Monday, July 27, 2009

Learning from Living

Flowers and Petunia. They were tiny baby skunks, barely old enough to have their eyes opened. Dad found them by the pond, abandoned by their mother. They became "ours" for awhile. We fed them and loved them, and I think we even dressed them in doll clothes once or twice. I was only three, but I still remember vividly the sweet skunky smell of them, and the way they cuddled against my chest. I never did understand what people have against skunks. I think most people have just never known one personally.

There was a long parade of animals in my childhood, both wild and tame. Each one of them taught me many fascinating and important things.

I learned that you can have Dog School with a group of dogs, if the grownups leave you alone, and if you are patient.

I learned that chickens grow faster than anything else: one day they are sweet and soft, and the next day they are big and scary and attacking my feet.

I learned that some rabbits prefer to stay in the hutch, but that some rabbits will let you walk them on a leash.

Baby possums look exactly like grown up possums, except they are smaller. They smell differently from baby skunks, but are almost as cuddly.

Baby mice and baby birds prefer to be left alone as much as possible: there is such a thing as too much love.

Sometimes a goose just has to be free.

Raccoons will play with anything. The young raccoon that stole all our hearts one year always washed dog food in the water dish until it dissolved, and helped Dad work on the car engine by sticking his paws into every nook and cranny, examining every bolt and screw. Dad cried a little when it was time to take him back out to the country to let him live his life in the wild.

The summer that I raised my baby goat, Cottonwood, he followed me all over our small town, loping to keep up with me, bleating my name, "Aaaannnnie...." The neighbors embarrassed me when they would sing, "Annie has a little goat, little goat, little goat..."

The day we brought the new puppy home from the kennel, I won the fight with my brother about who got to hold her in the car for the thirty minute drive home. By the time we got home, my dog and I had permanently bonded, and she was my best friend for nearly two decades.

When our grumpy cat had kittens in the front seat of the car, we all discovered her and her new family when we were on our way to swimming lessons. We still talk about the big happy smile she gave us as she showed off her beautiful litter. This cat never was a bundle of joy, but we loved her. For the remaining 16 years of her life, we fondly remembered the joyful kittens-in-the-car day, and we often wondered if she would ever smile at us again. She didn't, but she seemed content enough.

When children are not exposed to non-human living things, how to they learn the important lessons of life? Computer games and videos can't hard-wire a brain to appreciate the nuances of empathy the way that caring for another living being can. Enrichment classes and organized sports may not prepare a person to discern the minute differences between individuals, the way raising a batch of identical baby chicks or bunnies will do. Reading the best descriptive and well-illustrated books in the world cannot give a child the vivid sensory input that my baby skunks gave me.

Most children do not have access to skunks, possums, raccoons, and goats on a daily basis. But what about bugs, snails and worms? They make wonderful temporary pets and provide amazing lessons in science and in life. Another one of my favorite pets from childhood was a little bug I named Joe. I had him in a shoe box for a day or two. I cared for him, observed him, learned from him, and offered him his freedom. Would I remember Joe for all these years if his presence in my life hadn't been important and instructive? He, and all the other animals in my life taught me that everyone is different, that each individual is remarkable.

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