Pets just have so much to offer. I was reminded of this twice this week. First the message came with a personal experience and one of our pet chickens. It came second in a great piece that was written in ‘The Washington Post‘, “Want to Raise Empathetic Kids? Get Them a Dog,” by Denise Daniels, Child and Parenting expert.
Pets, any pets, are more than just a gill, a feather, a wagging tail, or an “attitudinal” or cuddly cat. They are companions and great teachers of some of life’s largest issues. As I have written about before, we have egg laying chickens. One was lost last fall to a probable heart malady or other sickness. This week we had to put one down. Our beloved rooster Bozo came to his end after an aggressive streak. Mind you, this is built into roosters. We knew this going in to it. Up until the last few weeks he was a kind and calm fella. But once they reach full maturity (about a year), they become even more protective of their hens, feisty, and promiscuous in the chicken way. Up until most recently, he was the type of chicken you could easily pick up, cuddle, and pet. Towards the end, he’d aggressively run after you, bat you with his feather, fly at you, and as our three and half year-old son learned, scratch and peck you.
It was his “in between days” that were a joy. He was beautiful, multicolored- such a proud and lovely sight to behold. He was funny, almost comical in the way he’d run like a turkey, just gaze at you, and become mush in your arms. He watched out for his girls, Comet and Snowflake. He and Comet were inseparable mates and almost sappy in their attention to one another. While Snowflake is at the top of the pecking order and often “travelled alone,” he also looked out for her. In the last month, he never left the two chickens’ sides. The kids loved him for his quirkiness, gentleness (except at the end), regal nature when he wasn’t being a clown, and love of his chicks. He showed them how to look out for each other, that you could be both goofy and proud, that flair comes with being a colorful character, and that love defies any pecking order. He also offered them sad truths about life and death, choices that have to be made when it comes to safety and care, and quality of life issues. Our chickens are free ranged. We all decided that to keep this guy in a pen the rest of his life was unfair to him and not the life he’d want. It was hard, so very hard. It again was one of the many hello and goodbyes in this life.
“The Washington Post” article that I referred to brought up some of the same points. It underlines how pets are great teachers of emotional intelligence. As Daniels writes, emotional intelligence is the best indicator of child’s success in school, outweighing academic abilities. She discusses unlike IQ that to many is fixed from birth, emotional intelligence can be nurtured and strengthened in someone. Its cornerstone, empathy and the ability to understand and connect with others, needs to be stressed from a young age. Recognizing and meeting the needs of an animal gets even the most aloof child outside of herself and concerned for the welfare of someone or something else. For a child, taking care of animals is empathy at its best!
Daniels also discusses how taking care of pets teaches responsibility and builds self confidence, when done well. They can even be great reading buddies, giving the most reluctant practicing reader a silent, yet supportive audience who is all ears, tail, gill, or feather. When a child needs to read out loud, they maybe more willing and wanting in front of a pet. She goes on to discuss the studies and her experiences that find pets to be great stress reducers and helpful in helping children express their emotions in the most dire and tragic of situations. She discusses the children who went through Hurricane Katrina and Sandy Hook and the difficulties they had with their sadness and anger. Pet therapy was used and greatly facilitated comfort and communication.
Our Bozo was more than a rooster, just as your pet is more than a fish, cat, dog, or rabbit. As we told our children, with the joy of pets, also comes their sorrow. A life lesson indeed….