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Is Keeping Pets cruel?

When we got up one morning, my son found his beautiful black fantail fish struggling, low down in the tank, sometimes turning upside down. My daughter’s fish, also fantailed but golden, was desperately trying to support the ailing one, going underneath and pushing him up, and circling around him, nudging him.

Sadly, to no avail: the black one died later that day. We watched intermittently during the day, Goldy’s gentle attempts to help him, and her increasingly desperate nudges as he failed to respond. It was the first time I realised that even fish have a bond, a caring, for each other.

A friend commented the other day, that she would not keep fish because they die so easily. And indeed, several abandoned fish-tanks in our loft speak to that. However, when we did have them, we were able to keep them for long periods, and it was a family-sharing of the joy of keeping these beautiful creatures alive and well: we learned a lot about water quality, fish food, and their habits.

Variously during our children’s growing up, we kept rabbits, fish, cats, gerbils, budgies and finches and even stick insects. We also by default kept a family of foxes, who lived under our garden shed till the cubs grew up and left, and we blocked their access to their ‘den’. Our older son had the most eclectic range of animal loves. At about ten years old, he once went through Airport control in Pakistan, and reached the final check where he was body searched, when a shout went up, and there he was with a box of slow worms he was planning to smuggle home to UK – he did not tell me his plans because he knew my fear of snakes!

Our longest pet experience was with budgies and cats. The budgies were very sociable little fellows, one especially: Rocky, who used to go around the house on our shoulders, and take nibbles at salad bits offered to him. He even walked down to the shops on our son’s shoulder! Sadly, he got caught by a cat and died, and was buried in our garden, along with various goldfish, and a cat, which we had adopted from Battersea Animal shelter, a very disturbed, frightened little one, who died when she had to have surgery for a cyst.

I believe that having pets who died, whether from natural life-ending because that is normal for their species, or sad, unnatural deaths, was important for us as a family, to recognise death as part of life.

The sadness associated with losing a pet is unique and each time it happens, makes one feel that never again will we take another of these wonderful little companions in our home. But there is something very special about having pets that transcends other social links in this world.

"There is not an animal that lives on the earth, nor a being that flies on its wings, but they form communities like you."- Al-Qur'an, 6:38

My children grew up in the suburbs of London, with little access to the fields and farms and open countryside I had as a child in India. I feel strongly that children need to have the experience of relating to living creatures around us. City life is so far removed from the living countryside around.

This is even more important here in Dubai, where the desert has been reclaimed into a forest of man-made buildings, and there is little opportunity to see, touch, smell, feel the other creatures around us.

When my sister visited us in Dubai, she brought her binoculars, being an avid bird watcher. I somewhat sceptically said I doubted she would see many here – but she proved me wrong and opened my eyes to birds of so many different species, as we walked around the streets, before we even got to the parks!

Once, with a child, I drew a snail, and the child had never seen one - I find when I talk with children few of them know what animals are in real life, only as pictures or films. It is so good that efforts are made here to have children’s farms, and even the world’s biggest aquarium, and the penguins in the snow-slopes of one of the Malls, - all reflect the need for humans to connect to creatures other than us.

Research is showing what many of us know to be true, that children with communication

difficulties, like autism, can respond to pets, especially dogs, and benefit from having them in their lives.

The ‘Autism Speaks’* organisation recognises this, though they do suggest caution in that some children who have high sensitivity to sound or other sensory difficulties may not be able to tolerate a noisy or very active dog. There are also the issues of allergies and intolerances that need to be considered.

Dogs are called ‘a man’s best friend’ for good reason.

Even though, in Islam, dogs are not considered clean, they feature in some of the most moving hadiths (quotes of our Prophet) in which he said that an immoral woman gained her place in heaven just by the act of giving water to a thirsty dog. A dog’s faithful protection is shown in a curious story in the Quran about some youths who had to hide in a cave, and dogs have always had a special relationship with humans in helping them in different ways.

It makes me really sad to see how in some ‘Muslim’ countries, dogs are cruelly treated and totally uncared for. Conversely, it surprised me how, in India, dogs – and most other animals, especially cows! are treated with kindness – perhaps a reflection on the respect for all life that is key to the Hindu / Buddhist way of life.

Today, I visited a home where, though the Mother is scared of dogs, they had recognised the value of having one, for the sake of her sons, one of whom struggles with talking easily and making social relationships. Already, seeing the enthusiasm of this little boy for his puppy, I can see how this will help him.

I strongly recommend families to keep a pet – and to choose an animal that you do not feel will be wrongly imprisoned by being a pet.

Reasons for keeping a pet:

Relating to creatures other than human beings

Discipline in caring for a pet

Dealing with fears – ours or those of our kids

Cooperation, sharing the care of the pet

Responsibility: the pet’s dependence upon us

Learning about different species and how they live, their dietary and other needs.

For me, as a child, from the tiny ‘poochis’ (insects) we watched underneath our bungalow, to the goats and horse on the compound, I learned so much. Even from the smells, and the ways animals behaved with each other.

In this amazing concrete and glass jungle in the desert, we need to make a conscious effort to help our children understand and experience other creatures around us. It is so worthwhile! And such a loss to our children if they never have the chance to look after a pet themselves, and be fascinated watching and learning from it.

What pet do you have? Or could you have? I would love to hear about your experience of this.

As you go around this week, be specially aware of our furry, feathery, creepy crawly or just unexpected creature companions in our surroundings! And enjoy - with your children! Open their eyes and their hearts!

Margi Kulsoom


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