animal encounters

animal encounters

It has been said that a nation can be judged by the way it treats its animals – and time and again, it’s been shown that if we learn to care for and about creatures, especially at an early age, we really do learn to care for each other.

That’s why we should all be concerned that today, more than ever before, children are having less and less contact with the natural world. Engaging with animals, be it domestic creatures, or birds and insects in the wild, instills in us all a sense of compassion. In children particularly, it also ignites the imagination. But just how do you give your children ‘animal experiences’ when your lifestyle or budget (or both) means that keeping a pet of your own is unrealistic? The answer is not as difficult as you may imagine.

education opportunities

An SPCA visit can be a first point of call for teaching children about animal care (and the consequences of animal neglect). Depending on where in the country you live, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals offers a range of animal-based activities. Wellington’s SPCA boasts animal-themed birthday parties (where children enjoy animal crafts and hands-on opportunities to interact with animals), school and preschool educational visits, holiday programmes, and fun events. In Christchurch, the SPCA’s free-to-join ‘Kids Critters Club’ ( even publishes its own magazine: Chit Chat. Ask your local SPCA about their policy on volunteer dog walking – although your child will almost certainly be too young to walk dogs alone, they may be able to accompany you. There may also be opportunities to simply spend time with homeless cats and kittens in need of love, stroking and grooming them.

preschool pets

When choosing a preschool for your child, give consideration to a facility which has ‘in-house’ pets, such as guinea pigs or rabbits. As well as teaching children how to care for the pets, families are often given the opportunity to act as animal minders during weekends and over holiday periods.

zoo education

A visit to the zoo is fun but the opportunity to learn even more about the animals which live there, and to enjoy ‘close-encounters’ with them, is now possible with a range of far-reaching activities. At Auckland Zoo, children can spend a day being a junior zoo keeper or a night sleeping over at the facility. Preschoolers are also catered for with a range of sessions specially designed for little ones. Hands-on animal experiences are a highlight of every attraction. For more information on children and animal education, contact large centres such as Orana Wildlife Park, Christchurch and Wellington and Auckland zoos.

petting farms

From Invercargill to Auckland, children can enjoy feeding, grooming and petting farmyard animals. In fact, there’s often no need to go out of town to reach the venue, as evidenced by Auckland’s Mt Albert Grammar School’s inner-city farm experience for groups and individuals. Set in the heart of the city, it includes the opportunity to milk cows, feed pigs and goats, bottle feed lambs (in season) and cuddle rabbits.

animals in the park

While many animal experiences for children involve a cost, others are free of charge if you know where to look. Most municipal parks and gardens have aviaries and, rather than taking your child on a ‘walk past once quickly’ visit, build on the experience by planning ahead and creating your own ‘education programme’. To do this, make a short reconnaissance visit on your own. When you take your child, go armed with an identification book or images downloaded from the internet, and ask your little one if they can spot particular birds that match the photos. Phone ahead to the park management to find out when the birds are fed, and plan your visit to fit in with this. It may be possible to join a volunteer group which helps care for the birds.

Some municipal parks are also homes to farm animals. Invercargill’s Queens Gardens not only backs onto the renowned tuatara breeding centre (with its wonderful viewing areas) but is also home to an extensive aviary and animal reserve. Its farmyard corner provides both a recreational and educational role and entry to the facility is free of charge. In Auckland, a day out in the city’s central Cornwall Park lets children enjoy farm animals in a natural setting where cattle and sheep (including, in spring, their young) are on display all day.

share and care

The reality for many families is that keeping an animal is simply not possible. However, if you have a child whose interest in animals is more than a passing phase, you may be at a loss to know how to cater for them. Enter: the world of pet-sharing. While not common, it does happen that two (or more) families with similar animal-care philosophies come together to jointly acquire a domestic animal that doesn’t mind shifting homes (a cat is an obvious exception, but an animal such as a rabbit, guinea pig or dog quickly adjusts). The animal moves home on a schedule to suit the families (a fortnight with one family, then the other) and the advantage to owners is the shared cost of vet bills and food.

A similar, informal arrangement can be made with a less-able friend or neighbour who is not able to care for their pet as they once were. Something as simple as offering to feed, brush or walk someone else’s pet can result in your child having an enriching animal experience without your family incurring full-time responsibility and costs you cannot commit to. To find a situation that may suit, contact your local vet, citizen’s advice bureau, or place an advert in your community newspaper.

Small is beautiful

If the care of an animal is something your family really wants to undertake but space and time is a consideration, a small pet is something worth considering. White mice and guinea pigs may be an immediate first choice, but if you want a small animal that has all the intelligence, vitality and loyalty of a larger mammal, a white or coloured rat may be what you are looking for. Clean, fun, soft, cuddly and able to be trained, they are the perfect pet. The only disadvantage is that they are short-lived (2-3 years). But then again, a child’s interests may quickly change, too.

Whatever you do to enable your child to enjoy animals, you can be assured you are instilling in them the very foundations of compassion.

By Diana Noonan

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