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Growing Up around Animals is Good for Children
My parents were very 'pet-friendly'
Every memory I have of my childhood involves a pet of some kind, whether it's my old dog hanging out with my rabbit, my budgie riding round the house on my shoulder, or any one of hundreds of happy recollections of furry and feathered friends.
I actually feel quite sorry for children today who will never experience the fun I had, because their parents don't like animals.
I am surprised when some parents won't let their children have a pet - even a small one such as a guinea pig or hamster - because there is such a lot of fun to be had by welcoming an animal to your home.
I remain convinced that my parents and the type of upbringing I enjoyed moulded me into the person I am today - someone who loves all animals and who cares passionately about their welfare.
It made me a happier and more responsible kind of person, who thought a great deal about animals and their importance in our lives.
Grandparents and parents grew up around dogs too
To understand my family's long association with animals, I must take you back to my late grandma's youth, in the 1920s and '30s.
Back in those days, grandma too always had a dog, although I imagine it was different in that era, when treats would be a bone from the butcher's and not the pre-packaged variety we buy today!
In virtually every old photograph of my family taken at home, invariably there is a dog in the background, playing in the garden, or sitting quietly at the family's side.
When my mum was born, it was inevitable that she too would have a dog. In fact, my mum cannot recall a time in her life when there wasn't a dog around.
Dog who protected baby from a rat
The dog my mum remembers best was Peggy, a crossbreed - nobody knows which breeds - who had a long, unruly coat and was wonderful with children.
She was my grandma's dog when mum was in her teens and early twenties.
One story my mum told me related to when my older brother was a new baby in his cot. One day, mum heard a terrible commotion in the lounge, where my brother was sleeping. Peggy was barking and growling wildly and mum rushed in to see what was happening. To her horror, she saw a large rat climbing over my brother's cot - but within seconds, Peggy was protecting him, leapt into action, grabbed the rat and threw it off.
She had perceived he could be in danger and her one aim was to protect him.
Incidentally, I like rats and have nothing against them! But I imagine it would be quite frightening to see a large rat crawling towards your new baby.
Peggy remained my brother's friend and guardian throughout her life and was a member of the family for many years, as she enjoyed great longevity.
A love of dogs was passed through the generations of my family
I heard many stories about Peggy when I was growing up and mum remembers her fondly to this day, even though this was around half a century ago now.
So I believe, with my family background, it was inevitable that I was going to grow up adoring not only dogs, but animals of all kinds.
I did not realise how incredibly lucky I was when, at the age of just over one year, I was given my first canine companion, a little West Highland Terrier called Mitzie, who was only around 12 weeks old herself.
She was a fluffy, cute bundle of fur and I adored her straight away, spending, quite literally, all my time with her, either playing out in the garden, or sitting reading in the house, Mitzie at my feet.
I was a quiet, shy child, who preferred having my nose in a book, or writing or drawing, instead of playing in the park. My little dog would sit patiently by my side, whatever I was doing, sometimes sighing slightly, as she knew at some point my dad would be taking her for a walk and she became a little restless, but always happy to sit by my side all day.
More animals soon joined our household
As I grew a little older, an increasing number of animals joined our family, one of the first being a white, male rabbit called Snowball.
My late father, who had studied joinery at nightclasses, made him a spectacular hutch and run in the back garden. It was about 5ft tall, with many levels for feeding and running about and included an enclosed area with a door and plenty of bedding in which to snuggle down at night. The run was quite large - about the size of an average bathroom - so he could stretch his legs even when enclosed.
In those days, incidentally (the 1970s) it was rarely even considered to have a house rabbit and they normally lived outdoors. Snowball had the run of the back garden, which had a lawn and plenty of flowerbeds, all day long, from dawn till dusk, when I had great fun trying to catch him and put him inside for the night.
Dog and rabbit became firm friends
It wasn't long before my dog Mitzie was introduced to Snowball and they became good pals from the outset.
In summer especially, during the school holidays, my whole family spent a lot of time in the back garden.
Dad was a keen amateur gardener and at weekends was often tending the garden, while mum would sit on the sun lounger, periodically keeping him supplied with cups of tea and sandwiches! I would be out playing on my slide, with Mitzie and Snowball never far away.
This period in my life encouraged my belief that animals of different species can get along and live happily side-by-side, a belief I still have today, with my dogs and cats all living together without issues.
A rabbit who loved custard cream biscuits
When mum and dad were at work on weekdays, my grandma, who lived with us, looked after me.
I was always busy playing with my animals and used to take my dog, Mitzie, up my slide with me, whizzing down with her on my knee!
It didn't even put me off when I went down too fast one day and flew off at the other end, landing beyond the lawn on the concrete and splitting my lip open! Mitzie escaped unscathed.
I found that Snowball enjoyed his normal rabbit food and a wide variety of fresh vegetables, such as carrots, lettuce and cabbage. But he also loved custard creams and shortbread biscuits, as did Mitzie. They would both wait outside the back door for me to appear with biscuits - I'm sure Snowball thought he was a dog!
Rabbit dug his way out of garden
One day, to my horror, I went in the back garden and found there was no sign of Snowball. The garden was surrounded by a 6ft fence and even the small gap under the gate was blocked off with bricks, so I had no idea how he had escaped.
Luckily, it was the weekend and dad was at home - a quick examination of the garden revealed the rabbit had somehow dug his way out under the garden shed - no mean feat because it was about 10ft long and he must have taken some time to tunnel out. Behind the shed and fence was the back alley, which was very long and overgrown with 1ft high grass and weeds.
Mum, dad and I went tearing round the block to access the alley - as our garden gate led only to the side of the house - but I feared I wouldn't see Snowball again. However, there he was, hopping round the grass, eating to his heart's content and actually quite near the spot where his escape tunnel ended. Maybe he had just fancied an adventure and intended coming back into the garden when he had finished!
Mum and I cornered him at each end of the alley while dad grabbed him and we took him home, ensuring the bottom of the shed was also blocked off with bricks in future!
Rabbit ate most of dad's flowers
Having a rabbit running free was not without its other problems - namely Snowball used to eat all my dad's flowers that he had lovingly planted!
Luckily, dad was a very easy-going sort of person and didn't really mind too much. He would joke, "At least Snowball keeps the grass short!"
At one time, he erected a plastic fence around the flowerbeds to try and keep Snowball out, but this too was chewed and demolished pretty quickly!
New addition to the family arrived
Our next family member was of the feathered variety - a beautiful emerald-green budgie called Tony. He lived in his cage in the dining room, but during the day, he was allowed to fly freely round the room. I would often sit in there reading, with Mitzie at my feet and Tony on my head!
This caused my grandma great concern, as she found Tony a bit frightening when he fluttered round her head suddenly and made her jump! We all took great care to leave the dining room door closed, as had he flown out, the back door was often open in summer and he would have escaped.
However, I liked all my animals to enjoy the sunshine and if I went in the garden, Tony, in his cage, came out too, sitting on the patio and talking away to his heart's content, bobbing about on his perch and looking in the mirror, saying, "Who's a pretty boy?"
Hamster enjoyed the great outdoors too
I persuaded mum and dad to let me have a hamster next. He was called Snowy and was the most friendly creature you could ever meet.
He soon joined my little group reading in the dining room. I wish I had a photo of the funny scene - me in a tiny red chair which my grandad, a skilled upholsterer, had made, with a budgie on my head, a dog at my feet and a hamster on my knee!
Of course, Snowy too came outside in the summer and had his cage near Tony the budgie's on the patio. My dog never showed any interest in the small animals at all and gave no cause for concern. She was so accustomed to them that she just accepted their presence.
Having childhood pets taught me responsibility
With mum and dad's help and guidance, I was taught how to care for my animals, from feeding and playing with them to cleaning them out and basic health needs.
I believe this was so beneficial to me as a child, because it taught me responsibility and I knew their health and happiness depended on us.
The family just kept on growing, with grandad buying me two guinea pigs for Christmas. They were supposed to be two females and lived in the dining room, with my budgie and hamster. However, one morning, we heard much squeaking from their den and found there were four guinea pigs in there now!
We gave one baby to a trusted family friend when it was old enough, but kept the other little one.
Thankfully, they did not have any more babies for the duration of their lives, which led us to believe one had perhaps been pregnant when my grandad bought them.
A mouse and many goldfish soon joined us
Looking back, my parents were absolutely amazing, in that they didn't mind the total chaos of our lives due to all my animals!
I persuaded them to let me get a mouse, whom I called Misty.
Poor grandma - not only was she frightened of Tony the budgie flying round her head, but she had an almost paranoid fear of mice, for no real reason other than they scampered about so fast.
I would let Misty out of his cage and have him running up my arms and over my shoulders. Meanwhile, grandma would be trying to relax in her chair, watching television, while keeping a watchful eye on me instead!
A major addition to our household were the goldfish. We started off quite low-key after my cousin Sharon and I won some goldfish at the funfair. Thankfully, I don't think as many live fish are available as fairground prizes today, as it seems cruel.
But in the 1970s, when I was young, there were always goldfish to be won. I made my dad play on the coconut shy or the darts, or throwing hoops on cones, for ages until he won me some fish! I started off with just two, whom I called Bill and Ben. They also had a tank in the dining room, on the book cabinet that my dad had made.
Our dining room was like a hospital for goldfish
Over the next five years, I kept bringing more goldfish home with me, until we had to get a bigger tank, as I had 14 by this time! My original fish, Bill and Ben, were still going strong and had lots of pals too. They would all swim around in a shoal.
Dad used to clean them out, as the tank was so big by this time that I couldn't lift it.
However, one day, I noticed, to my sorrow, that one of my fish had died of a fungal infection. Some of the other fish also had fungal spots on their fins and tail mainly.
Dad took me to the pet shop and we asked how we could treat them. I recall the owner sold us some anti-fungal treatment, but said the sick fish should be isolated from those who didn't have fungus spots.
Poor mum ... when we arrived home, I commandeered all her baking bowls to use as hospital tanks for the sick fish. I recall putting newspaper all over the floor and having around eight different bowls, with the fishes separated into various stages of illness.
The ones who looked healthy were left in the tank, while the very sick ones were separated and then the others who seemed slightly ill were placed in different bowls too. Each day, I would go in and check on their progress and administer their medication, while mum and dad had to climb over all the bowls just to walk across the room!
Sadly, all my fish died and I was heartbroken, as I'd had Bill and Ben for many years and they had grown quite big.
But this childhood experience led to my lifelong love of fish and currently I have four tanks of fish, of various species. I have also taken fish in for friends who had bought them for their children, who no longer showed any interest in them.
I think there are vastly more treatments about today for fungal and other fish infections and maybe had there been this variety back in the 1970s, my goldfish might have survived.
I started to dream of having my own pony
As time went by, I started to dream of having my own pony. I had read every pony book published (fact and fiction) as a child and longed to have one of my own.
Part of this stemmed from when I was very young and my grandma used to run a bed and breakfast hotel near the seaside before she retired.
The donkeys which gave rides on the beach used to walk to and from the seafront past grandma's guesthouse and the "donkey-man", as we called him, got to know me, as I would stand on the street corner waiting for them to pass by.
He would let me ride the donkeys from one end of grandma's street to the other - and during the school holidays, I was always on the beach having donkey rides and dreaming it was my own horse.
Also I recall the horses which pulled the landaus on the seafront were stabled quite near where I grew up, where there were fields and lanes. (It is a housing estate and supermarket now). Dad would take me there at the weekend and we would take a bag of carrots and other treats for the horses. He had an amazing skill whereby he could do such a marvelous impression of a horse neighing, they would all come galloping over straight away! I spent hours there feeding them
I was not allowed to have my own horse
However, no matter how hard I tried, I could never persuade mum and dad to let me have a pony. Looking back, I can understand why not, with hindsight.
They said, first and foremost, we couldn't afford one, which I accepted. But they also pointed out we lived in a largely urban area and it could not live in our back garden, so there would be stabling costs and also transport to and from the stable to consider.
Also, they told me what a huge responsibility it was and said, who would go down and muck out the stable each day and exercise a pony when I was at school and mum and dad were at work. In those days, dad didn't have a car and he and mum both cycled.
I did understand why I couldn't have a pony of my own and I made do with pony trekking while on holiday and dreaming on! The horse, unfortunately, bolted and left the trail, which made me realise it wasn't as easy as it looked and was nothing like my childhood donkey rides!
A love of animals lasts a lifetime
Looking back and reminiscing about my childhood, I can understand fully how I have become the person I am today.
I have a house full of animals now, most of them rescued, I am very involved in animal welfare causes and have helped reunite lost dogs with their owners on many occasions.
I wish every child could enjoy such a happy childhood as I did and I firmly believe that being brought up around animals, by parents who loved and respected animals of all species, has made me a better person.
A love of animals really does last a lifetime.