By Brian 'Fox' Ellis
When I was a kid our house was a zoo. We had dozens of pets including several wild animals!
We had five to ten dogs at any given time. My dad raised blue ribbon hunting dogs. We had as many as a hundred tropical fish in seven tanks. My dad had a friend who owned a pet store and we sold fish to the pet store. I tell you, my house was a zoo.
We raised bobwhite quail that we let loose in the wild to help repopulate this native bird. For a long time my dad raised Gouldian finches from Australia. These birds are day-glo colors in the wild. My father began cross breeding them with simple Mendellian genetics and was able to get colors that never existed before! These birds had purple chests, red faces with a black circle, greenish-yellow backs and orange bellies. At one point he had 100 mated pairs of finches! Do you believe me yet? Our house was a zoo!
At different times we had a pet raccoon and a pet squirrel. My brothers and I brought home the usual assortment of frogs and toads, snakes and salamanders. These wild critters we usually kept a few days and then put them back where we found them. But my favorite pet was a red fox, which is in part how I earned my nick name.
Love For All Things Wild
My daughters have inherited this love for all creatures, tame and wild. Currently, we have two dogs, about ten fishes, two fire bellied toads, two leopard geckos, and four brightly colored corn snakes. We also feed the birds, squirrels and butterflies.
My daughter has a long range plan to cross breed corn snakes. Her goal is to breed unusual colors and sell them to help pay for college. She has mapped out an economic proposal that includes her upfront costs and market research on the average sales price of corn snakes! Originally her plan was to raise anole lizards, but after several died she decided their shorter life spans posed both a financial and emotional risk.
This is the primary reason I would encourage every family to have a pet. The emotional maturity and empathy is priceless and well worth the financial expense. My daughters, for that matter any child who has an intimate relationship with another living creature develops the emotional skills of empathy, responsibility, putting someone else first and learning to love more deeply.
The ups and downs of having pets provide real life lessons in care giving, nurturing and how to handle loss.
Start With One Pet
Admittedly, I would not recommend that every family plunge into a time consuming and expensive hobby. We did not begin with a large menagerie. When our girls were old enough to assume some responsibility we got a small fish tank with two gold fish. The deal was that if they could feed the fish every day and prove to us they were responsible, we would get a dog. They passed this simple test easily and soon we adopted a mutt from the Peoria Pet Rescue.
Dalai, our first dog, is half beagle and half border collie, a beautiful and child friendly mutt. There are several advantages to rescuing an abandoned dog. They are often already house trained. You can meet them, get to know if it is the right dog for you. This is a key point that can not be overemphasized. Scouting out the right dog is vital. A child friendly dog is key. A large dog needs more room; if you live in a small house or have a small yard, get a smaller dog. Also, mutts always tend to be smarter.
When the girls started school we decided that Dalai would be lonely, so we got a second dog. Again, it was a rescued dog. An additional advantage of this program is that they helped us find compatible dogs, going so far as to allow the two dogs to meet on neutral ground a few times to see if they would get along. Our third dog was given to us by a friend who knew we would take good care of an abandoned beagle. Penny has fit in well with Scout and Dalai.
It was a step by step process, but eventually our menagerie grew along with my daughters ability to be responsible. Scooping poop and daily walks for the dogs take priority over favorite TV shows. Because the snakes are her economic endeavor, my daughter pays for the frozen mice, the snakes’ food. Because my wife can not stand the thought of frozen mice in her freezer, we did get a small dorm size refrigerator for the pet food. We keep this in my daughter’s closet, where we also built special shelves so the snakes are contained in their own herpetorium. We keep a calendar of whose turn it is to feed which animals. Though we do not ever make the girls miss a meal, we try to enforce a general rule that the animals are fed first, emphasizing the obvious fact that they are living creatures who die if you forget to feed them.
Dealing With Loss
Whenever you have pets, you will have pets die. The size of the grief seems to match the size of the animal. When a fish dies a simple funeral and a new fish seem to alleviate the grief. Mourning the loss of a short lived lizard was an opportunity to develop resiliency. A family dog is another matter.
Scout, our black lab, border collie mix, recently battled cancer and lost. It is a tough choice with a family pet, but treatment was not working. The girls watched Scout fade. They saw the pain he lived with every day. We discussed it with the veterinarian and he offered sage advice, “You will know it is time when he is no longer Scout.”
Late in the fall we put Scout to sleep. We planted an oak tree above his grave. As our family stood around the grave we each offered a small prayer and said a few words of gratitude for all Scout had shared with us. I remember looking into the eyes of my girls and being moved by the depth of heart expressed in each tear. I knew then that a family pet makes us all richer in ways that are immeasurable.