Guest column

Chris Fitzgerald

Rethinking the 'Christmas Surprise'

“Please help me find a free puppy for my loving 4-year-old son for Christmas.”

The Craigslist ad writer further said she had little money, and her son had wanted a puppy for “so long.”So long? Four year olds are barely out of the toddler stage, and from my motherly recollections, pretty much live in the moment, as do puppies. Both are consummate explorers of their worlds –– what holds interest on Tuesday is forgotten Wednesday when something yet undiscovered beckons.

Recently, I overheard a young man selecting dog cookies from open bins excitedly tell a companion he was “stocking up”on treats for a “Christmas surprise”puppy he was giving his girlfriend. “She will be out-of-her-mind happy,”he said, adding that she “always wanted one.”His companion asked if their apartment allowed pets, and I cringed when the treat-selector shrugged his shoulders. The exchange conjured a young couple with little knowledge taking on an absolutely dependent canine baby without thought for its future.

I’m no Christmas Grinch; just a dog lover and trainer, and lady farmer whose animals are all other people’s failed experiences. The thing is, puppies, kittens, bunnies, parakeets and all the other creatures we welcome into our homes each have specific needs not often considered before the “cute”wears off and reality sets in with “What have we done?”

Shelters, sanctuaries and websites see an influx of toddler-age puppies and kittens arriving in varied degrees of wellness and socialization in late winter/spring. These are the “Christmas surprise”sentient creatures given like trinkets and toys to people unprepared for the responsibility of caring for a new life for years that well-meaning family or friends gifted them.

A kinder gift is a book or other guide about the species a person thinks he/she most desires. Sometimes real-world information changes minds; much better to know before bringing a new life into a poor match.

Need something warm and fuzzy? Stuffed animals represent nearly every species these days, easily hinting at a soon-to-arrive pet, after preparation for its needs are met and commitment to its lifelong care has been demonstrated. This is especially crucial for children and is our best hope for ending the “disposable”animal sadness in our world.

Another population sometimes receiving an unexpected Christmas surprise are seniors. Energetic juvenile pets can overwhelm older people. And every shelter has senior animals waiting for welcoming homes.

Pets are as dependent as children, as devoted as lovers, as loyal as family. It is within our power to gift them with good lives and compassion. The choice is always ours. Please choose wisely.

Chris Fitzgerald is an educator and empathic therapist. Her lifework is in service to animals in need of greater human understanding. She can be reached at