Paul Batura: Every child needs a pet, because every family needs an optimist

Pet Appreciation Week kicks off Sunday, an annual celebration designed to recognize the oversized role our favorite animals play in our lives.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, 57 percent percent of households own a pet. Pet ownership is highest in Wyoming (72 percent) and lowest in Rhode Island (45 percent). Horses, birds, fish, hamsters and other creatures round out the common array of household companions.

The subject of pets is a bit like the debate over Daylight Savings Time. Everybody has an opinion. Of course, there are dog people. And then there are cat people. Usually those who have either or both often can’t imagine life without one — or maybe two. More people have dogs than cats, and just fewer than 10 percent have both.

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If you’re personally opposed to an animal inside your home, you probably have your reasons and there’s little anyone can say to change your mind.

But that doesn’t stop us zealots from trying.

As a child, I never knew life without a pet. With four older siblings, I was born into a family with a little beagle named Snoopy. At first, I wondered why Charles Schulz’s version slept on top of his doghouse while ours comfortably convalesced in the kitchen.

Snoopy

Snoopy

Our Snoopy was less flamboyant than the comic strip character. He didn’t wear a pilgrim hat on Thanksgiving or play on our backyard baseball team. Sweet and mellowed by age, she liked to sit under the kitchen table and stare out at the hustle and bustle of our seven-person family. Fifty years later, you can still see the evidence — small gnaw marks on the table legs and bench.

On a chilly October day when I was seven, I remember my oldest brother Jim scooping Snoopy up in his arms and announcing he was taking her to the vet. Nobody told me, and I’m glad they didn’t, but she was in the final hours of her life. When he returned empty-handed from Dr. Sussman’s office, tears were streaming down his face. He broke the sad news. I retreated to our side porch and cried along with my sister.

Something seemed to be missing from our house that next week — no wagging tail greeting us after school or a dog begging for scraps beneath the table. A strange silence permeated each room.

So we were thrilled the next weekend when my dad announced plans for us to go to the North Shore Animal League to look for a new dog. We picked Daisy out of a large cardboard box, a small black and white shepherd mix puppy. We selected her because she had sort of selected us, jumping up in our direction while the others in the litter seemed content to lie quietly along the side.

Daisy as a puppy

Daisy as a puppy

Daisy grew up to be a terrific family dog, the kind you remember and talk about at family reunions decades later. Every kid needs a friend to play with and when my neighborhood pals weren’t around, she was always available and eager to oblige. She loved to play fetch in the backyard and the first toss of the tennis ball was always as exciting to her as the last.

I’m convinced pets are part of God’s perfect plan, a gift that keeps giving long after they fade from the scene though never from our memories.

Incredibly, Daisy was also empathetic and could sense emotion, particularly anxiety or sadness. When my mother received a call notifying her of our grandmother’s death, Daisy sat by her side the entire 30 minutes, her head lying gently in my mom’s lap.

Daisy was also tough. We were burglarized when I was in the 7th grade and the thief or thieves shoved the poor mutt down the basement stairs. We found her in a heap under a kitchen. Yet by the next day she was back running after balls and chasing squirrels.

Daisy wearing a hat

Daisy wearing a hat

Daisy in her prime

Daisy in her prime

Of all the many positive benefits to having a family pet, though, their seemingly eternal optimism and good cheer strikes me as the most endearing. They’re always happy to see you, are usually pretty easy to please, never talk back — and rarely hold a grudge. They keep you company, encourage you to exercise and are quick to make you laugh.

In fact, there are days when I might even agree with the late curmudgeonly CBS newsman Andy Rooney who once observed that the average dog is nicer than the average person.

At the same time, I’ve had people tell me they’d never get another dog or cat because of how painful it was to put their last one down.

I know what they’re talking about because I’ve been there several times, once late at night, holding in my arms the Great Dane who saved our son’s life. But he was old and paralyzed from a fall. I cried all the way home. But if you ask me, this might be one of the most important of all reasons why a child should have a pet. Learning to love and then let go and deal with loss is a critical part of growing up. You’re not doing a young person any favors by shielding them from every hurt or heartache.

In fact, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s oft-quoted poetic words, “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” takes on new meaning to a child who says goodbye to a favorite family pet.

Daisy lived almost 13 years and on the last day of her life, I took her for a drive down to the beach, just the two of us. We stopped for a bagel and ate it together looking out over the sand and rolling surf of Jones Beach’s Field 6.

It wasn’t lost on me that I was just a young boy when we brought her home and now I was all grown up myself, a young man with my own car, holding a dying dog with a gray muzzle — and knowing the awful task of putting her out of her misery lie ahead. We had grown up together, a boy and his dog, months and years of memories and now the time had come to say goodbye.

We buried Daisy in the backyard, beneath a towering maple tree in the area where she loved to play fetch. We planted daisies over the spot and each year the flowers bloomed bright, reviving and rekindling the memories all over again.

“Don’t focus on the sadness of losing her,” my mom had told me. “Be grateful for all the joy she brought us.”

I don’t think you ever forget the pet of your childhood, the kind companion who unconditionally accepted and loved you at the very time you were still gaining confidence and trying to figure out where you fit in.

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And because of that and for a million reasons more, I’m convinced pets are part of God’s perfect plan, a gift that keeps giving long after they fade from the scene though never from our memories.

So three cheers to all the pets who add color and happiness to our lives, allowing us to sing with gusto the familiar refrain, “All things bright and beautiful; All creatures great and small; All things wise and wonderful: The Lord made them all.”

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