Write an ode about the unending loyalty or curious antics of a furry friend. Did you learn something about yourself or th world from your pet this year? Maybe you learned a lesson from an animal in the wild, or a nature program?
As homeschoolers, we are always looking for ways to incorporate learning into regular life. One of the ways we do that is by keeping pets. I firmly believe what Clark Aldrich says about animals in his book Unschooling Rules:
“Children should have as much exposure as possible to animals. In all animals, including domestic, farm, and wild, are entire curricula. There are biology, sociology, genetics, economics, history, cultures, communication, language, hierarchies, governance, relationships, sweeping story arcs, morality, even nutrition, just to name a few. Animals are the perfect microcosms. They are life.” (pp. 27)
Our area is zoned for farm animals, but our subdivision codes prohibits them—even chickens, so instead, we have filled our “animal curricula” with pets. We have five cats (three outdoors, two indoors), a dog, a snake, and five birds.
Some of my favorite stories are the adventures chronicled by James Herriot, a country vet in England during the middle part of the 20th century. Herriot lovingly tells of the quirky places, people, and of course, animals he worked with. Here’s my “Reader’s Digest” James Herriot style stories of our own animals:
Gypsy and Tootsie were two ginger cats we got nine years ago, when my then three year old son tried stuffing an entire littler of four week old kittens in his backpack to take home from my aunt’s house. We had to rescue them and return them to their mama, until they were weaned, and then my aunt happily gave them back to us. Gypsy once went missing for three days before he turned up seven miles away at our old house, after we had moved him to our new house. Tootsie, disappeared with him, but never made it back to us.
Gypsy (left) and Tootsie (right) chillin’. They went everywhere together.
Bobbie is a bobtailed tabby that lived in the garage of a rental of a friend. Bobbie came with the rental and the owners didn’t want her anymore and our friend said she was allergic and that the cat needed more attention than she could give, so we took Bobbie home. She lives in our garage and occasionally comes inside to be loved on, but she rules the garage and doesn’t like to leave her kingdom for too long.
Ellen and Bobbie, on one of Bobbie’s rare forays inside.
Hagrid is a massive, long haired, grey and white tuxedo cat with huge green eyes, that I got from the local humane society. He is large boned and muscular, and his long hair makes him appear even larger. His paws are almost as big as my palms. We like to joke that he’s part lynx. My daughter and I were volunteering and when I first saw him. His adoption fee was only 10 dollars, due to his age (eight years) and size. Hagrid’s number was up, and he was scheduled to meet his demise the next day, if not adopted. I encouraged everyone who came into the humane society to take a look at him, but no one was interested. It didn’t help that he was terribly shy and didn’t want to come out of his kennel. He was very stressed in the small cage.
My daughter and I fulfilled our volunteer duties and left, but I couldn’t quit thinking about the large, scared cat. After a couple of hours, I couldn’t stand it, I drove back and got him. He lives in our garage, too, having staked out a dark corner for himself. We have encouraged him to come inside, but he yowls like we’re torturing him when we bring him inside, so we’ve tried to make him as comfortable as we can in the garage. Bobbie doesn’t like him, but they generally steer clear of each other. Hagrid has recently started venturing outside into the yard to get the lay of the land. He is timid, but craves affection and is warming up to us. It’s taken him awhile, but he’s finally settling in.
Hagrid in the garage, before he would let me hold him.
Our other two cats are ginger kittens named Fred and George. They are about four months old and will live inside until spring, when it’s warmer and they are big enough not to be prey to the coyotes and birds of prey that patrol our area, looking for easy meals. Much like their Harry Potter namesakes, they are full of mischief and are always getting into laughable trouble.
Fred (left) and George (right), resident rabble-rousers. I just realized how much they look like Gypsy and Tootsie. (though they are not related, so far as we know.) Aww.
Cookie came to us from the humane society, listed as a 1.5 year old “Border Collie Mix.” He is a gorgeous dog, with a black and white double coat and feathered legs and tail. He has beautiful eyes—one blue, one brown. Cookie has the build and behaviors of a Border Collie, though he is longer in the leg than the standard. I wonder what he’s mixed with, but we’ll never know. We opted to send him away for training for a few weeks about a month after we got him, because, although he was a remarkably good dog, we could see that he was on his way to developing bad habits as we fumbled through trying to train him on our own. He was too smart for us. He completed his training and then it was our turn for the trainer to train us. It was a wonderful experience as we learned about canine behavior, and the importance of consistency in training. Cookie is high energy and requires a lot of mental and physical stimulation, which in turn challenges us mentally and physically to keep ahead of him, but he is remarkably forgiving and always, always game for anything.
Finding a good picture of Cookie was tough. In most pictures, he’s photographs blurry as he streaks from one place to another.
One of my favorite book series’ is Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. One of the characters in the second book is a herpetologist named Montgomery Montgomery. I fell in love with the character and his menagerie of weird reptilian pets. This prompted me to go looking for my own reptiles and I was lucky enough to find a young corn snake for sale on Craigslist. We named our snake Monty, a nod to both to my favorite herpetologist and to Monty Python. (hahaha!) Monty lives in a beautiful terrarium and is as mellow and good natured as can possibly be.
Monty is considering a career in jewelry design. Here he is modeling a new bracelet concept for Calvin.
Growing up, I kept parakeets. I have always loved their chattering and squawking. Today, our family has four zebra finches and a cockatiel. My oldest son developed an interest in birds early on and begged us to let him get birds of his own. Unfortunately, he is allergic to parrots, so we’d had to give away our flock of budgies a few years previously. However, he was NOT allergic to songbirds, so we alllowed him to buy some society finches.
I am a little conflicted about letting young children care for animals, because of the sometimes hard lessons at the expense of the animals, that come with the child’s inevitable forgetfulness and naivete. He lost a few finches due to these lessons and they were sad days, indeed. Now, however, he is more experienced and compassionate and mature enough to understand the necessity of regular care for creatures that cannot meet their own needs. We currently have four zebra finches (Elsa, Houdini, Robin Williams, and John Paul Jingleheimer) and we also have a cockatiel named Peaches. Peaches was a wary, shy bird who came to us from a friend who had outgrown him. My son has spent much time working with Peaches and has gained his trust and affection. I love Peaches because he spends his mornings wolf whistling.
Left to right: Robin Williams, John Paul Jingleheimer, Beep (deceased), and Elsa. Not pictured: Houdini (His name explains it all.)
The Others and a conclusion:
I’m sure we’re not at the end of owning different kinds of pets. Two of my kids are actively saving for guinea pigs and a hedgehog, respectively. I am not a big fan of rodent-like animals and didn’t love having the rabbits we had for about a year, but the kids are determined to try their hand at caring for these other animals.
One thing I’ve discovered about having pets is that I have become LESS sentimental about them—as much as I love them---I am not afraid to re-home pets that are not being taken care of well. (Our rabbits were ultimately rehomed because the kids weren’t interacting with them or cleaning the cage often enough for my liking.) I cannot abide dirty, smelly cages, or dander and fur all over everything. So, the care and keeping of the pets in order to keep my house clean and orderly is a high priority! It is frustrating when the kids don’t keep my schedule or standard for cleaning and maintenance, but I know they are still learning (especially the younger ones) and I am trying to be patient as I teach them the importance of proper care for our pets.