By Michelle Talsma Everson

My 7-year-old son is absolutely in love with all things feline. He eats, breathes and sleeps all things cat related and dotes on our two 10-year-old rescue cats like they’re royalty. As a parent, it’s fascinating to observe the phases our kids go through – what catches their eye today might be a momentary attraction or a lifelong interest. Some things though, like respecting animals, we want to be lessons they carry throughout their lives.

Kids and Animals

“Something special happens to children in the presence of animals, as they have an innate connection and love for them,” says Michelle Ramos, community engagement manager for the Arizona Humane Society. “Children display calmer behavior, increased empathy and joy. Animals ignite cognitive curiosity, but they also evoke emotional responses in children. Giving children the opportunity to participate in meaningful, caring activities for any creature can build tremendous confidence. In addition, supporting children in their growing awareness and interest in animals can lead to deeper feelings of empathy, more positive classroom relationships and social-emotional development.”

Whether they’re exposed to animals that are scaly, furry or feathered, there are multiple benefits to animal encounters of all kinds.

Animals teach children to care for others’ needs. “When children have experiences with animals at an early age, it can help them develop empathy,” says Mike Foley, manager of trail programs at Phoenix Zoo. “Animals can be a direct link for children to understand the concept of caring for the needs and challenges of another being, including animals, people and plants, too.”

Exposure to animals early and often can change how a child and family, sees the world. “Consistent exposure to animals as children grow up can translate to valuing a sense of community through compassion and a desire to engage in conservation activities,” Foley explains. “Witnessing animals in nature can also instill a lifelong interest in being outside, not only for children, but for the family unit. Visiting city, county, state and national parks as a family will create more opportunities for the families to unplug from various technology.”

Making Introductions

When introducing animals to children, obviously there’s a difference between seeing a tiger at the zoo and adopting a new kitten into your home.

“When exposing children to any animal, it’s important to be mindful of both the animal and child’s comfort; don’t ‘push’ either one,” Foley says. “Helping children learn the difference between wild and domestic animals is also important.”

Teach the different between wild animals versus domestic pets. “The way we should interact with wild animals – giving the animal space and observing it from a safe and respectful distance – is very different than how we can interact with many domestic animals,” Foley says.

He advises that, for domestic animal interactions, parents and caregivers model that children should ask first about approaching an animal.

“Talking about and demonstrating how to approach different animals in different situations helps your child learn how to use good judgment to create positive interactions with animals – all while explaining that each animal deserves respect and individual considerations,” he adds.

Ramos encourages families to take advantage of local animal resources.

“Take advantage of your local zoos and animal shelters,” she advises. “Enroll your children in day programs or summer camps that focus on animals. This will not only allow your child access to a variety of species but they will also be learning important topics and concepts about conservation, animal care, natural history and how to be a responsible pet owner.”

Parental Concerns

Many times, if a parent has a bad experience with a type of animal, they might be hesitant to allow their children to be exposed to that breed or animal type. Experts say though that parents should do their best to not project their fears onto their children.

“Do not let your personal fears or reservations impact your child’s experience with animals,” Ramos says. “Children have the gift of looking at animals without bias. It doesn’t matter if it’s a snake, rabbit, insect, dog or giraffe, they have no reason to fear or think negatively of that animal. It is important to let them formulate their own opinions and create their own experiences. If you as a parent have a fear of a particular type of animal, allow your child to experience that animal for themselves with another family member, friend or as a part of a program with a local zoo or humane society.”

If You Adopt

If you’d like your child’s animal encounter to go past the zoo and into the home, pet adoption is a great option. According to statistics, approximately 44% of all households in the U.S. have a dog and 35% have a cat.

Ramos has some advice for families looking to adopt an animal companion. “Take your time and do your research. Whether you are considering the adoption of a critter like a guinea pig or a larger pet like a dog, remember you are making a commitment to care for your potential new pet for the rest of his life,” she says. “Consider your lifestyle, personality and challenges, such as space restrictions and time spent away from home. Make sure everyone in the family is on board and that the home is prepped for a new pet prior to its arrival.”

For those who prefer an animal-free home, local zoos and other animal attractions are great resources for families.

Local Animal Friendly Venues

Arizona Animal Welfare League • Phoenix
602-273-6852 • Aawl.org

Arizona Humane Society • Phoenix
602-997-7585 • AzHumane.org

Audubon Adventures • Phoenix
602-468-6470 • Riosalado.audubon.org

Butterfly Wonderland • Scottsdale
480-800-3000 • ButterflyWonderland.com/

Dolphinaris • Scottsdale
480-407-5163 • DolphinarisAZ.com

Odysea Aquarium • Scottsdale
480-291-8000 • OdySeaAquarium.com

Out of Africa | South of Sedona
928-567-2840 • OutOfAfrica.com

The Phoenix Zoo • Phoenix
602-914-4333 • PhoenixZoo.org

Phoenix Herpetological Society • North Scottsdale

480-513-4377 • PhoenixHerp.com

SEA LIFE Arizona • Tempe
480-565-7076 • VisitSeaLife.com/Arizona

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