09/24/2012 05:15 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2012

On Pets and Legacy

Have you ever considered the lessons you learned and the love you expressed through your relationship with animals? Pets connect us to nature and are one of nature's best sources of love.

For children pets are playmates and a source of solace, love, protection, and companionship. How important was the introduction to early nursery rhymes ("Baa Baa Black Sheep") and stuffed animals or having a personal or family pet? Remember the fun we had playing with and dressing up those first precious pets? Many of us learned first about death when we lost a beloved pet. We dug graves, orchestrated funerals, and visited grave sites often as we grieved those first losses.

For those in the second half of life, research indicates that pets provide the aging population with a responsible relationship. Providing daily care for an animal simultaneously provides companionship and purpose, diminishes loneliness, and supplies a sense of security and stability.

Between childhood and old age, one need look no farther than the regular exercise benefit of walking or running with dogs, the relief of stress, and the daily dose of affection and humor that pets provide.

I remember my first pet, a strawberry blonde tiny kitty my husband and I named Atticus (after Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird). Never having had a pet as a child, I only agreed to Atticus when my husband promised we could get rid of him if he got "big and ugly." I fell in love with him instantaneously as we coaxed him from beneath the bookshelf to feed him milk from an eye dropper. My later memory, now 50 years old, was when friends came for dinner, and seeing Atticus sprawled across the living room floor of our rather small duplex in Bloomfield, N.J., a woman commented with a look of horror on her face about how big Atticus was. I looked at our 14-pound baby and was shocked. In my eyes, Atticus was still my kitty, as adorable as the first day I fed him with the eye dropper.

Though dogs and cats are by far the most numerous pets, other species have been companions, teachers and family members to many. Pets have birthday parties and receive gifts celebrating their birthdays and other holidays. (U.S. stats of pet ownership in 2006: 73 million dogs, 90 million cats, 148 million fresh and saltwater fish, 16 million birds, and 11 million reptiles.)

If academic research isn't persuasive, and you never experienced love for creatures firsthand, consider childhood empathy and tears as we read about the trials of Black Beauty and The Black Stallion, the love engendered by The Velveteen Rabbit, and how Charlotte the spider tried to save Wilbur the pig in Charlotte's Web. And how many of us learned to read with Dick and Jane, See Spot Run, and their cat, Puff? Before we could read ourselves we were read nursery rhymes: Three Blind Mice, Mary Had a Little Lamb, and Old Mother Hubbard. As toddlers our favorite stories may have been "The Three Little Pigs," "The Three Bears," "Peter Rabbit," the escapades of Frog and Toad and the mischievous mice Maisy and Chrysanthemum.

Suggestions for Action:

1. Reflect and write about pets you've had or have and what they mean to you. What qualities in your pet make them lovable? What adventures did you have with pets as a kid? What memories have you yet of their adorable antics, their hilarious mischief? What uniquely funny things did your pets do? How did they support you when you were sad, mad or glad? How did you and your family handle their illness, their death?

2. Scour your reading memory to see what your favorite animal stories and books were. Recall why you enjoyed reading them. As gifts, those books may be loved anew by young readers whom you love.

3. Journal the special stories you remember about your pets. Describe what was important about your relationship with them as you were growing up or growing old. How did you and they express love for each other? What did your animals teach you about nonverbal communication and connection?

4. As you close your reflections and journaling, what stories, learning, blessings do you want to preserve and pass forward to those who will come after you?

5. Write a legacy letter to someone in a younger generation sharing how you've been blessed to be in relationship with animals. Include copies of pictures if you have them and perhaps your childhood favorite book.

May you continue to learn from and express love for animals and may they love you and may they love you and your loved ones,

Rachael Freed

NEW 2012 editions now available of Rachael Freed's Women's Lives, Women's Legacies, Passing Your Beliefs and Blessings to Future Generations, The Legacy Workbook for the Busy Woman [also available as pdf downloads at] and Heartmates: A Guide for the Partner and Family of the Heart Patient, and The Heartmates Journal. She is currently working on Your Legacy Matters: An Intergenerational Legacy Guide to be published early 2013. Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota's Center for Spirituality and Healing, Rachael is a clinical social worker, adult educator and legacy consultant. Her home is Minneapolis, Minnesota. For more information, visit and Follow her on Twitter:

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