Remembering a lesson about animals

Published 10:28 pm Friday, June 3, 2011

One of my earliest memories involves a lesson about animals.

Sometime between my fourth and fifth birthdays, we lived in an apartment building. We had a neighbor whose apartment seemed to overflow with cats. I was obsessed with them. I remember chasing them around and around, and then being chased by them.

Most of the cats enjoyed my petting them. And I loved petting them. I was especially enticed by their long, fluffy tails. But, being a youngster, I had a habit of petting too forcefully. And then I committed the cardinal sin of playing with cats: I pulled one of the fluffier tails, and the cat on the other end was not happy about it.

Email newsletter signup

That’s when my neighbor sat me down and had a long conversation with me about animals.

I don’t remember the specifics — I was only four — but I do remember the gist. My neighbor spoke about animals and how they had feelings. He said that though they weren’t human, the Golden Rule should extend to the animals in our lives.

If I didn’t want my hair pulled, then I shouldn’t pull tails. It didn’t matter that cats are unlikely to pull my hair in retaliation, it only mattered that I understood that I had hurt a creature in a way that I didn’t want to be hurt.

What I most forcefully remember about that afternoon is the shame and guilt I felt for pulling the cat’s tail. And how sad I was that I had hurt one of my new friends.

It was this memory that flashed into my head when I heard the shocking news that a kitten had been beaten nearly to death, allegedly by a 12-year-old boy.

According to accounts of the event, the child picked up a tiny kitten that had been playing with other children and threw it against the wall. The child then picked up a stick and began beating the kitten. Finally, he pulled out a knife and said he was going to cut the kitten, according to the other children.

Another child, who obviously understood the value of an animal’s life, stepped in and ended the attack.

While it ended up being too late for the kitten, which died Friday while in foster care, the child’s actions were heroic. As disheartening as it was to learn of the violent actions against the kitten, it was just as heartwarming to know that another child would take it upon himself to come to the kitten’s defense.

The recent news that the kitten had died left me thinking about how my 4-year-old self spent the rest of the afternoon after I pulled the cat’s tail.

I took it upon myself to have a conversation of my own, this time with the offended cat. I hear 4-year-olds tend to do those things.

After a few minutes spent coaxing the wary cat to my side, I cautiously petted it as I apologized for the way I had treated him.

Then the cat taught me another important life lesson: It crawled into my lap and purred contently; in essence, the cat forgave me.

To me, it’s this ability of animals to teach us important life lessons that make them deserving of humane treatment.