When Ian and I met, I had a little Pekingese, he fell in love with her (too). What an unconventional pair, tiny Pekingese and this 1.8 m tall man, Phantom fitted right in the palm of his hand. We were not married for long when we had to get another one, a friend, little Tammy, lovely sweet Tammy, petite but moody.
Phantom and Tammy were very tender with Mishka from the beginning and we never had to exclude them from her life. It definitely ignited an ongoing love for animals in Mish. Tammy and Phantom are the perfect little doggies for a little girl, but they are not the most energetic pooches, so we decided to get Mishka her own dog. Gigi! Absolutely no lack of energy here. She is the perfect companion for equally energetic Mishka.
I was really surprised at how Mishka took leadership in her relationship with Gigi. She shows Gigi that even though she is small, she is in control. Well, almost always. There are times when we have to intervene, the two of them will play each other into a stupor.
We also got her bunnies, and I’m sure everybody knows the thing with bunnies. They just keep on getting more and more. Luckily many of our friends are animal lovers and it made very easy gifts.
Before we moved to Hermanus, we knew we had to donate the bunnies to our local animal park and Mishka was terribly sad. Well, it is very hard to see your only child heartbroken. Benjamin Bunny was the answer. What an amazing creature. Soft and cuddly, ever so patient with Mishka taking him everywhere, he even knows his name and responds when we call him.
They are inseparable, and I do think that Benjamin helped a lot with this move and settling in. Especially because Mish is an only child, Benji offers unconditional love and an opportunity for Mishka to express her feelings, almost like an imaginary friend, only this is a ‘real’ friend. Parallel to our responsibilities and our adjustments to our new setting, Mishka took care of Benjamin, which is such an important start to cultivate empathy. She looked after Benji and had to think about his needs and his fears. This in return teaches Mish responsibility. If she doesn’t care for him he will suffer, and this gives her confidence. She can manage to look after her bunny, perhaps she can be a good friend to someone at school in need of care or empathy.
Not to mention the conversations she has with Benjamin, I am astonished at her vocabulary, she talks to Benjamin with so much conviction and almost as if she is the parent. I don’t think she would have communicated with me in such a manner, and this is why animals are such an important part of a child’s cognitive development, it opens up an opportunity for communication.
Benjamin is also a talking point for us as a family. It invites questions and answer sessions between Mish and her dad. Ian travels back to the city for business weekly, and when he comes home she has the most elaborate stories involving Benjamin. She talks about how he will challenge the dogs, how he knows he is untouchable. She loves that Benji is so quick on his feet and out-smarts the dogs when he escapes to the balcony, where they can’t get to him. He would jump onto a little chair to be even more visible yet unreachable. Mishka can go on about this for hours, and they would laugh and talk for hours, Benji being the connecting point, the conversation starter. A story to tell daddy when he gets back.
Animals add to a child’s life in so many ways, they flourish when they are outdoors, especially when interacting with living animals.
At the moment Phantom is very sick and the impact it has on Mishka is heartbreaking sometimes unbearable, but it is part of life, loss. Every child remembers losing their first pet, and there is not much consolation, except talking about it and dealing with it, rather than ignoring the pain. This is another way for us to connect and learn about life, it is an opportunity for us to explain the significance of every life to Mishka rather than to cover it up. There will be many pets, but each one has a very particular personality and place in a person’s life, and I think it is important to acknowledge the emotional connection between a child and animal.
Until one has loved an animal a part of one’s soul remains unawakened. Anatole France