Having a pet can teach your children much more than you think…

We have young children and with young children there’s always the debate of whether or not to get a pet. Once you’ve decided you will there’s the further debate of the type of pet you’ll get; what size, colour, temperament etc. and this is all part of the excitement of having an animal in the house. Once you have your new pet home the decisions (and arguments) about names start and these are the sort of discussions that create family memories. Should you call the dog ‘crisp?’ does ‘bumpy dog’ suit your new pet and do you really want to be shouting (as you know it will be you shouting) ‘Sportacus!!!!!!! Where are you Sportacus????” as loudly as you can on a dark winter’s night knowing your neighbours could be listening and giggling at you…?

Pets are supposed to teach your child responsibility in that they take it for a walk, help clean out its cage and feed it. These are the nurturing skills we all want our children to learn and a pet (not a sibling) is a good way to practise and learn in a safe environment. Pets teach children how to love something that isn’t related to them and can’t talk and share their feelings. They learn about subtle body cues –cats swish their tails when they are angry, dogs wag theirs when they are happy – in knowing how to play with a pet and knowing when the pet wants to be on their own. They also learn the consequence of not reacting to these body cues as a cat that has swished its tail and has not been left alone will get its claws out and scratch you if you don’t take notice of its feelings.

Pets also teach about love. No matter how hard a day it’s been our dog always had a wag of the tail and a boff with his head for us. He wanted to sleep on our bed, jump on the sofa with us and generally hang out with us as he actually thought he was one of us. Henry fell asleep on him and we covered them both with a blanket and there they both stayed until Henry woke up. Love can be a loud ‘I LOVE you Mummy!!!’ with arms thrown round you but it can also be a quiet little snooze with your warm friend at the end of a hectic day.

It has long been said ‘get a pet, they’ll teach your child about life and death’ as the pet will, ultimately, die in the child’s lifetime. This is a lesson in life but one that is very painful and it took Henry nearly 18 months to accept and move on after the death of our beloved black Labrador a couple of years ago. Gone was his faithful friend and by God did he miss him. Yes, a life lesson was taught but I don’t feel a sense of ‘oh fab, that was good for him..’ at all as I found it heart-breaking to watch my son’s heart break. Maybe 3 was too young though I’m not sure losing anyone you love is ever easy no matter what age you are.

We were all very excited to have got a rabbit earlier this year. We felt it was time to have a new pet and Patch (as he was named) was looking for a home and we felt we were the family for him. He first lived in the house but then started nibbling things and although we bought him toys and wooden things to nibble on he didn’t really want what we offered and as our house has 70% of all the wooden beams that hold it together exposed we felt it was only a matter of time before Patch ate something he really shouldn’t have so we moved him into a hutch and into the garden. The hutch became too small as he was a growing bunny so we bought him a bigger one which had a large run. The boys all got in with him to play and things were working well until Patch quietly (but impressively) jumped over the run side and hopped out into the garden. We caught him but then felt we needed to keep the run top on and this restricted the boys being able to get in with him. The wet weather arrived and Patch was spending more and more time alone in the garden. We would look out and see him sitting on his own in his run and we were beginning to not like it…

The wild rabbits would come over and sniff Patch’s hutch. He would bound around his cage when they did this obviously excited at seeing them. More and more rabbits came and on some days we had as many as 8-10 wild rabbits in the garden eating, bounding around and coming over to visit Patch. He began to nibble the inside of his hutch and run just as the wild rabbits nibbled the outside and we think they were trying to free him. (‘Free the Latimer 1!’) We’d discussed getting a friend for Patch but felt that this would then be 2 bunnies behind bars (as we were beginning to feel it was) and that would mean 2 bunnies trying to escape.

4 more escapes by Patch and 4 more desperate chases around the garden to catch him and both Hubbie and I felt that we were keeping him a prisoner when all he wanted to do was go and be free with his bunny friends.

Then one day he escaped just as the darkness came and we couldn’t find him.

I was so upset for the boys as they had already lost their old friend of a dog and I thought this would tip Henry over again but when we told them in the morning (after searching the garden again) they were all amazingly calm. Tobes said ‘I think he’s gone off to play with his wild bunny mates’ and actually I do think he’s right. The boys were calm because they had realised, without us telling them, that their pet rabbit was incredibly unhappy and that keeping him in the cage in the garden –you can call it the lovely name of ‘hutch’ but really it’s a cage – was the problem. If we lived in the city or if Patch didn’t see any other rabbits this may have been fine but we live in the countryside and there are lots of rabbits he saw every day running free (and being caught by foxes, wild cats and other such predators) and it was clear that he wanted to go and join them.

We miss Patch but there has been no wailing, no getting upset and not even one tear has been shed by any of us. The boys have said they don’t want any more pets that have to live in a cage as they felt it was cruel and I have to say Hubbie and I agree with them. (I’m not criticising anyone who does, this is just our point of view) Having a pet has taught the boys about love and loss but it’s also taught them much more than this as it’s shown them that having an animal that has freedom, that you can talk to and play with is much more how they want their pets to be.

The day after Patch escaped the wild cat appeared outside the house. She walks past occasionally and sometimes even has a rabbit in her mouth but this time she didn’t have a rabbit shaped tummy or even a large tummy (Patch was about her size anyway and had one hell of a kick on him) but she did come in to the house and stayed for the afternoon. The boys wanted her to live with us and I said that it was up to her that she was free to come and go and choose where she wanted to live and they accepted that.

We will take down Patch’s hutch at the weekend and I’m sure that this will make us all feel sad. We will dismantle it and add it to the large pile of garden waste that will make this year’s bonfire. (As there was so much nibbling both inside and outside there really isn’t much point passing it on to anyone but we do have his first hutch we will donate to a rescue centre) I know we are doing the right thing in not rushing out to buy another one as we all feel the same.

Living where we do animals are free to come and go as they please. The deers that mess about in the back garden that chase the wild cat who chases the rabbits, the badgers that have their sets down the side of the house, ‘Bob’ and ‘Dave’ the 2 male peasants who spent the summer trying to avoid each other but really spent a lot of their time fighting each other, the foxes, the birds and even the bees that made their nest in a hole in the garden all have one thing in common; their freedom. My 3 sons have learned just how important this is to have if you are to be happy, no matter who you are…


About littlewhitecottage

Emma is a qualified teacher with 14 years of teaching in many different settings. From teaching adults and children at a music school to choosing to work in a demanding primary school that was failing (which meant moving from an outstanding school – her colleagues were aghast!) to running her own sewing business for the last 5 ½ years teaching all ages how to sew: Emma loves to teach.
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