When I was a child, I briefly had a possum as a pet, and that taught me a lot about responsibility and about love. Namely, that possums are very difficult to love, and no matter how much you struggle to love them, they will love you even less.
When you grow up in the country as I did, a lot of animals come in and out of your life: cats and dogs, birds, turtles, fish, rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, snakes, horses, pigs. At some point or another, we kept nearly every kind of pet there is, except ferrets, because my mother shuddered at the mere utterance of the word “ferret.” Some of our pets lived a long time, some of them ran away, and inevitably some of them were hit by cars. I loved them all, and entered adulthood firmly a pet person.
So it regularly bums me out that my kids won’t have pets, because we now live in a small apartment that doesn’t permit cats or dogs. Lately, my 5-year-old son has been lobbying for a fish, but I’m balking: The primary purpose of a pet, in my opinion, is to have something to pet, and to snuggle with, and to play outside with. Any of those things, for fish, are tantamount to murder. And frankly, at this point in my life (two kids, a job) whenever I see even the prettiest, brightest, gurgliest tank, all I think is, “So who’s spending half of Saturday scrubbing algae off the sunken castle?”
But I do wonder if my sons are missing out on something by not having a pet. I learned a lot from caring for our Labs, tabbies, rodents and swine: I learned what it felt like to have a creature depend on you for its care. Even at 5, that was a profound experience. I took very seriously my tasks of feeding and watering the animals; I accompanied my mother on vet visits and helped her tend their injuries. I also learned, regarding the possum, that no matter how much you may dislike a creature, if you put it in a cage, you have a responsibility to take care of it. Tending my animals taught me to think about someone other than myself. Those lessons have stayed with me. Even now, as I’m filling bottles for a trip to the park, I can hear my mother’s voice saying, “All creatures need fresh water!”
Finally, I do think it’s important for children, especially boys, to get some practice caring for another creature. This is not only to teach the nitty-gritty of care work—for example, the regular routine of food and water—but also to learn to enjoy care work, to feel the satisfaction of tending to someone else’s needs. I’m not sure that children today, with parents so focused on school and achievement, learn those kind of skills anymore. Pets are the first step to learning to care for someone or something beyond yourself, and I’m sorry my sons won’t have that.
For us it’s not in the cards right now, and so the boys will have to get their lessons elsewhere—plenty of people grow up without pets and learn empathy and responsibility in other ways. God knows there are a lot of people who need assistance and care in this world, and I hope they’ll develop the desire and ability to help when they’re able. No, my desire for a pet is probably more my own nostalgia for my childhood, which was so different from my kids’ urban upbringing.
The possum, whom we’d rescued from an injury and nursed back to health, was not grateful for his care. He (she? who had the nerve to look?) was so ungrateful, in fact, that he would bite us every chance he got. As soon as his wound had somewhat healed, the vet said we had to free him or he’d lose his wild-animal skills, and then we could never let him go. So we opened his cage. Without so much as a backwards glance, he ambled his ugly self back into the underbrush, gone forever.