Who Gave You Your Compassion for Animals?


I recently attended a conference in New Orleans. It was great, but the highlight of the trip was visiting my niece and a bunch of her other relatives, some of whom I’d never met, for gumbo and cornbread at her mother’s house.

The house, located in one of the many suburban areas across the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway from New Orleans, is nestled on a tree-lined street in a quiet neighborhood. In addition to being the primary family gathering place, it’s also home to a small menagerie of dogs and cats, almost all of whom are rescues. But the one animal family member whose story touched me the most was that of Cutie, a gorgeous semi-long-haired calico with a white spot on the end of her tail.

Cutie was a little shy at first, but as soon as I squatted and held out my finger in the interspecies version of the nose touch, she gave me a sniff and started rubbing against me and purring her tiny little heart out.

As I stroked Cutie, she curled up in my lap. As little boys ran around the backyard doing little-boy stuff, my niece’s mother told me the story of Cutie’s arrival.

One of my niece’s younger sisters found the poor thing lying face-up in a puddle, unable to move and crying piteously. She brought the half-dead kitten home to her mother, who got the cat to a vet and had her defleaed, cleaned up, and brought back to health. Cutie has been a cherished member of the family ever since.

My niece’s sister saved that cat’s life.

What makes this story so cool is that my niece and her sisters obviously learned at an early age that animals are not just worthy of life, they’re members of the family — and when you find one in need, you do what you can to help. Add the fact that my niece’s mother took action to bring the cat back to health, and it’s easy to see how critical a parent’s attitude is in bringing up a child who also loves and has compassion for other creatures.

From my earliest days, I too can remember animals in my home: When I was a little girl, we had a dog and a cat and a couple of hens (the Red Hen and the Black Hen) who provided eggs for us until a fox made them tasty morsels.

My mother and I watched wild birds through binoculars and thumbed through our Audubon Field Guide to identify them, and we even nursed a few of those birds who flew into the plate-glass windows in our living room. Well, okay, “nursing” probably isn’t the right way to describe it, because it was really more like “keeping them safe from the cat until they felt well enough to fly away.”

When I begged and pleaded for a cat as a 13th birthday present, my mother took my brother and me to the local animal shelter and allowed me to adopt two cats, twin brothers we named Castor and Pollux. I think that was the first time I’d heard of animal shelters — most of our other pets had come to us through friends and random rescues — but I never forgot about them. I knew that when it was time for me to adopt other cats, the first place I’d look was the shelter.

So, like my niece and her sisters, my brothers and I grew up around animals. We learned to view them as boon companions and wonderful confidants. I’ve cried in a cat’s fur more than once, and some of the most memorable experiences of my life have been because of my relationship with animals.

Rescue really does begin at home, under the guidance of a compassionate parent or other significant adult, whether that person is an aunt or uncle, an animal-loving neighbor, a friend’s parent, a teacher, a pastor … whatever! As adults, we can never forget how important our behavior and attitudes are in the formation of children’s ethics and morals — and that’s no less true for how we value and treat animals than it is for how we treat other human beings.

In my case and my niece’s case, it was our mothers who instilled in us our love and compassion for animals. Who was your significant adult? Please share your stories in the comments below!

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