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Persuasive and determined children with empty households know all too well of the conversation with their parents about getting a pet. “I’ll take them on a walk every day!” or “You won’t even have to feed them or take them out to go to the bathroom,” were phrases I once said in my fruitless endeavor to get a family dog. My ambitious classmates in my elementary school class knew how to make beautiful slideshows and used that skill to pitch getting a new dog to their parents to their advantage. They would use the similar empty promises of full responsibility and add on the faithful “Benefits of Getting a Dog” slide to appeal to their target audience. Jonathan Safran Foer, along with every classmate that made that “Benefits of Getting a Dog” slide believe that “folk parental wisdom and behavioral studies alike generally view the relationships children have with companion animals as beneficial.” In the article entitled “In Defense of the Rat”, author Angela Morales writes about how her children experienced those benefits after receiving two new pet rats and how their lives as a family were eventually changed after learning important lessons of having a pet rat: knowing how to care for something in life, experiencing how to love without the blinds of preexisting notions, and learning how death becomes an important lesson.
Animals have grown to be more than just a tool to teach children how to be responsible people, but they also teach children the importance of those they care about. Jonathan Safran Foer, author of the New York Times article “My Life as a Dog” found in a recent study that “when asked to name the 10 most important ‘individuals’ in their lives, 7- and 10-year-olds included two pets on average.” By that study, children consider pets to be just as important as say their mom or dad, and even go so far as to call them their best friend: “42 percent of 5-year-olds spontaneously mentioned their pets when asked, ‘Whom do you turn to when you are feeling sad, angry, happy or wanting to share a secret?’” (Foer) For children, pets are more than just a learning device, but something that they will love unconditionally. Mira and Leo, the children of the Morales family, felt the joy of caring for their two new rats when they “built obstacle courses and mazes and trained the rats to climb ropes and to use a simple pulley they’d created with yarn and cardboard.” (Morales) Morales even tells us about how they physically loved the rats as well, “letting them crawl on their laps, their shoulders, their necks.” The love and care given to the rats is something that cannot be learned to its fullest extent with toy dolls and teddy bears. It cannot be learned through imaginary friends. It is taught through the care of living creatures and can later be translated in the love and care needed to take care of family and friends.
For Mira and her brother Leo, having a pet rat allowed them to learn the importance of acceptance in the face of stereotypes. Rats in modern literature and media are not commonly portrayed in a flattering light. Scabbers, the beloved rat of the Weasley family in the widely celebrated series and franchise Harry Potter, was actually revealed to a cowardly man hiding from the friends and family of those he murdered. “Even in Charlotte’s Web, in which E.B. White favorable portrays a pig and a spider — two creatures with a history of bad press — the rat, Templeton, is cunning, dishonest, and stealthy.” (Morales) The children’s father and Morales’ husband, a medieval historian, found the initial proposal of getting a rat to be humorous and ridiculous as “the word rat to a medievalist [would conjure] visions of Europe besieged by Rattus rattus, circa 1348, the beginning of the Bubonic plague.” (Morales) However, the Morales children didn’t seem to care about the species checkered past and literary misrepresentation. The children received love and affection from the two rats: “Zipper and Calico bonded almost immediately with Mira, and when she held them, they climbed onto her shoulder and peered out from behind her mass of frizzy hair.” (Morales) The friendship between the children and the rats became a bridge for a higher tolerance and acceptance for their parents and those around them. This complex lesson is something that cannot be taught in a classroom setting, but is necessary for life as they grow up to be empathetic human beings.
Children attach themselves easily, loving unconditionally and wholeheartedly, without any fear of repercussions or insight on the inevitable future: death. As adults, we may become very close with our pets and may even go far as to say they are our own children or a part of the family. However, we are acutely aware that the life span of a human outruns the lifespan of a dog or domesticated animal. Children tend to learn the concept of death at an early age from a loved one dying or from learning that their beloved childhood pet is dying. Angela Morales found that when teaching her children about how their pet rat, Calico, would be passing, her children found important questions about death and grief: “Mira asked tough questions about whether I believe in God, whether animals go to heaven, whether people go to heaven, and why people hate rats so deeply.” This dialogue about death is found to be difficult as one gets older. Grief becomes the overwhelming emotion that all other senses are dulled by the sadness of losing something or someone you loved. For children, however, death is a new concept. Just like how they learned about why they can’t go outside in the cold without a jacket or why they should never go somewhere with a stranger, children encountering death approach the subject with wonder and curiosity than resentment and fear. Morales felt the importance of this lesson when she realized that “death is a mysterious process, much like birth, and that there is a value in helping someone during that process, seeing them through to the end.”
One can argue that getting a family rat would be less than helpful on teaching children responsibilities in comparison to getting a family dog, but I and the Morales family would have to disagree. The family as a whole learned the three important lessons of love in life, acceptance in adversity, and grief in death- not just the children. The parents grew with the children when trying to teach them about life and death. Those realizations were found together in their own unique situation with their rats, and could not be replicated through an experience with a goldfish. Rats are in fact intelligent and loving creatures, and while they still have a rough reputation, are perfect vehicles for these vital life lessons, maybe even perfect enough to make a persuasive slideshow presentation on them.
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