By Megan Mueller
Illustration by Ellen Dubreuil @thelastdraw
What is it about our relationships with pets that make them so enduring, and how do they connect us to the wider, natural world – making it more likely that we will act as earth stewards? For many, experiences with pets are experiences akin to some of the most positive and important experiences as humans – particularly experiences of caring for and being cared for by another. Research by many scholars who study human-animal relationships, including our own research at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, has shown that children closely attached to pets also demonstrate compassion and caring for all animals — as well as intolerance for cruelty to animals. In short, it is this potential for pets to elicit in us feelings of attachment, empathy, and care that make pets so relevant for helping children to connect to and care for the wider, animal world.
Furthermore, just as secure attachments to parents foster exploration of the wider world, so too can secure attachments to pets foster curiosity and wonder about the marvelous diversity that is the animal world — the virtually infinite diversity in color, shape, size, behaviors, and living environments – curiosity and wonder experienced in the presence of the largeness of elephants and the smallness of lady bugs – and manifest in children’s questions:” Why don’t tigers live in houses? What do ostriches eat? How can a whale hold its breath for so long?” – the list of qustions is never ending. As these questions tell us, it is because animals are both similar to and different from humans that they provide children with ways to expand how they see themselves in the world – so that some day they might come to see themselves as human animals participating in a much larger world than they ever imagined back when they played in the backyard with a family pet.
But how can positive experiences with pets and animals foster possibilities for becoming an earth steward? To have good feelings and curiosity is, after all, not the same as acting to be an earth steward. Positive experiences with pets and other animals do so because they get children ready to care for the habitats and complex systems that sustain animals and that, in fact, sustain us all. The pathway from pets to informed environmental activist may be long and circuitous, but it is a pathway nonetheless, one that is there for countless numbers of children and teens, if only they are encouraged to follow it.
Megan Mueller is the Elizabeth Arnold Stevens Junior Professor and Assistant Professor in the Department of Clincial Sciences at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicince at Tufts University.