“How about a fish?”
I have (almost) reached the negotiation table with my eight-year-old daughter. The subject of intense debate isn’t what’s for dinner. It’s about bringing home a pet.
This is an episode that I am convinced has played out in almost every home. It did in mine, when I was growing up, just like it did at my husband’s. My daughter, knowingly or unknowingly, is following the path that every child has trodden — she’s now reached the age when it feels like the sole aim in life is to have a pet.
Not a tantrum-thrower, her pleas are at times well-reasoned (“You should trust me with some responsibility,” she says wisely), and sometimes an emotional rollercoaster (“I wish Skippy was real. At least then I would have company to play with,” she’d say). For context: Skippy is her favourite stuffed leopard toy, and he accompanies her everywhere.
Don’t get me wrong. I love animals. I spent my early years with my grandparents, where I had the presence of rescued animals around me — this included injured cats, a dog, birds, even a calf. My aunt, a fierce animal lover, would always be tending to them. My father had five cats when he was still unmarried and lived alone, and when the family got bigger, we had dogs.
My favourite among them all was the pup Marshal. Milky white and temperamental to say the least, my sister adopted him, when she found him abandoned on a roadside. He lived to love us with the same intensity that he scared the daylights out of strangers. My husband’s family tilts more on the feline side, and they have innumerable stories of rescuing kittens and feeding them with sanitised droppers until they were independent.
Numerous studies have shown that having a pet has a positive impact on a child’s development. It can help improve a child’s social skills, their self-esteem, teach them empathy and responsibility. Not just children, a pet can also help an adult in managing their stress and anxiety.
Naturally, our daughter, who has heard most our childhood stories, thinks “it’s only fair” that she gets her chance at creating similar memories with a pet. She sighs while watching The Secret Life of Pets, a family favourite (animated) movie and volunteers to watch over the neighbour’s dog in their absence. She also finds support in her entourage of supporters (read, grandparents) who tell me: “After all, an only child-does need company.” Add to this the innumerable cat and dog videos on my social media feed.
It’s all hilarious and adorable until I step back for a minute and the thought hits me: Who took care of the animals in our absence? Mostly, it was our parents. Or someone else in the family. But with most families becoming nuclear and both partners working, the responsibility of a pet—who will always be dependent on its human companion—becomes a challenge.
In some cases, the consequences are tragic. During the COVID-19 lockdown, many people adopted pets to give them company. It worked fine as long as they worked from home. But once life went back to normal, and offices reopened, animal shelters which had reported an increase in adoption during the lockdown, witnessed an influx of ‘pet surrenders’.
A study conducted by Mars Petcare on pet homelessness said that 50 per cent pet owners gave up their pet in this period. Some left their pet at the start of the pandemic for fear of animals being carriers of the virus, while others who had brought in a pet to address their own loneliness, could not manage their care once the lockdown lifted. One animal shelter owner said that some people got “influenced” by social media and brought home Persian cats without realising that they need special care like everyday grooming.
Of course, none of this makes sense to my daughter. My husband, a definite ‘cat person’ takes the reasoning route: we move houses (and states) every three years which means frequent transitions and no assured help; we travel frequently, both for work and pleasure. It would be unfair to our pet, he would say. “We will make it work,” is her unflinching, positive response. “M (her best friend) makes it work. And so did A (another friend). We will travel with it, we will get help,” she usually continues.
You could say it was coincidence, but I’d like to believe that the universe finally listened to her heartfelt wishes. How else does one explain the stray cat who feeds on the bowl of food and water for the birds and squirrels outside, choosing our balcony to give birth to her four kittens?
Careful but confident that the thrilled little human doting over her babies will take care of them, the cat-mother leaves Alpha, Beta, Charlie and Delta (we are still finalising the names) to go on her own adventures, coming back from time to time to feed them.
She watches over closely as one of them gets picked up by my daughter and is cradled for some time. Of late, they have started accepting complementary feeding and hungrily gulp down the bowl of milk that we place in front of them. I am not very happy about them taking over my plants though—they love sleeping on the cool soil of the pots in the afternoons—but the excitement on my little girl’s face rushing back from school to check on her “outdoor pets” make everything worth it.
Azera Parveen Rahman is a journalist based in Jodhpur