Guest Blogger

Animals as Teachers

All species of colorful animals are perched on the top shelves that surround our room. These cuddly toys seem to offer a guard of protection to the children who run around below or engage in the educational games, puzzles, and stories on our iPads.  In this environment of interactive arcades and virtual realities that serve as attractors, or some might say, distractors in the library, it is heartwarming to see how the affection for one very real lovebird can still compete with several “Angry Birds,” the award winning hit app that has kids taking their best slingshot at the egg stealing pigs.

I love animals. Always have. But, growing up in my family, we only had dogs. To this day, I still shed a tear over the first one we lost. Gretel, as we named her, is still fresh in my memory. At that time, I thought I would never travel to the animal shelter again to break another beauty out of her cold cage to the soft quilt on top of my bed.

How wrong I was. I got over the loss of my first hound without forgetting the love. I remember asking my mother why dogs lived only a short time. It didn’t seem fair, particularly when a great white shark, which feasts off cute little seals, can live decades.

My mother’s answer at the time consoled me a bit. She said that dogs were angels and were needed up in heaven after they did their good work down on earth. And now, our family would be ready to free another one from the shelter. We would treat the second one like the first. We would treat this new puppy like the angel she was.

Dogs not only return your affection one hundred times over, but they give whether you do or not. As I have since discovered, so too are most live creatures. As Eckhart Tolle believes in his heartwarming book of a similar title, “They are the guardians of being.” I didn’t know this when I was growing up. The idea of having a cat, or gerbil, and yes, even a bird-just didn’t make sense to me. They couldn’t bark at an intruder, protect you from the bogeyman, or lick your tears a way. Again, how wrong I was.

Our lovebird, Holly GoFlightly, charms many of the children coming into our room and that is not an easy feat. Between the hours of 2 and 5, our area has the propensity to be rather loud and chaotic. So it can take quite a bit of creative, diplomatic energy to manage. Our Holly does an admirable job and she is a fraction of my size.

She is a lovebird in every way. Calming and sweet. Even now as I write this blog, she is taking a nap in the silk scarf wrapped around my neck. She is comfortable, warm, and I truly believe, knows she is loved. This eases me somewhat from the fact that she lives in a cage and her wings are clipped. I have since learned that this is done so these tiny birds cannot fly away into the cold winter wind or fly around the small cage and injure themselves.

Still, this upsets me and at first glance, appears barbaric. But, the fact remains, the market for exotic birds exists and there is nothing we really can do about it. Except make up for it. We try.

Holly receives love and attention from all of us at the Hampton Bays Library twelve hours a day. True, it may not be as good as her natural habitat of flying free in the wilds of her native jungle in Africa or the Island of Madagascar. Then again, the love from all of us here is all she has ever known; whether she is taking a nap on my shoulder, accompanying me as I help a child find another great read, or taking part in story time. This is the human kind of love, which is not so bad. And Holly is bathed in it.

She is waking up now. One of our young male patrons, who is usually rather rambunctious, asks if he can hold her. Since the busy hour has begun, I hesitate. But I have seen him with Holly before and he turns into a different person. He becomes protective, quiet, and responsible. He even tells his pals to “chill.” He doesn’t want his small friend to be frightened as he holds her gently and strokes her neck. She is happy. She feels safe. She feels the love. He does as well.

There is evidence that associating with animals enhances a child’s overall learning beyond their “abc’s.”

“Growing Up with Pets,” by Lynn Buzhardt in the May 1, 2010 issue of USA Today Magazine, discusses the advantages of having a pet in the development and growth of a child. Caring and loving a pet cultivates a child’s sense of responsibility, empathy, and selflessness.

Also, more than the emotional and psychological benefits are the physical health benefits. Alice Park, staff writer for Time reported on a study done by the journal Pediatrics. It described how a child’s immune system receives a boost the more contact he or she has with a pet, such as a cat or a dog (healthland.time.com, July 19, 2012).

In the 1996 May/June issue of Animals magazine, Bradford Swift, D.V.M., discusses the lessons that children can learn from growing up with pets and how these loyal companions make them grow into smarter, more successful, better-adjusted, and more responsible adults. He cites a study in the Wall Street Journal  that profiled many successful Fortune 500 executives. Ninety-four percent of them grew up with pets and 75 percent still owned a pet. The national average by the way was only 53 percent.  Swift wrote : “Many of the executives said their pets had taught them responsibility, empathy, and sharing, as well as providing valuable companionship.”

We are all huge animal lovers at the Hampton Bays Library and it shows in our events. It is not difficult to integrate the appreciation of animals into a library’s programming. Have the kids visit the local shelter where they can spend quality time with an abandoned cat, dog, or several other different types of living creatures. Also, the national campaign, “No Child Left Inside,” is one of many ways to arrange walks through a nearby nature preserve and listen to talks given by a wildlife expert. You can then coordinate a story time or discussion around some inspiring books, similar to the one’s here, while surrounded by the sound, smells, and sights of nature. Here are some of my favorite books to use with kids:

Picture Books:

Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little by E.B. White and illustrated by Garth Williams

Good Dog Carl by Alexandra Day is the first of seventeen warm and entertaining stories.

The Fledgling by Jane Langton and illustrated by Erik Blegvad

Harry & Hopper by Margaret Wild and illustrated by Freya Blackwood.

Honk! Honk! A Story of Migration by Mick Manning and illustrated by Brita Granstrom

I Can Hear the Sun by Patricia Polacco

Little Dog Lost: The True Story of a Brave Dog Named Baltic, by Monica Carnesi

Puppy is Lost by Harriet Ziefert and illustrated by Noah Woods

Sammy in the Sky by Barbara Walsh and illustrated by Jamie Wyeth

Saving Audie: A Pit Bull Puppy Gets a Second Chance by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent, illustrated by William Munoz. This true story helps young and old truly see that love can shine a light at the end of any dark tunnel.

A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead, illustrated by Erin Stead

Sparrow Girl by Sara Pennypacker and illustrated by Yoko Tanaka

That Pup! By Lindsay Barrett George

The Tenth Good Thing about Barney by Judity Viorst and illustrated by Erik Blegvad

Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship, and Survival by Kirby Larson and Mary Nethery; Illustrated by Jean Cassels. This is an uplifting story about the power of true friendship. When all appears lost, love and loyalty keep us safe and together.

Chapter Books

Because of Winn Dixie, by Kate DiCamillo

Black Beauty by Anna Sewel

Flyaway by Lucy Christopher

Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George

Marley A Dog Like No Other, by John Grogan

Rascal by Sterling North and illustrated by John Schoenherr

Riding Freedom by Pam Munoz Ryan

Sable by Karen Hesse and illustrated by Marcia Sewall

Shiloh by Philis Reynolds Naylor and illustrated by Barry Moser

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, by Judy Blume

Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by Timothy Basil Ering

Wild Girl by Patricia Reilly Giff

Zoobreak, by Michael Korman

Most of us are familiar with these great books that deliver an enlightening and educational message in the power of love. Because let’s face it. Raising a pet is an expensive, time consuming responsibility. It might not prove practical for all families. If so, the life lessons found in these and other stories can serve as worthy stand-ins. Enjoy.

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Our guest blogger today is  Caroline McKinley. As a Librarian, Caroline is part of a great team of devoted, animal loving professionals at the Hampton Bays Library. She loves to write, read, and be around all “creatures great and small” wherever and whenever she can.

If you’d like to write a guest post for the ALSC Blog, please contact Mary Voors, ALSC Blog manager, at alscblog@gmail.com.

8 comments

  1. Megan

    This is a great post. As you’ve seen personally and as the research shows, animals can be great teachers. As an animal lover, I consider myself lucky that my parents let me and my brother keep pets when we were young. I know I learned a great deal about responsibility from being a pet owner – but perhaps more important were the lessons about love and companionship. Not all children are able to keep pets at home and so they might miss out on these key learning opportunities. It’s great to hear of your using Holly to teach your young patrons these important life lessons.

  2. Brian

    Great blog! Animals are the best teachers and do teach us to love unconditionally and make us better human beings in every respect. Ghandi said that the measure of a society is how it treats its animals. What better way to build a better society than to introduce our children to these magnificent creatures and in what better place than in our public libraries!

  3. Martha

    What a lovely post. I’ve seen a lot of read to therapy dog programs work very successfully, but I really like the idea of having animals in the library on a more frequent basis. I’m curious about the challenges of having a library pet–are there any particular issues you’ve run into in terms of maintenance or patron/pet interaction?

    1. Caroline

      Two great questions. Because the entire staff wants to give Holly affection, making certain she has a happy life, tasks such as cleaning the cage, giving her fresh water and food, or taking her home for a long holiday weekend happen effortlessly. So there is never a shortage of librarians, clerks, pages, patrons, and even our Director taking Holly out of her cage for a stroll and offering her plenty of love. Regarding child-patron interaction, our room can get very loud and busy, but since Holly’s cage sits right at the reference desk, it is easy to watch out for any questionable behavior. Also, here again is where lessons can be learned. Ninety-nine percent of the kids are responsible, gentle, and caring, quickly rebuking those who may be less so. It resembles a friend sticking up for a smaller, defenseless, beloved friend. And that is a great lesson to be learned for all of us.

  4. Kerri

    What a pleasure to read such a wonderful blog! Not only do animals teach us to love unconditionally, they teach us to live in the present and enjoy the important things in life. What wonderful lessons to teach children. I love the idea of children being able to experience interaction with loving animals at the library and them being able to form special bonds with them! It makes the library that much more of an inviting and magical place!

  5. Sue Daniels

    What a wonderful post! Animals are amazing creatures! They teach up responsibility, how to love someone and how to give our all. At one of the libraries my friend goes to, they have pet hamsters, named pip and squeak. The children can go up to the cage and look at what the hamsters are doing. It such a fun thing for the kids to go check on each time they visit.

  6. Marie King

    What a great post! I am a grade school teacher and sometimes find myself racking my brain trying to think of ways to engage my students in ways that I haven’t before, all the while making what we’re learning fun. This is an intriguing concept that I may explore, I think my kids would love a class pet. I just read a great book you might like, it’s called “Teach Like A PIRATE” by Dave Burgess. You can check him out and get the book right from the website http://daveburgess.com/. Thanks again for the post!

    1. Caroline

      “Teach Like a Pirate” is a great title. Thank you for the suggestion. I embrace the idea of creative and engaging programming. More important, so do the kids.

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