The subject of pets is one that can effectively be used to engage children in lessons about personal responsibility, and the importance of natural habitats for animals. Gerald Haigh uses a popular advertising campaign to relate these important social lessons to young children

We previously published a popular assembly on the dangers and cruelty of keeping unsuitable animals as pets. This week’s assembly updates the theme in the context of the current advertising campaign, comparethemeerkats.com.

It’s been reported that the popular TV advert for comparethemeerkat.com, featuring ‘Aleksandr the Russian meerkat’, has raised interest in meerkats. That’s fine, except that it is thought that more people are eager to buy them to keep as pets − the CBBC clip below reports a case of a person buying two for £500 each from a pet shop − and animal welfare groups are concerned about that.

Resources

Introduction for teachers
Children – and adults – are naturally attracted to cute, small animals, but they have to learn that just because they are sweet to look at doesn’t mean they are suitable as pets. The meerkat is a good example of a small animal that is fascinating to watch and study, but simply cannot be kept at home in a cage. In the wild they live in a maze of tunnels. They are physically equipped for burrowing that they are constantly digging, either to extend their home or for food. They are also highly social, and tend to live in groups of up to thirty or more.

Introduction for children
Have you seen the advert for comparethemarket.com that features Aleksandr the meerkat with a Russian accent? The ad makes a joke about the difference between ‘Compare the market’ and ‘Compare the meerkat’. It’s just a bit of fun of course, and one effect has been to inspire many people to become interested in meerkats. Zoos with meerkats report lots more visitors.

But there’s one rule about our love of animals that we should always bear in mind. It’s this.

Just because an animal is cute and interesting to watch, and makes you go ‘aah’, doesn’t mean it’s suitable as a pet.

Keeping the wrong animal as a pet can be troublesome for you, and could be expensive. But more importantly, of course, it will make the animal unhappy − so unhappy that it could even become ill. Keeping an animal in an environment that makes it unhappy is cruel – every bit as cruel as mistreating a dog or a cat. And sometimes the more you try to care for it, the worse things get, because some animals just hate being handled or stared at or kept in a small space. Also, many animals are highly social, which means they want to be among other animals of the same kind. Meerkats are on of those animals, and like to live in large groups.

So what might it feel like to be a meerkat who’s become a family pet? They can’t tell us of course, so we have to imagine what they might say…

A meerkat story
Hi! I’m Arthur, a very unhappy meerkat. Why do you think I’m unhappy? Let me tell you.

You might be surprised when you hear that I’m unhappy, because I live in what you would think was a nice place. I live in a house in a big British town, with a nice family. They love me very much, and they try very hard to look after me properly. I have a nice big cage and they give me plenty of food, and they come and look at me and laugh and say gentle things to me. And sometimes they take me out of my cage and stroke me and tickle me.

Why do you think I don’t like that? Because I’m a meerkat, that’s why. My real home is in the Kalahari desert in South Africa. It’s a huge open space with sand, and a few trees and plants. The ground is soft, which we like, because we can dig into it. And oh boy don’t we meerkats like to dig! You see, we’re made for digging. We have powerful front legs, with a very fearsome claw on each foot. You needn’t be afraid of the claw, because we don’t use it for attacking other creatures; we only use it for digging, which it’s very good for. So good that at home in the Kalahari we have lots and lots of tunnels − a real city under the ground. We’re very happy and safe there.

But here I don’t feel safe you see, in the house. Maybe I’m wrong, the family tries to keep me safe – but I’m not used to huge people looking at me when I’m resting or trying to sleep. And I do miss my digging – my front legs are itching to dig, and search for food and make a home under the ground.

I’m also afraid of the other animals in this house! There’s a cat… I suppose I ought to like cats, because I’m a meerkat and I look a bit like one, but I’m not really a cat at all, and the one in this house is very curious and keeps coming to look at me.

And there’s a big lolloping thing called a dog. He comes and looks at me too. And do you know, the puzzling thing about this dog is that he actually likes the people who live in the house! In fact I think he’s in love with them. He runs up to them, and makes a fuss of them, and licks them, and he likes them to stroke him and pet him and tickle him. Ugh! I don’t know why he likes all that. I only like other meerkats and there aren’t any of those around here.

No other meerkats. That’s the worst thing. In the Kalahari where I come from, I was a member of a family of thirty meerkats – old ones, young ones, babies – all looking after each other. We got on wonderfully well together and we knew that we had to stick together.

So I’m pretty sad, now, really. The people in the house call me their ‘pet’. They show me off to people. But I don’t think I’m anybody’s pet. I’m a creature of the wild. My home is in the open space by day, and in our tunnels at night. I should be free and happy, but here I am in a strange and frightening place, and I have to tell you I don’t like it at all.

ConclusionMeerkats are lovely creatures – fascinating to watch. But the place to watch them in is in the wild. It might not even be a good idea to keep them in a zoo, although many zoos do have them, and they make a better job of caring for them that an ordinary person in a house could.

Any pet takes a lot of care. Something that seems quite easy to keep, like a rabbit, can be very demanding, and every year lots of pet rabbits are dumped and abandoned by people who can’t look after them. Some people, it seems, simply don’t understand what the word ‘pet’ actually means.

A prayer
Lord, we thank you for all the creatures of the earth, those that are our pets and those that live happily in the wild. Help us to respect each of them, and to know how best to make them content and happy.

A thought
An animal’s only a pet when it enjoys being with you.

Things to do
Some animals obviously aren’t going to make good pets – meerkats, for example, and primates. But there are popular pets that are also often badly looked after. Rabbits for example. Can you write a letter from a pet rabbit to his or her owner explaining what they need to lead a comfortable life? (RSPCA has advice).

There’s also information at Winterbourne Rabbits.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in May 2009

About the author: Gerald Haigh

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