Saturday, November 21, 2015

Critters For The Kids

Walking our friend's dog

"So you want a pet rabbit?" Our younger girl is gaga over these cuties. And boy, they sure are cute. A quick stroll through the nearby pet shop will confirm that. She's always been fascinated with animals. A couple of months back we had a date at the zoo, and it was simply marvelous watching her eyes beam with every exhibit we stopped at.

She had hinted to me that one day she'd like to have a zoo at home with ponies, crocodiles and giraffes. That turned a little more realistic recently when she mooted having a pet dog instead. I hate to pour cold water on a child's dreams, but I questioned if she had what it took. Citing space and time constraints, I convinced her to start with something smaller. Hence the bunny...

Animals are good for kids. In fact, they're often good for everyone. They have a therapeutic effect and are able to connect with humans to initiate a range of emotions. They bring out qualities in us we didn't know we had, such as responsibility to provide for the welfare of the animal and commitment to care for it beyond the point it ceases to be cute and adorable.

During the school holidays, the girls asked me teach them some science. There was a stash of encyclopedias and workbooks somewhere that were still untouched. Mummy was a student of the arts, and the responsibility to prepare them for the sciences fell on me.

Although there was room for reading and writing, I was taught that science always starts with a question and followed with the search for an answer. That search might lead us to a testing of a hypothesis (otherwise known as an experiment) or further research. The simple task of keeping critters raised a ton of 'research questions.

"What does it eat?"

"How long does it live?"

"What kind of critter is this and how large does it get?"

However, the one question that really mattered to the girls was "Is it a boy or is it a girl? We need to know so we can name them!"

The questions kept coming and the girls would spend moments throughout the day observing the creatures through their magnifying glasses.


We came up with the idea of going out to the garden at the foot of our block to see what we could put into our plastic box, and came back that day with a couple of butterflies and a moth. I decided that they might not survive long in our little box we bid an emotional farewell to them that very same night.

Simply captivated by the moth and butterflies!

Okay, so some animals don't do well in a small cage, but there had to be something we could enjoy a little longer. We tried our hands at a couple other critters.

Almost as if an answer to prayer, we found a praying-mantis literally knocking on our door! It seemed to be somewhat delirious at first, but appeared to be revived after voraciously devouring a couple of flies we fed it. It was a mature male Giant Asian Mantis as identified by it's large bright green body, long wings and seven well-defined segments on its abdomen. It was fun to handle as long as the windows were closed and the fans were turned-off in case it decided to take to the air.

This mantis was named 'Rater'.

Praying-mantises are fierce hunters, and whichever fly was unlucky enough to visit us at the wrong time met a violent death.


The next day we found some millipedes from the flower patch downstairs, and had fun observing them for a while. But just like the butterflies, they did not seem happy out of their familiar habitat of mud and dead leaves, and were released a couple of days later.


The temporary enclosure.
Snails are easy to find. Wait for the rain and they come out of their hiding places among the hedges and litter the walkways. A quick Google revealed that they were hermaphrodites, which meant that they were both male and female at the same time! I had confused expressions from the girls at first, but hey, that's what learning something new does to you, doesn't it?

The snails we released after two weeks. They were doing fine up to that point, when one of the snails refused to eat and started to look sick.

"Let's see if they like apple peel... hey they like it!"


Then one day while my daughter and I were walking downstairs, we spotted a small lizard in the drain and I recognized it immediately to be the kind of skink I used to keep as a little boy. We scooped it up into a plastic bag and placed it in a temporary enclosure. What an experience it was. The girls quickly named it 'Blobby' as it resembled a blob. Skinks make excellent pets and I with my experience I was confident we would have it eating ants and flies out of our hand in no time!

For a while, Blobby seemed like the ideal family pet. Gentle and yet curious, it was easy to play with and rather responsive to handling. Unfortunately, Blobby did not adjust well to the little space it had in its container, and after four days without eating, we released it back into the flower patch downstairs. Even today, the girls occasionally ask about our wonderful skink, and I assure them that Blobby is much happier and eating well out there in the urban wild.


Another boyhood favourite of mine were the fighting spiders I used to keep in little containers. On the wall outside our house, I found a common jumping spider and placed it in an empty jar. We identified it as a female Adanson's House Jumper (Hasarius adansoni) and named her Amy. She was not exactly cute with four pairs of eyes and a dull brown body, but boy was she interesting. Over the next few days we had the wonderful family time watching Amy pounce on the flies and ants that we found around the house, occasionally filling them in on the gruesome details of how the many eyes make jumping spiders superb hunters, and how they have the tools to envenom their prey to paralyze it before sucking out the soft parts. There was the rare privilege witnessing a molt! I used the chance to share stories of my favourite fighting spiders, how I cared for them and how much fun they were.

Amy didn't need much care or space, and seemed comfortable in a little glass jar.

The experience of keeping critters has taught us a lot, helped us to appreciate the knowledge, skill and commitment needed to care for them, and given us the opportunity to bond through observing them and the many discussions we had about them. Amy is alone now, and the others have either passed-away or have been released. Maybe one day we'll get a real pet, but for now, we wait in anticipation and expectation of the next critter we'll find! Right now, we're praying that we'll stumble on some caterpillars we can rear into butterflies!

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