"Look!" My seven-year-old's finger pointed up, to the top of the wainscotting - a butterfly! It calmly fanned its new wings as we set the groceries down. I scanned the paneling and sure enough, there was the second butterfly, wings still damp and crumpled, perched on the edge of the coffee can that had served as its nursery.
About six weeks earlier I had tried to throw the can away. I showed my daughter the dried husks on the bottom of the can and gently broke the news that the caterpillars she had nurtured so lovingly had perished. "They aren't dead, " she told me, "That's the chrysalis, Mom." We kept the can. She was right. A few days after they emerged that fine summer day, we ceremoniously opened all the doors and windows in the house and watched our guests flutter away. At 22 years, my daughter still recalls that moment.
Growing up, she nurtured a plethora of cats, a dog, a rat, goldfish, and anoles, along with temporary pets like caterpillars. I facilitated these relationships with varying degrees of trepidation: Would the rat bite? Could I stand mealworms in the fridge? Do we have enough room? Is she mature enough to feed it, water it, and clean up after it on her own? Then there are the ethical questions: Does keeping a pet send the message that animals are lesser, perhaps disposable, creatures? Is it right to play with a caterpillar's life or condemn a goldfish to life, well, in a goldfish bowl?
The list goes on and yet... Have you ever seen the rapt face of a child cuddling a baby duck? Felt the reverence for life that the passing of a beloved goldfish can evoke in the young child? Experienced a child's delight and wonder when a house-raised tadpole swims away free as a frog?
Maria Montessori clearly perceived the benefits children reap from caring for other living things. "...if for the physical life it is necessary to have the child exposed to the vivfying forces of nature, it is also necessary for the psychical life to place the soul of the child in contact with creation, in order that he may lay up for himself treasure from the directly educating forces of living nature..." (The Montessori Method.) Especially in urban areas, house pets may be the child's only daily opportunity for experiencing those "directly educating forces of living nature."
Habitat first. As caring parents, you've given thought to preparing your child's home environment - made it safe and amply sized, structured for enrichment and success. The process of setting up an animal's home is worthy of the same attention, for the same reasons: all living things deserve respect. Meeting fundamental needs is a way to show that respect.
Thinking about the habitat first will help you narrow the field of possibilities, so you can offer your child realistic choices. Research the potential pet's minimum space needs - and provide 50% more. If the habitat that fits in your available space is just barely big enough for the animal, don't compromise; choose a different place or a different pet. Think vertical! For example, a chinchilla needs height for climbing and very little floor. Snakes can go vertical; small birds also prefer height to width. Aquariums come in all shapes and sizes.
At about 10 years of age, my daughter desperately wanted a lizard. I considered. She had kept goldfish alive and happy for two years, netting out the extra flake food at every feeding, changing the water daily, and cleaning the aquarium independently. The goldfish had come home one day from a school carnival; he arrived bumping listlessly against the wall of a plastic bag and I expected to bury him within the week. Under my daughter's solicitous care, Chuckie The Carnival Fish had thrived. I thought she might be ready for a reptile. Let's just say my notions about keeping a reptile were decidedly vague...
The pet store lady pointed to the prices for geckos, chameleons, and bearded dragons and ticked off the habitat costs. After I recovered, I asked if they didn't have something in the $10-$20 range. She assured me anoles would be a great choice. My enchanted daughter came home with two beautiful green rain forest lizards, a habitat, and an instruction booklet. Somewhere around page 20 of the booklet we discovered that anoles can't drink from standing water - they have to sip from water droplets on the undersides of leaves. Which meant misting the cage. Three times a day. At a minimum. Ten minutes of advance research would have saved the lives of several innocent lizards and prevented countless tears.
Listen to your children. Then seek accurate information on the care and feeding of the particular animal from a disinterested party; even hamsters vary by type! While some lizards need a hot rock, others need to be misted three times a day. A betta has to be the only fish in the bowl, whereas a tetra requires a school (at least five friends). It's fairly easy to find broad information online; refer to a good library book for important details about specific animals.
Ultimately, you may be best served by contacting a local veterinarian with your care-and-feeding questions first. Ask the veterinarian's office for a pet recommendation based on your child's abilities and previous pet experience. Animal welfare websites and rescue organizations also tend to be very interested in a successful child-pet relationship; the volunteers don't want another abandoned animal to rescue.
If pets in the home are not an option, you'll have to be creative. Is there a farm supply store nearby? Spring means baby chicks and ducks that can usually be gently picked up (by an adult or young child) and petted (while you are holding it, if the child is very young). Agencies that train service dogs often invite volunteers in to help with socializing the animals - puppy-petting every other Thursday afternoon, perhaps? Your local animal rescue agency may also offer older children hands-on opportunities, such as caring for baby birds in the spring. Even in urban areas, there are ladybugs, caterpillars, and worms to enjoy for a time and then release.
We all know someone whose grandparent nurtured a foundling deer (or raccoon or squirrel or bird...). Wild creatures kept as pets were not uncommon a few generations ago. Today, right or wrong, wild animals simply may not be kept as pets in most of the United States. I've persuaded my little nurturer to deliver at least six foundling birds (and one bat with a broken wing) to local rescue centers. Citing "the rules" made it easier for both of us the first time or two; later, she came to understand the real reason: we show our respect to a wild animal by giving it back its freedom.
Which brings us to catch-and-release pets. Insects of all kinds, slugs, and snails make perfect "first pets" for young children; they are every bit as fascinating as "normal" house pets. Children are mesmerized by a "pet spider" weaving an orb web inside a spiderweb frame. They love watching pill bugs curl and uncurl or the movement of a snail's foot on the wall of a glass jar.
Other than the poisonous types (do your homework!), most bugs can be safely captured, observed, and released. Many good nature activity books offer step-by-step instructions for capturing creatures without damaging them, using a paintbrush or a leaf, for example. Pick a leaf or two of the foliage the creature was found on; most often, that will be what it eats. Keep the creature in a small temporary habitat with plenty of ventilation and clear sides, for 24 hours at most. When it's time, show the child how to set down the habitat, remove the lid, and gently tip it over so the visitor can find the way out on its own power.
Frogs, minnows, and caterpillars are suitable for children with some experience keeping insects or other animals, who are also capable of doing research to discover what the animal needs to thrive. Finding leaves to feed a caterpillar or bugs to feed a frog may sound easy, however, each species has unique dietary needs. Generally, stick with commercially produced food for frogs and minnows in order to avoid inadvertantly feeding them their last dinner; did you know that Daddy Long Legs are toxic to birds and frogs?
Long-term temporary pets need fresh food daily. Consider ordering caterpillars (with nutrients) as an alternative to catching wild caterpillars. If you take a caterpillar out of the wild, be sure its food is available in your own yard. Our caterpillars (Anise Swallowtails) ate only fennel. Every day, my daughter traipsed to the end of the driveway and picked a handful. Had we taken them to a place where fennel was not so easily found, the outcome would have been different.
When children nurture living animals (and devise elaborate funerals for the deceased) they come to understand as much about themselves as they do about the pets they keep. When the animal thrives, children learn they can be trusted with a life. When a creature is returned to the wild, children connect with their reverence for all life on Earth. Overall, the upside to giving children these opportunities far exceeds the inconvenience of keeping pets. Scales, fur, fins, or feathers... with some ground rules under your belt and a little research, you'll find the perfect match for your child, your space, and your lifestyle.
—by J.A. Beydler for Montessori Services; Ms. Beydler is a nationally published writer, parent, and former day care owner/operator. Her articles have appeared in several regional parenting lifestyle publications and online.
—Originally Published 2010