Character Building - Animal Study
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE study of animals should be promoted, not only as a part of general knowledge of the world about us (which has been made of value to man mainly through their agency), but because it is necessary to our proper treatment of them and also to our understanding fully our own place in nature. Hence the attention of children ought to be directed to it, and fortunately there is no subject in which they are more likely to be interested when properly guided. Let them begin right at home with the domestic animals of the farm, or the pets and familiar visitors to the garden. There need be nothing formal about it; but only a calling of their attention to certain points and comparisons, from which gradually will grow broader knowledge, pleasantly supplemented by reading.
Supposing, for example, you confine yourself at first to half a dozen kinds of creatures which every child knows by sight-a horse, a cow, a dog, a cat and a squirrel. In what features are all alike? Each has a similar general form, a hairy coat, four legs, two eyes, ears, nostrils, etc. Some other animals you know also have the two eyes, etc., such as a bird or a frog or a fish, but these have no coat of hair since their skin is covered with feathers, or with scales, or is naked; so they are different from the cow, horse, dog and cat, and from each other. Thus it appears that we have various classes or kinds of animals-a hairy kind, a feathered kind, a scaly kind and so on. Some day one of the youngsters will interrupt to ask "What is an animal ?" to which it is sufficient to answer that it is one of the two kinds of living creatures-that one which can move about as it pleases, whereas a plant, the other kind, is fixed by its roots in a single spot; moreover an animal feeds upon plants or other animals while a plant feeds generally upon substances in the soil and air.
Now that you have a basis to work upon, go back to the familiar hairy animals. How do the five you know best differ? Two are large, and three are small; the large ones eat only grass and such things; two of the smaller eat meat, and have very different teeth from the other two, and the squirrel eats nuts, etc. and has teeth unlike any of the others. Very well, now take a simple group-how do the horse and cow differ ? Compare the long, hornless head of the horse, and its neat, single hoof, with the short, horned head of the cow and her double hoof. What distinctions can you (i.e. the child) see between the dog and the cat? The cat has a round head and no nose to speak of, while the dog has a long head and muzzle; the cat has short legs and a creeping gait, the dog longer ones. What about the toes ? There are five-the same number as your own; but the nails in the dogs are strong and blunt and open, while those of the cat are slender and sharp, and drawn up most of the time in sheaths of skin. Then compare with these the limbs and claws of the squirrel. The differences mean a great difference in habits, do they not? What are these habits? And how are the structures and habits related?
Such a method is the merest suggestion of how any parent may start his smallest child aright on the road to a knowledge of animals, in a way which will interest them and open their eyes. Unfortunately a large part of the reading designed for children in this direction is mere gush, or so isolated that it gives little or nothing upon which the child's imagination and curiosity may build intelligently. What is wanted by a child at first is a plan of study into which every fact learned later will fit, completing in his mind an orderly structure of knowledge. There is no reason why he should not acquire his knowledge of the animal life of his country, or of the world, as he does his knowledge of its geography, by getting first a true outline map of the great divisions, and then little by little filling in the details, each one in its proper position. The difference is that between knowledge and mere information-between a house and a pile of bricks.
Thus started, the boy or girl will read with enjoyment and comprehension "The Animal World," Volume V in the Library; and appreciate properly the Animal Stories in Volume IV. Before the child is far enough advanced to take this subject up for himself he will have learned the names of the principal kinds of animals and learned their leading characteristics. The fairy stories and droll tales and fables which will be read to him from Volume I are full of allusions to them; and many a little rhyme and ballad of the nursery, such as "Who Killed Cock Robin," and "The Snowbird's Song," turns the baby's eyes to the window to see the birdies, and inclines its heart to their welfare. To many a child the magic animals of Hiawatha's land will be the feature of most interest in the myth of that wondrous hero of our northern forests, as related in Volume II; and it will be pleasant to turn from it to the real zoology in Volume V, and find the same animals as they really are. That would be excellent practice, too, with the rich list of Animal Stories in Volume IV. Many of them are gems of fiction, yet built upon a basis of truth; and their delicate imagery, or stirring adventure' or jolly fun, as in the delicious satire of the boastful Tartarin's exploits with lions in Algiers, will lose nothing by a little sober reading afterward on the subject of each.
It is thus the necessarily brief accounts in the natural history are enriched and extended. When you have led your son or daughter to see your cow as an animal distinguished by certain peculiarities he will be ready for the next step-Chapter xv in Volume V. Then he will learn that the world holds various other cattle, some wild and some domestic, and that we used to have here in America a kind of ox which ran wild in great numbers. This will interest him; and in pursuit of this interest he will want to read in Volume VI the article, "The Buffalo of the Plains," which describes how they were hunted in the early days; and also the article, "In the Rocky Mountains." In these he finds mentioned various other animals-deer, pronghorns, prairie dogs, mountain sheep, various birds, rattle-snakes and so on. In Volume V the means are at hand to tell him more of these, and better put them in their proper place in the arrangement of animal life.