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Life Goes On

BUFFALO, NY -  When Joshua J. Russell ’03, PhD, first met ‘Neville,’ the 13-year-old boy was shaken by the sudden death of his cat, even though it occurred two years earlier.

 “I asked Neville how he felt when he learned his cat was struck by a car and he replied, ‘My life was over,’” Russell recalls.    

 Given the relatively short lifespans of many pets, it’s not unusual for children to witness the realities of life played out in their homes.  But “how children understand death in these moments, and the ideas, feelings and responses they have when their pets die are largely ignored topics,” says Russell.  Until now.

New research by the assistant professor of animal behavior, ecology and conservation (ABEC) reveals that pets are more than just animals to children.  “They often see themselves as the center of their pets’ affections,” says Russell, who conducted one-on-one interviews with children between the ages of six and 13. “They describe their pets as siblings or best friends with whom they have strong connections.”

Unfortunately, the joy of owning a pet often goes hand-in-hand with the heartbreak of losing one.  Children, in particular, “have a distinct sense of existential fairness around whether or not an animal lived until an appropriate age,” Russell explains. 

A short lifespan “is normal for hamsters and fish,” according to the children interviewed, “but unexpected for dogs, cats and rabbits.” Similarly, different kinds of deaths mean different things to children. 

“Children whose pets lived the extent of their potential lifetimes – or beyond – expressed acceptance upon their deaths,” Russell says.  The children also suggested that euthanasia “was the moral thing to do when a pet is suffering.” Conversely, children whose pets died unexpectedly “described it as emotionally and morally unfair, and had a much more difficult time reconciling the loss.”

In all instances, family and friends helped the children cope with the loss of their beloved pets through discussions and family rituals.  Although, Russell discovered ambivalence about whether a new pet would lessen their grief.    

“There were those who felt it would be wrong to move on to a new pet because they had to honor their relationships with the deceased one.”  Several children, however, “explicitly linked getting a new pet with feeling better,” Russell continues.  “They explained it as an opportunity to start over and suggested that replacing a companion animal is more about beginning a new relationship than erasing memories of an old one.” 

Neville summarized it best, Russell concludes, when he said, “Sometimes death is tragic, like when a cat is run over by a car.  But ultimately, death is part of life and life does go on.”

Joshua Russell’s research involving children and non-human animals is ongoing.  He is using a grant from the national Culture & Animals Foundation to investigate how children describe and derive meaning from wildlife recreational experiences, such as hunting and fishing.