Wednesday, August 12, 2009


I begin this Pigeon Post essay on pets having just walked downstairs to let the boxer dog, Merlin, out the back door and with a twelve-week old tabby kitten, contentedly leaning against my computer keyboard, purring in the sunshine. Also resident in the house is another large, nearly panther-like older cat, as well as the sole surviving member of what at one time was a large group of guinea pigs. We are at low ebb though, usually also having various fish, frogs, any of a variety of rodents, etc.

And now, just a few minutes later, I hear my wife calling upstairs to my daughter (to whom Sonja, the kitten, belongs), "Sarah, Sonja just fell into Merlin's water bowl." Life with pets is full, unpredictable, disgusting, and usually a joy.

Pets are a companion for a child, a better place for them to spend their time than on a Playstation. A pet is their last best friend when the rest of the world is ignoring them or failing to understand them. A pet can be their charge, their first foray into having responsibility for the well-being of another. And not to be overlooked is that, even for the very youngest child, a pet is one rung down on the family social hierarchy - there is someone to whom they can be senior.

Pets are an integral part of the family and in some ways might be viewed as a child's first real dry-run at life, responsibility and growing up. It is often said that acquiring a new pet, particularly dogs, is like adding a new member to the family. This is supported by scientists (see article), who peg the average dog's intelligence as roughly that of a two or two and a half year old human, with the capacity for understanding 165 - 250 words, rudimentary math skills involving amounts up to four or five, and basic problem solving capabilities. Perhaps reflecting their long term co-evolution with humans, dogs also have the capacity to undertake deception of one another and of their humans or, as one of the researchers put it, "they are nearly as successful in deceiving humans as humans are in deceiving dogs."

The human species is not simply a social group within itself as is well established, but has shown a predisposition in all its known history, as being a species accustomed to associating across specie barriers in a way not often discussed.

We have a large population of animals with whom we have shared our history and whom we have affected and been affected by. Cattle, camels, sheep, llamas, horses, goats, pigs, chicken, fish, turkey's, guinea-pigs, donkeys, etc. are all creatures with whom we have shared close proximity for many thousands of years. We have caught and suffered from their diseases as they have ours. We have exploited these animals as sources of food and sources of energy to move things. But there are a handful of creatures, usually also social animals, with whom our relationship extends beyond simple exploitation.

We have a history of close proximity to and interaction with other social creatures such as non-human primates, social carnivores such as dogs and wolves, corvids (crows and ravens), rats, parrots, etc. What differentiates this history from the simple exploitation of animals for food is that we extend to these other social creatures some sort of acknowledgement of their social similarity to us. We adopt them into our lives. They show up in our myths, fables and legends in ways that are quite different from other animals.

One of the earliest species with whom we have taken up was the canidae, dogs. Genetic evidence indicates that dogs and humans have been coevolving for at least a third of the time since we broke out of Africa and populated the modern world. With that long association, it is no wonder that there is such a latent affinity. We have had a lot of time to come to some sort of understanding.

Approximately 63% of US households (71 million out of 115 million households in total) have at least one pet. In order of popularity, dogs are present in 45 million homes, followed by cats (in 38 million homes but with more cats per home than there are dogs per home), fish, birds, rodents (politely called small animals in the survey), reptiles, and horses. In terms of total numbers 71 million homes are host to 382 million creatures (a third of which are fish). That's a lot of livestock that is cheek by jowl with us.

I don't know what proportion of children never have a pet; I wouldn't imagine that it could be all that many, though I do seem to meet a lot of kids with no pets. I suspect though, that it is something like meeting children who can't swim or can't ride a bike; not all that many but they make a disproportionately large impression because you are so surprised.

Children tend to love creatures with whom they share their lives, whether the pet is a large dog or horse or, at the other end of the scale, tiny pygmy hamsters or sea monkeys. While as parents we are perfectly aware of the time, expense, inconvenience, risks, and heartbreak that can eventually be associated with pets, it all becomes worthwhile when we see the genuine love and eventual responsibility a child can show for their best furry, feathered, or scaled friend.

Pets also become the source of a significant portion of the web of stories a family tells about and to itself. It is not just the pet that helps bind a family at moments of fraying, but the very action of storytelling which creates a part of the shared bond.

Sometimes we relate the stories of humor such as the time when our boxer dog, Brutus, escaped from our yard when we lived in Sweden. Sweden is very ordered and civilized and there just are not dogs running loose. While we children searched the neighborhood for our Houdini dog, my mother received a call from the local police station. In Swedish she was told that Brutus had been found running loose and that he was now being held down at the station if she would care to come fetch him. This she did. As they showed her into the holding cells to collect him, my mother realized that they had a man in the cell keeping Brutus company. The Swedes are a marvelous and humane people but this was a degree of caring that took her by surprise.

Even greater was her surprise when Brutus was released from the cell but the man remained. Not a dog companion he, but a fellow inmate.

Stories of shared family outrage as when one of our long line of boxer dogs deftly jumped up onto the kitchen table in order to delicately partake in the iced cake left there to cool. The outrage was not so much about the transgression itself, dogs after all will be dogs, so much as about the fact that he had carefully licked off all the icing and left the cake.

Secret family stories. In one home, we had a pantry and in which we kept things that needed to stay at a steady cool temperature. My mother's many foods and fancy trifles that she prepared for a cocktail party were carefully tucked away there on the day of the occasion. At some point over the course of the day's preparations, the door to the pantry was left microscopically ajar. To Brutus, this was clearly a simple invitation to investigate and sample. Fortunately he was discovered before his investigations and samplings had proceeded too far. However, he had tried out a pate loaf which my mother had made. Clearly, from the fact that it was only the end that was nibbled and had teeth marks on it, he did not favor pate. After properly berating Brutus for his forwardness, my mother set about rescuing and restoring what she could. When she came to the pate loaf, her pragmatic solution was to cut off the nibbled end and serve the rest of the loaf anyway. We young ones took special delight in watching who unknowingly ended up sharing the pate loaf that evening with our dog.

Stories of marvel, admiration and gratitude. When my older sister was a toddler of four or five years, we lived in Venezuela. Big old Duchess, yet another boxer, was the family dog who had been around for all of my sister's life and was a constant boon companion. One afternoon, B_____ wandered into the living room and seeing Duchess lying on the doorsill between the room and the outdoor veranda, began to toddle over towards her. As she approached, Duchess rose up, snarling and barring her teeth to B______. This had never happened before and, terrified, my sister ran shrieking to my mother. Mom came running to see what was the matter, fearful that Duchess might have contracted rabies. As she faced towards Duchess, from her greater height, my mother was able to look over the dog onto the veranda and see what my sister could not. There, in the corner, lay a large rattlesnake. Duchess had not been threatening B____, she had been protecting her from danger as best she knew how.

And on and on. For all the effort and disruption that they can be, most pets are a wonderful and ineluctable part of our family lives.

Our literature is rich in stories of family pets. We have here collected together stories which we hope can be used to prepare children for a new pet or remind them of how fortunate we are to share our lives with an animal companion. We have included a few horse stories but really they are a different booklist. Horses are wonderful animals but you don't usually want one curled up at the bottom of your bed. Likewise we have steered clear of general animal stories where the animal is the fantasy protagonist, a creature in the barn, a part of the natural habitat. These are stories of the animals to whom we are closest.

This book list is divided into three sections:

(1) Picture Books
(2) Books for Independent Readers
(3) Young Adults

Picture Books

Curious George by H. A. Rey Highly Recommended

Good Dog, Carl by Alexandra Day Highly Recommended

Harry and the Lady Next Door by Gene Zion Highly Recommended

Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion and illustrated by Margaret Bloy Graham Highly Recommended

Fish Out of Water by Helen Palmer Recommended

Allison by Allen Say Recommended

Billy and Blaze by C.W. Anderson Recommended

Dick Whittington and His Cat by Marcia Brown Recommended

Floss by Kim Lewis Recommended

Hey, Al by Arthur Yorinks and illustrated by Richard Egielski Recommended

McDuff Moves In by Rosemary Wells and illustrated by Susan Jeffers Recommended

Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag Recommended

The Mog Collection by Judith Kerr Recommended

Puss in Boots by Philip Pullman and illustrated by Ian Beck Recommended

Puss in Boots by Charles Perrault, retold by Paul Galdone and illustrated by Paul Galdone & Charles Perrault Recommended

Sam Bangs and Moonshine by Evaline Ness Recommended

The Adventures of Taxi Dog by Debra and Sal Barracca and illustrated by Mark Buehner Recommended

Bark, George by Jules Feiffer Suggested

Big Dog Little Dog by P.D. Eastman Suggested

Biscuit by Alyssa Satin Capucilli and illustrated by Pat Schories Suggested

Blaze and the Mountain Lion by C.W. Anderson Suggested

Cat Up a Tree by John Hassett and Ann Hassett Suggested

Dinosaur Bob and His Adventures With the Family Lazardo by William Joyce Suggested

Harry by the Sea by Gene Zion Suggested

Mcduff and the Baby by Rosemary Wells and illustrated by Susan Jeffers Suggested

Mcduff Comes Home by Rosemary Wells and illustrated by Susan Jeffers Suggested

Nothing At All by Wanda Gag Suggested

The Mysterious Tadpole by Steven Kellogg Suggested

Independent Reader

Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo Highly Recommended

Big Red by Jim Kjelgaard Highly Recommended

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell and illustrated by Fritz Eichenberg Highly Recommended

Homer Price by Robert McCloskey Highly Recommended

My Life and Hard Times by James Thurber Highly Recommended

My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George Highly Recommended

The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren and illustrated by Michael Chesworth Highly Recommended

Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor Highly Recommended

Stuart Little by E.B. White and illustrated by Garth Williams Highly Recommended

The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith Highly Recommended

The Black Stallion by Walter Farley and illustrated by Keith Ward Highly Recommended

The Call of the Wild by Jack London and illustrated by Martin Gascoigne Highly Recommended

The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford and Carl Burger Highly Recommended

Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls Highly Recommended

Babe by Dick King-Smith and illustrated by Maggie Kneen Recommended

Catwings Collection by Ursula K. Le Guin Recommended

Gentle Ben by Walt Morey and illustrated by John Schoenherr Recommended

Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes Recommended

Henry and Ribsy by Beverly Cleary Recommended

Irish Red by Jim Kjelgaard Recommended

James Herriot's Dog Stories by James Herriot Recommended

James Herriot's Treasury for Children by James Herriot and illustrated by Peter Barrett and Ruth Brown Recommended

Kavik the Wolf Dog by Walt Morey and illustrated by Peter Parnall Recommended

Lad - Albert Payson Terhune and illustrated by Sam Savitt by Author Recommended

Lassie Come Home by Eric Knight and illustrated by Marguerite Kirmse Recommended

Mr. Popper's Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater and illustrated by Robert Lawson Recommended

Old Yeller by Fred Gipson and illustrated by Carl Burger Recommended

Rascal by Sterling North and illustrated by John Schoenherr Recommended

Ribsy by Beverly Cleary Recommended

Seaman by Gail Langer Karwoski and illustrated by James Watling Recommended

Smoky the Cowhorse by Will James Recommended

Sounder by William H. Armstrong and illustrated by James Barkley Recommended

Star in the Storm by Joan Hiatt Harlow Recommended

The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog by John R. Erickson and illustrated by Gerald L. Holmes Recommended

The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico Recommended

Thunder from the Sea by Joan Hiatt Harlow Recommended

Young Adult

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell Highly Recommended

Birds, Beasts, and Relatives by Gerald Malcolm Durrell Recommended

The National Velvet by Enid Bagnold Suggested

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