BY MITALI PAREKH
I was asked a question recently that I didn’t know how to answer. We were discussing my other profession; I am also a canine behaviourist. “So you don’t believe that animals are animals and they will attack you without reason?,” said the lady at Yoga class. “How do you teach them when they don’t know you. Don’t they bite ?”
The only thing I could stutter was, “Your child doesn’t know her teachers when she first goes to school, but they manage to teach her over time, don’t they? We are animals too, and like us, they respond within a framework to stimulus.”
It was a dry answer. I might as well have tried to explain time through colours.
I am childless by choice; I don’t believe all my children need to come out of my uterus or within my specie. It is not an adventure I am compelled to go on, but it’s a destination I visit often. Not in a 2-hour a week way, but a three-day Mimi (toddler-speak for Maami, or aunt) bonanza featuring bathing, feeding, poop-cleaning, bed-time and once, a vaccination trip with song and dance.
My pay-off for this specialised child-care? I will introduce your child to safe animals. I say safe, because if the animal (cat, dog, pig, and goat) is not used to the high-pitched sounds and jerky movements made by a child, it may react out of fear, scarring the child forever.
I do this more for the animals than the children. I don’t need to galvanise a new generation of animal lovers. I wish for a supplementary army of the future, that may not want to cuddle a pig, but recognises it as a living being with a need for space, respect, food and the ecosystem. I want the children to see how much work living with an animal is so that they don’t bring one home and then abandon it when it nips them while teething. And that’s why when friends with children suggest meeting up, I suggest dog parks (Powai), restaurants with dogs (Gostana), farms with inter-specie harmony (Japalouppe Equesterian Centre) or my home with two cats (Sister and Kranti).
A child born without a natural affinity towards animals, might learn to respect them, after frequent exposure. A child without affinity and exposure, may not cultivate empathy — and will order the watchman to put the puppies or kittens born in the building into a gunny bag and into a creek. (S)he will believe animals are unpredictable, violent beings and not familiars, friends and children whom we can communicate with.
As a childless person, I can be smug in these theories. And it is what I bring to the table as a member of the village that raises the child. We live in isolated nuclear families and I am grateful that instead of each of us getting a child of our own, some of us are sharing theirs. And as proxy moms, we are trusted to impart our set of values too.
My three-year-old niece is not naturally drawn to all animals, but she is fascinated by The Girls (my cats). In her interaction with them, she is able to work out her fears and hesitations by externalisation — she explains to Kranti why she must take medicine or face injections. She was exposed to the idea of surgery when they were spayed. She loves to reverse roles and tell them to finish their food, to feed them and tell them they are being naughty.
When I interrupt our playtime to go train a dog, I tell her I am going to teach a puppy to be polite, so that (s)he grows up to be a good girl or boy like her. I am hinting that she does not command all of my time and attention. I think it does a child good to know that they are not the most important thing in a supplementary adult’s life. That love and duty can (and must) extend beyond family, species and bloodline.
K now has a sense of responsibility towards The Girls — she’ll officiously say that *she* must come with me to Pune to take care of them. She tries to kiss them and when she can’t, will ask me to do so. She’ll subject Kranti to a medical examination with the stethoscope and give her an injection the thigh. She teaches her parents how to approach The Girls. “Don’t be afraid,” she told her father, “She won’t do aneeee theeeng. Juss do two-finger touch on her head and back. Not her stomach. She doesn’t like it.”
She is understanding personalities and individual need for space. That Sister (my older cat, named by K) likes to be left alone. That Mischka, a brattish labrador, doesn’t like to share toys. That it’s scary to have a face in your face (she stares at the cats a little too closely). These are lessons she would learn from siblings and playmates, but she is learning that they apply to animals too.
And she has tasted loss. July (again, named by K) our tom cat, walked away in February. She would greet him with, “Hiiiiii my sweetheart.” or “Hiiiii mah sweetu dahling.” She still asks, “Mimi, where’s July?” and I have to tell her he went for a walk and hasn’t come back. The answer doesn’t bother her on the surface, but her workings are subterranean and I don’t know how this has affected her.
Instead of zoos and tonga rides where she would meet exploited animals in artificial settings, we set up opportunities for her to see them in their element. She has seen Zohra the Rottweiler mother, Floyd the goat (her favourite animal on the farm) and Odin the horse take a dust bath.
We now pretend to be horses; I am Odin and she’s Benji (the pony she rode once at Japalouppe) and we take dust baths together on fresh sheets. Sometimes I, Mini the pig, snort at her; she’s a white kitty who will meow at me and ask for a scratch behind the ear or say petulantly when I leave for Pune, “But, you have to take care of this kitty, mimi.”
I recently introduced her to our neighbourhood vagrant Ghanshyam. “He reminds me of a handsome prince,” she said. If she sees a Disney prince in a big boned Labrador caked in muck, my work is done.
About the author:
Mitali Parekh is an editorial mercenary who lives in Mumbai and Pune (but mostly in your animal’s heart). Apart from writing a weekly column Pet Puja for Mumbai and Pune Mirror, she is also a canine behaviourist and a street fashion goddess.