(originally posted 10/2014)
The other day my six-year-old ran in the house screaming: “A RABBIT IS STUCK IN THE SOCCER NET!”
When I went outside the poor thing was writhing frantic, the webbing wrapped double around its neck. The line was so tight it seemed impossible for it to be breathing. By the time I got there it hardly fought in my hands, less than my cats getting their nails clipped.
I sent my 12-year-old daughter inside for scissors and cupped it still, trying to create any possible slack in the netting. I really didn’t think it would live until she made it back.
She did the cutting, brave girl, shears right against its neck. When it was freed it sat in my hands, sides heaving. Or maybe it just didn’t realize it was free.
“Where did you learn to do that?” my eight-year-old asked.
It wasn’t just me, I told him. We all cut it free.
“No,“ he made a cupping gesture with his hand. “To just….hold it.”
Most people comfortable with handling animals probably say it comes down to some kind of childhood exposure. Pets in the house or barnyard, being allowed to catch frogs and snakes and cicadas. Volunteering in any kind of nature or rescue organization.
But for me it goes back to James Herriot and other books I loved in childhood. These novels and memoirs made livestock and wildlife as familiar as pets in the house, and pets as well-loved as siblings (and at that age, probably more). The country-vet voyeurism of All Creatures Great and Small and its three sequels made a cow’s breech birth as vivid as any movie. In the ’70s, Black Beauty, Old Yeller, and Watership Down were my Star Wars.
They say (you know, they) that violence against animals is a big-time marker for future sociopath behavior. I’d say the opposite is also true. Learning empathy for animals brings an early click of awareness for fellow living creatures subject to the whims human kindness and cruelty, an especially easy lesson when that creature is small, furry, and helpess. In my case it also thickened my skin to squeamishness. Dealing with splinters and cuts as a parent fazes me less since I spent my teen years bandaging baby raccoons and squirrels at a nature clinic.
I don’t hear much about kids reading the James Herriot series anymore. My old paperbacks have ridiculously tiny print and no pictures, so maybe that has something to do with it. Watership Down opens with an entire slowmoving first page describing weather and thickets before we even see a wabbit.
Is it a matter of accessibility, of patience? Of more animated alternatives?
I don’t know. We had screen distractions back then, too — Atari and Intellivision, and The Brady Bunch and The Monkees. And my parents didn’t even limit our screen time.
My eight-year-old just recently discovered the joy of books. He’s a sporty guy who preferred comics, and when the nightly clock monitored the 20 minutes of school’s required reading, they ticked endless.
I’d brought home Dan Gutman (soccer, basketball). I tried Harry Potter read-alouds, which worked for my now-12yo, but didn’t grab him. I wrote and Lulu-published an illustrated chapter book about him, how he saves dinosaurs with his time-traveling jet-pack. But the words were too big, and the sentences too descriptive. (Take that, writer mom.) He liked Wimpy Kid well enough, and in the end, I even succumbed to Captain Underpants.
This past spring I gave him The One and Only Ivan. For the first time, after sitting down with it awhile, he was talking about the characters — a shopping-mall-zoo gorilla and a new baby elephant. They stayed with him. The things they faced with their not-so-nice amateur zookeeper got under his skin. Though it took him a month to get through it, he did it on his own. And the next time we went to our local bookstore, he listened to me read book jackets, and picked two that appealed to him.
Parenting advice books always say parent the child you have, by which they mean, ignore the Brigadoon of the one you don’t. I can’t tell yet what will pull in my youngest two to embrace reading, especially since the first grader is full of bluster (“you spend all this time WRITING books, and you can’t make it easier for me to read!”)
But this much I know. I’m putting my money on the animals.