Teen Breathe

How to look after an animal without taking on a pet

Caring for animals is hugely rewarding and offers all sorts of benefits – the companionship and calming effect of being with the creatures themselves, the sense of purpose and responsibility and, of course, the chance to relish a comforting cuddle. But there are many reasons why it’s not always a practical or possible option. Being unable to keep an animal of your own needn’t be a barrier to reaping the rewards of being in their company, though. So why not consider one of these four ways to get closer to a critter and grab the chance to play a positive part in an animal’s life?
WORDS: Victoria Pickett

How to observe and help wild animals in your area

Are there birds that visit a garden or green space nearby? Perhaps there’s a squirrel stashing food in a plant pot or signs that a hedgehog might be padding across a local footpath. If you do spot an animal, look out for distinctive markings or regular patterns of behaviour to distinguish one individual from the next, and watch what they’re doing.

If you can, pick a spot you can return to and sit in for a short while each day. You’ll be surprised by the amount of information you can build up about each animal’s daily life – you could even consider contributing to a citizen science project (for ideas see education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/citizen-science-projects/).

Putting out appropriate food and water and making nesting materials available are great ways to help. Remember to let nature take its course, though, and don’t be tempted to interfere. If you’re concerned about the welfare of any wild animal, seek professional advice from a trusted source (a wildlife charity is a good place to start, especially as many have lots of advice online). Above all, enjoy the opportunity to slow down, be present and appreciate the wildlife around you.

Why not help someone else with their pet?

If it’s domestic animals whose company you crave, consider lending a hand with someone else’s pet. Perhaps a neighbour needs someone to keep their cat company while they’re out or a friend has some gerbils that need feeding while they’re on holiday. Every owner needs assistance once in a while and, if you’re able to offer good-quality, reliable care, you’ll be in demand.

Be sure to follow instructions (avoid confusion by asking the owner to leave a clear and accurate note if they’re not going to be around) and make sure a responsible adult is with you or knows where you are.  

Become a dog walker to get closer to animals

For many people, dogs are the ultimate furry friend, and dog walking can be brilliantly beneficial for both people and pooches. Ask a relative or neighbour if you can join them on their dog walk. It’ll give you a chance to enjoy some non-human company while also being able to chat to their owner and up your step count.

Can’t think of anyone with a dog that needs an outing? No problem. There are websites and organisations that enable users to ‘borrow a dog’, matching owners with people who can look after and entertain their pet while they’re away. A wide range of different breeds and ages are represented so this is a great way to get to know the needs of different types of dogs. These sites do have an age restriction of over 18, so they’re something to investigate with a parent or guardian.

Why volunteering on a farm would let you interact with animals

If you like your four-legged friends a bit bigger, but don’t have room for a pony or a cow in the backyard, don’t despair. Some farms, including city farms, run youth volunteer programmes or school holiday schemes.

Contact local organisations to find out more about what’s on offer in your area. There’ll probably be a lot of unglamorous work, like mucking out barns, but in return, you’ll get good hands-on experience, meet like-minded people and gain general skills, such as teamwork.

Similar opportunities are offered at stables, equine charities and animal shelters. Age limits tend to apply, but with some businesses and societies taking on volunteers as young as 10, it’s worth enquiring. If you’re enthusiastic and have the backing of an adult, there’s bound to be something you can help with, and there’s nothing nicer than knowing you’ve done your bit for a good cause.

Read more about wildlife and animal care in Teen Breathe issue 45.