Visiting residential placements across the province over the past few weeks I have been struck by the number of animals present. One program has been adopted by a cat. This happened in the middle of winter “a storm that his owner could not get home through. The children in the program decided that the cat needed a warm and safe place to stay and so they let it in. The youth care staff were struck by the children's response to the animal and a relationship was developed. I am told the cat keeps coming back because of its love of the radiant in floor heating “not to mention the attention that it receives from youth care staff and children alike.
I knew a program once where the youngsters were allowed to have pets, as long as they did not have fur or feathers. That pretty much limits the choices to something from the amphibian or reptilian family. One young fellow wrote an elaborate proposal outlining his preparedness to adopt a gecko. Soon, “George” became a part of the routine in the program. Not all the staff were pleased, some were quite afraid of lizards. George’s propensity to go AWOL from his cage did not help these phobias. However, when George seemed to come when called, chase a toy across the front of his cage, and the young trainer/ nurturer/caregiver expressed love for this sticky, little, cold blooded creature, all phobias seemed irrelevant.
Barking puppies can teach patience; a purring kitten, gentleness; horses and cows trust or calculated risk taking. Pets can present the chance to be responsible “without the expectation of responsibility - what could offer a comparable chance for growth?
A riding instructor I know, Pam, who offers lessons to some very troubled adolescents, has a skill in handling people and animals alike that I sometimes envy. I remember a drive to the barn one night. The young woman I was taking to the lessons cursed the entire way there. She insisted that there was no way she was going to ride. She had not brought her equipment “she was, matter of fact wearing a short skirt and platform boots; definitely not riding clothes.
When we arrived at the barn, she continued to protest and resist, all the while walking into the barn. When we got there I began to update Pam on the struggles of the evening. She put up her hand as if to say, “... shush ... “She took the young woman by the elbow and led her into the barn leaving me standing alone. As I watched that youngster walk into the barn I thought. I thought, “wow”. She never swore or protested. She didn’t argue or disagree. She walked. She allowed Pam to hold her arm and lead her, guide her. This orchestrated riding lesson designed to provide her with some exercise and skill had ended up exposing her to a strong woman who role-modeled strength, this skill with people along with a genuine caring for other. This would have been difficult to devise in the best of circumstances with ultimate resources.
The unconditional acceptance provided by animals seems to evoke nurturing in damaged children. I know there are potential drawbacks, however if you have ever seen a youngster talking to the fish, so they don’t feel lonely, you will understand the importance of ensuring they have the opportunity.