In what is still the most traumatic event of my life, a friend’s German Shephard bit off my lower lip. I was giving the dog a hug that he clearly didn’t appreciate, and my lip was left dangling from a piece of skin while a pool of blood puddled on the driveway. It took 60 stitches, a gifted plastic surgeon, and a series of cortisone shots to eventually make it right. I was eight years old. But, I vowed then, even as I hated that specific dog for what it did, to never let it instill in me a fear of them all. I was an animal lover before, and I would be after. And even today, I’m hellbent on making sure my 2-year-old daughter is one as well.
I didn’t grow up in a one dog-one cat family. Looking back, I can count no fewer than 15 dogs and cats our family owned, adopted, or took in, at least, temporarily over the course of my childhood. Not to mention the hamsters, rabbits, fish, birds, and pet boa constrictor that I raised from age seven until graduating college. (And no, they weren’t all named Bob!) Enough animals passed through our suburban Georgia house that nobody would have faulted you for suggesting we were running an animal shelter.
The creatures we kept instilled in me responsibility, they brought me joy, and they taught me how to deal with fear and loss. (Also, about fleas! So many fleas.) We had a dog stolen, we had a cat run away. We delivered litters of kittens and puppies in our laundry room, and then learned how to say goodbye. One Christmas Eve, the neighbor’s dog got loose and killed our aging Siamese cat. My mom was devastated.
Pets, and the memories they created ⏤ both good and bad ⏤ defined my childhood. And I want them to eventually define my child’s. Which is why, now, even though my wife and I find ourselves without a dog or cat ⏤ largely due to condo restrictions ⏤ we do everything in our power to let her interact with the animals around us.
We visit the neighbor’s cat, Peanut. We spend afternoons talking to birds at our feeder, and we always stop by to say hello to the black goat that lives in yard behind our complex. We go to the pet store and look at guinea pigs. When she was five months, I walked her around the Tri-County Fair and, despite her falling asleep in the stroller as soon as we arrived, I snapped her picture in front of three kinds of chickens and a barbershop quartet.
My wife and I live in a part of Western Massachusetts often described as “rural but not remote.” There’s a Thai restaurant at the front of our neighborhood and a mall down the road. But turn the other direction and you need only drive a few miles to find yourself cruising through corn fields and dairy farms, past mini-golf courses and roadside ice-cream stands.
Our main stomping ground is a local dairy farm with a petting zoo. And it’s there that we spend many a Saturday morning (kids, after all, thrive on routine) feeding hens, chatting with donkeys , and learning that brown cows don’t, in fact, produce chocolate milk. Sometimes my daughter befriends other kids or pretends to drive the old rusty tractor parked by the peacocks. She almost always climbs atop the picnic table to get a look in the rabbit cage.
Honestly, I don’t know the science behind whether interaction with pets or animals increases emotional intelligence (EQ), or decreases fears, or plays any role in developing empathy. But I hope so. All I know is that listening to a toddler wave goodbye and say “giggle giggle quack” to a duck makes me laugh. Who knows, I may be raising the softest kid the world. But then again, she may also turn out to be a veterinarian. Or a farmer! Either would be pretty damn great. Also, it doesn’t hurt that we get ice cream at the each visit. It is a dairy farm, after all.
Eventually, we will get pets. She’ll have a hamster, or a rabbit, a dog, and a cat. Probably not as many as I had growing up, but we’ll be a traditional pet-owning home with two parents who get stuck changing the litter box or walking the dog and asking “why do we have these animals, again?” It’s inevitable. At least I hope so. But in the meantime, we’re not going to pass up what we’ve got here ⏤ for now, every animal we encounter is a “pet.” And we’re spending our weekends at the farm.