A Child's First Love
Do you remember your first pet? How old were you?
I was three or four years old when my favorite aunt invited me to peer into a box of squirming kittens. They were brand new, grey tabbies whose eyes were still shut tight. Their plaintive mews filled the air with a sense of sadness for me. How I longed to make them feel safe and loved. When my aunt told me I could take one of these little fur balls home, my heart leaped for joy. My very next thought was "oh no, will my mom and dad let me keep the kitten?" I turned my pleading eyes in the direction of my parents while my aunt went to work on them with assurances that it would be good for me to have a kitten. I did get to take the kitten home once it was old enough and now these many years later, I am still struck with the intensity of that first emotional connection with a non-human life form.
Animals play an important role in my adult life too. My current animal companion is a 50 pound rescue named Amelie. She is part terrier and part boxer and 100 per cent love. Her previous owners were unkind to her and she came to my home fearful and desperate to please. It took some time to rebuild her confidence. In the beginning she didn't even know how to play with humans. If I tossed a ball in her direction she would not attempt to catch it. Instead she would cower and duck, convinced that I was trying to hit her with the ball. Today she is full of attitude and loves a rough game of tug of war.
In my professional life I teach anger management and communication skills to adults. When a client begins to retell that first pivotal relationship with an animal in their childhood, their entire demeanor is transformed. Otherwise emotionally reserved people will suddenly become less self-conscious and more animated as they retell the delight with which their particular furry friend filled their life. If the story is a sad one, I can count on tearful sobbing you might think would be reserved for the death of a parent or child. But with little exception, the deepest grief I have witnessed is reserved for that very first important relationship in the life of most children - that of their relationship with a pet.
A great deal of research supports the importance of animal companions to the lives of humans. Many studies confirm a predictive link between early childhood abuse of animals and violence towards humans in adult life. Programs which rehabilitate prison inmates by pairing them with horses or dogs who require rehabilitation too, have proven the power of the animal/human bond to reduce recidivism rates. Therapy dogs and cats regularly visit the elderly and infirm, spreading their unconditional love and creating measurable improvements in human health and recovery rates.
Pets are an economic priority in the United States as well, a multi-billion dollar industry which eclipses the sales of toys. More than a few immigrants to this country have marveled that supplies for dogs and cats warrant entire isles in supermarkets, not to mention huge stores like PETCO and PetSmart which are devoted to pets and pet needs entirely.