The Importance of Pets

Cara Piccerilli is a fourth-grade teacher in Hoboken, NJ. In her career as a teacher, she has had numerous class pets, including two bearded dragons, ten guinea pigs, and numerous fish. Her two sons, Loki (4 year old shih-tzu/poodle mix) and Eli (8 month old human), regularly make classroom appearances to help teach kindness and empathy to the students.
At my school, I’m known as “that teacher” – the one with the hamsters/gerbils/rats/
rabbits/guinea pigs – the one with the spiky lizard. I’m the teacher drawing a small crowd at dismissal because of the bearded dragon on my shoulder. I’m the teacher whose dog makes regular visits to each classroom. Need a topic for creative writing? I’ll happily “lose” a guinea pig in your classroom. Found a praying mantis on your carpet? Call that fourth-grade teacher! Numerous colleagues and parents have come to me for advice on getting a pet, and I’m proud to say that I can count at least 20 families who have acquired pets because of their experiences in my classroom.

Animals have always been important to me, and upon becoming a teacher, I knew I wanted to have as many animals as I could in the classroom. Many of the benefits of pets (including classroom pets) are well known: pets teach children to respect other living things, help instill responsibility, reduce stress and blood pressure, and teach life lessons about birth, illness, and death. However, as a teacher, I’ve seen many other benefits from having pets that are not often mentioned, but just as valuable. Children who grow up with pets or who have regular interactions with animals are often more adept at navigating the social world than children without pets. And first born or only children are provided with a social companion when they have a pet that they would otherwise have been  lacking.

Pets teach children that other living things have their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and that they should be respected. A student who had not grown up with pets asked me one day why the guinea pigs were hiding in their igloos. I explained that the guinea pigs all had a respiratory infection and were feeling sick. She looked confused, and asked again, “yeah, but why won’t they come out to play with me?” I asked her to think about how she feels when she gets sick – and asked her if she remembered feeling tired or grumpy or wanted to stay on the couch and watch TV? I said that animals can feel the same way. Her eyes went wide, and for the rest of the day, she lectured her classmates on the importance of being quiet around the guinea pigs so they could feel better soon.

Having a pet also provides children with talking points when meeting new people, especially if the child is shy. A pet is a great buffer that takes attention off the child and puts it on something else. For many children, it’s far easier to talk about a pet (their name, what kind of animal they are, what they like to do, funny stories about them) than it is to talk about themselves. During our most recent parent-teacher conferences, many younger siblings joined their parents in our classroom. When I asked them to read a book or color while I spoke to their parents I often got no response or the “deer in headlights” look. But as soon as I showed them the class pets, they became animated and outgoing, asking question after question about what they ate, why they looked like that, what noises they were making, and more.

And despite efforts by some to decrease gender stereotyped expectations, it is still common practice in some families to encourage boys to be “tough” and “manly,” avoiding showing emotions like sadness. For many boys, crying is seen as a sign of weakness, something to be targeted and made fun of. If a boy shows a desire to nurture and care for something, he is called a “sissy” and told, “that’s for girls.” However, with a pet, it becomes ok for boys to show affection and love.

Two years ago, our bearded dragon, Darwin, began to get very sick. I took him to the vet, who gave us some medication to treat the infection from which he was suffering but warned that because Darwin was old, the prognosis was not good. I returned to my classroom and prepared my students for the possibility that he would not survive his illness. I told them that Darwin was sick and we were working hard to get him better, but he might not make it. Two days later, Darwin passed away while my students were at lunch. I knew I couldn’t keep my composure around my class, so I asked my grade partner to break the news to them when they returned. I expected them to be upset, but I was not prepared for the overwhelming sadness that affected every student. Many were openly crying, hugging each other, and hugging me. We allowed students time to say goodbye to Darwin and then notified the families so they would understand why their children were coming home so sad. Several parents emailed me to let me know that this was the first time they had ever seen their sons so upset about something. And the following Monday, I was greeted with condolence cards from my former students (now middle schoolers). One of my students convinced his entire class to wear green nail polish on their fingers “In Remembrance of Darwin.” Another student told me I could borrow his bearded dragon any time I liked. I was overwhelmed by how many hearts this little spiky lizard had touched.

Our class pets have provided inspiration for hundreds of children in our school. Every year before my dog’s birthday, my students sort through the numerous photos I’ve taken of Loki that year and find their favorite. They then craft their own backstory for the photo, coming up with the craziest and funniest ideas. Then, on his birthday, Loki comes to school to participate in A Year in the Life of Loki, where students present their final writing pieces. In their worlds, Loki has solved murders, stolen baby toys, played football for the NFL, and even been Donald Trump (he does have a pretty similar comb-over). During our recent poetry unit, my grade partner used our new bearded dragon to show her students how a small moment can inspire profound poetry.

So, if this has inspired you to consider acquiring a pet for your home or classroom, here are some suggestions:

  1. Make sure you do your research. What kind of pet suits the needs of your family or class?  What kind of animal do you actually have time to care for? What characteristics are you looking for in that animal?  Do you prefer a high energy animal or one that will sit and chill?
  2. The holidays are not the time to impulse buy a pet for your children – if you want to give them a pet for the holidays, give them a picture of a pet and explain that you will get the pet together when the holiday season is over.
  3. And most importantly think about your expectations for your children’s interactions with the pet.  How will your children help you to care for the pet? Talk to them about these expectations BEFORE you bring the pet home.  Get everyone’s buy in and stick to your original expectations even when you get push back – otherwise you as the parent may feel resentful of the pet when you end up caring for it.
  4. Children of all ages love pets.  And all children can do something to help with a pet – from the simplest task such as providing love and attention to the pet to helping with feeding, grooming, walking and cleaning up after the pet.
  5. If you are unable to get a pet for your home or class, find ways to expose your children to animals as often as possible, through family members and friends. Use these opportunities to teach your children how to approach animals, to make contact with animals in ways that do not scare them, and how to spend time with animals in a way that is mutually enjoyable. This experience will promote kindness, caring, empathy, and selflessness in your children – skills that are increasingly rare in our social media obsessed world!

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