Belated mother’s day

Crikey! I was infatuated by Steve Irwin, the crocodile hunter, while I was growing up. The way he could highlight an animal and change our negative perception was remarkable.

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During a summer vacation in elementary school, my family was lucky enough to go camping at my aunt and uncle’s camp site. It was located in the remote Arrowhead camping grounds in Arcade, an exotic 60-minute drive. Hiking, fishing and family games kept us very active, as well as the hundreds of other campers.

As moms are fragile, it was my responsibility to inform my mother on the proper snake handling techniques, courtesy of Irwin himself. “If you see a snake, pick it up by its tail and bring it to me. I will take care of it.” I had never seen a wild snake before. It looked simple on the television and I wanted to be an animal ambassador.

A day or two passed and my mother came around the camper. “Kenny. Kenny, I have something for you.” She was holding, by its tail, the biggest snake I had ever seen.

It must have been an 8- or 9-inch garter snake. She asked me if I wanted to hold it. I did what any elementary school boy would have done.

I ran. I ran and I screamed. And then ran some more.

Fast-forward a few years and Monica, a California king snake, living in my bedroom, is one of my best friends. Although she is touchable I really enjoy watching her explore her enclosure. I take her to Sunday school and other socials, where she and I act as animal ambassadors for the pets people tend not to like.

As pet caregivers, we function as their ambassadors. Some of our pets are fluffy and cuddly, but some are not. Some of our companion’s wild cousins are not as fluffy and cute as our pets. Some of our pets, people will say, have faces only a mother can love.

It is our responsibility to instill compassion.

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Mothers are excellent teachers of compassion. They don’t just “put up with” the critters in our lives but they nurture them and us. This is a truly important concept once you consider that some scientists believe that phobias — the irrational fear of something — could be aided by a guardian’s perception.

Every interaction your pets make with another person is an important one. A pet’s personality can make us have a connection to wildlife.

A way to relate animals with humans is to explore the commonalities we have. Just like us, they experience happiness and grief. If people experience firsthand the characteristics an animal can display, they will feel a connection with that animal and want to conserve it and its relatives.

A defining moment for me was when my mother picked up that snake and brought it to me. I knew it wasn’t slimy. I knew it wasn’t scary. I knew it was misunderstood. I responded irrationally.

Creepy crawlies or not, all animals deserve to be treated with kindness. Our compassion, through our pets, can be conveyed to our family and friends. Next time your non-pet embracing friends are over, let them give your pet a new toy or treat. Once they see the joy it brings and the quirks your pet exhibits, they will turn into animal ambassadors.

Steve Irwin isn’t the only person who can foster respect for wildlife.  I try to embody that message daily, with my pets, and I learned it from my mother.

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