By RYAN MELANSON
Friday, Dec. 2, 2012
Dr. Marian Desmarchelier has seen firsthand how owning even a small pet can have a large educational impact on a child.
“I remember meeting a 12-year-old who owned a little gecko, and he knew so much about it,” Desmarchelier said.”He had read books and could explain to me the entire natural history of the gecko.”
Desmarchelier, a professor at the Atlantic Veterinary College and diplomat for the American College of Zoological Medicine, held an information session at the college on Nov. 29. About 50 people showed up to learn about the benefits and risks of owning exotic-type pets like reptiles, birds, amphibians and small rodents.
Because some children consider these animals more interesting than cats and dogs, owning one responsibly can spark interests in new things and work as a learning tool, Desmarchelier said.
“It can be a great educational opportunity for both adults and children. Maybe owning this pet will get a child interested in a vocation, or maybe being around a bird or a snake for years will get the child more interested in protecting the environment and ecosystems.”
As with the young boy who owned the gecko, having responsibilities in taking care of a pet may get a child more interested in the animal itself.
“Sometimes having the animal and loving it will encourage them to learn more about it or encourage them to read about it,” Desmarchelier said. “When you’re raising a pet correctly there are many opportunities for learning.”
The key is that the pet must be cared for correctly. Desmarchelier said she has too many cases where people acquire exotic pets just to please their children or for no reason at all other than it seemed like a fun idea that is cheap or free.
What people often don’t realize is animals cost money in the long run with food, shots, and other expenses that skyrocket if an animal gets sick or injured. People often find themselves unprepared for the real cost and work involved with raising a pet, Desmarchelier said.
“Its very easy to look at a guinea pig and think about how cute she is and how much you want her, but you may find later on that you don’t actually want her that much and you don’t want to take care of her, so you get rid of her.”
Animal welfare can also suffer if owners are uninformed about their pet’s special needs. An example was the African Pygmy hedgehog, a common exotic pet that requires a certain climate to stay healthy, and often ends up sick or euthanized when owners don’t know how to deal with the pet’s problems.
“So if you take an animal that lives in Africa that lives at a temperature of 28 C and have it live in an apartment in the winter, it would be comparable to taking your cat and leaving it in the freezer,” Desmarchelier said. “Obviously, the animal might die. This happens all the time because people don’t realize the African Pygmy hedgehog comes from Africa.
The event was organized as part of the AVC’s Community Workshop series, which facilitates public presentations by AVC doctors. The series is all about helping the public understand and relate to the work done at the college, said AVC special events assistant Janice MacWilliams.
“We’re focused on topics that we know are of interest to the general public. People might not realize the information they can get here that can be important to them.”
Because many families own some type of exotic pet, interest in the event was high and it was an opportunity to educate in a way that might benefit the welfare of some local animals, MacWilliams said.
“One thing we really want to bring awareness to the expertise that we have at this college, because we have quite a bit of it. We also want to increase awareness of issues effecting animals, and this issue of exotic pets certainly covers that.”
Desmarchelier said she didn’t want to scare anyone away from owning exotic pets, but to make the experience better by ensuring owners are prepared for a pet and well informed about their animal before jumping right in.
“The key is when you buy an animal, or even if you get it for free, you have to understand it will be a responsibility, not a toy. This won’t just be for a week or for a month, but it will be a responsibility for years.”
When the responsibility is taken seriously, life is better for both sides, Desmarchelier said.
“Our goal, and I think everyone’s goal, is to have a happy owner and a happy pet. This is very possible, but we get big problems when one is happy and the other is not.”
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