cat Sophie, her back slightly twisted from the impact of the car, her body cold and stiff beneath her black fur. Even today these memories evoke pain. Yet I am glad for them. The experiences I had with my pets - from adopting them, to playing with them, to scolding them, to falling asleep next to them, to, at the end, burying them - these were experiences that were fundamental to my childhood. I cannot picture growing up without them, any more than I can picture growing up somewhere besides a little town in New England. I am fascinated by the differences between my childhood life and that of my best friend, who grew up in the suburbs of D.C. and has never had a pet other than the occasional goldfish. This hasn't made him bad with animals; in fact, he's quite good with them. But I feel like I can read them much better - I understand, from my childhood bonds with them, that they have personalities. I know which signals mean they're afraid and which mean they're content. And I have been exposed, from an early age, to the themes of gain and loss, life and death. Having pets has also given me a greater appreciation for nature and for our bonds with our animal kin. I know instinctively that animals are not just creatures meant to serve man, but wonderful and complex beings in their own right. With the dawn of a new millennium, in which respect for our fellow-creatures and for our planet will be crucial, I think these are important lessons to have deeply ingrained in one's conscience. Ultimately, what I'm trying to say is this: Having pets is something every child should experience. Granted that is sometimes not possible, due to financial or other concerns. (For example, my best friend is a triplet - nobody can blame his parents for not wanting extra critters running around the house!) Yet if it is possible, I highly recommend it. Not only will it teach children, as is often stated, to be responsible and to learn to care for (and be gentle with) creatures that are often much smaller than themselves; my experience tells me it will also teach children about companionship, respect for nature, love, and loss. I would not give up my experiences with my pets for anything.