Marc Morrone was born in 1960 in the Bronx and, when he was 2, his family moved to
Q. We want to get my son and daughter a hamster or a guinea pig for Christmas to help teach them responsibility and wondered if you could advise us which one would be better. We have a Yorkie now, but she is more my pet than anyone else's. --Sharon Bates, Centereach
A. I really do not want to get involved in family politics, but the idea of getting a pet for a child to teach him or her responsibility is not a good idea. Being responsible often means doing tasks that we do not like to do, for the common good of society or family. Doing your homework, taking out the garbage and clearing the table are responsible things to do. Nobody likes to do these things, but we know that we must if we are going to pull our weight in our particular group.
Petkeeping, however, should be fun. Children should get pleasure in feeding their pets and cleaning the cages. They should be fascinated by watching the actions of an animal and wondering why it does the things it does. Then they should go out of their way to discover the answers. Nothing about caring for a pet should be a chore. If the child thinks of it in that manner, then that child should stick to iPhones rather then pets.
I can so clearly remember, when I was 5, my parents gave me a 10-gallon aquarium for Christmas with 15 small fish in it. I would spend hours watching each fish, wondering where it came from and what more I could expect from it. Of course, that was in a time when we had only five channels on the TV and the phone was attached to the wall with a dial that you had to spin to make any calls. Even kids with more interest in the natural world than the virtual world need to get more out of a pet these days than your average fish tank can provide.
Guinea pigs and hamsters are a good choice. They are self-aware and respond to their names. Being individuals, they are more of a friend than fish are. Hopefully the children will be concerned about their welfare and comfort.
You as a parent need to be able to supervise. The mess that your average child will leave the house in after cleaning a guinea pig's cage by himself or herself may cause more drama then you need, and your life may be easier if you keep an eye on things. Guinea pigs do need to have their cage cleaned every day if you do not want the cage to smell. If you as a parent are not prepared to monitor this, then a hamster may be a better choice. You can get away with cleaning a hamster's cage once a week. A hamster can also be left alone for a weekend if your family takes a short trip. If you had a guinea pig, then you would need to board it out during this time. Both species are very interactive with children and will respond to affection and treats. Since guinea pigs are larger and enjoy eating, and since kids love feeding animals so much, my vote goes for the guinea pig if your family life can handle the extra work that your child will have to do while you supervise.
Q. My daughter wants to get a ferret from her friend who cannot keep it. We have an African grey parrot who has been our treasured pet for the last nine years. I am reluctant to allow my daughter to get the ferret if it will prove a danger to our parrot. --Karen McConnell, Smithtown
A. Ferrets, like cats, are obligate carnivores. They get along just fine with dogs and cats, but they can kill a bird -- just like a cat or dog can, so you need to supervise things. Ferrets do not see very well, and they are not really aware of things that go on above their heads. So, if a pet ferret is out of its cage and the parrot is in its cage, the ferret will not really go out of its way to figure how to get up to the parrot's cage as a cat would do. It will most likely not even be aware that there is a bird in the house. However, if the ferret is running about the house and the bird is on your shoulder and suddenly jumps off your shoulder, landing in front of the ferret, then there will be a problem. Another scenario I have heard of is when the ferret is in its cage and the bird is out of its cage. If the bird flies down to the floor and climbs onto the ferret's cage, then the ferret will grab the bird's feet. However, both these scenarios can be prevented by just being careful. If your daughter wants to take in the ferret, then by all means do allow her to. More birds are hurt by pet dogs and cats than by ferrets.