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On Lifetimes: Children's Experiences of Companion Animal Death

By Joshua James Russell

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The purpose of this interdisciplinary research project is to investigate children's lived experiences of companion animal death within the Greater Toronto Area. The central research questions are: "What does it mean for children to experience the death of a companion animal? What do children's experiences of companion animal deaths reveal about their perceptions of, and relationships with, the more-than-human world?" Twelve children, ages 6-13, were interviewed about their relationships with a wide range of companion animals, including dogs, cats, guinea pigs, hamsters, rabbits, and tropical fish.
This project takes a reflexive, pedagogical approach to engaging in research with children, suggesting that interviews are important sites for exploring the meaning of various experiences. Interview texts were analyzed using a modified, interpretative approach rooted in hermeneutic phenomenology. Emergent themes include the value of shared intentionality, empathy, and intimacy, as evidenced in children's descriptions of playing, communicating, or cuddling with their pets. Children's descriptions of death suggest the importance of the cause of a companion animal's death or her age at death in determining the quality of her life. Children's accounts of experiences after a companion animal's death emphasize the importance of various socially meaningful practices and rituals, such as burial rites, constructing memorials, and telling stories about deceased pets, as well as spatial and embodied elements related to their experiences of grief.
Finally, this dissertation also highlights textual excerpts that demonstrate the subjectivity and agency of companion animals. The children in this study often emphasized their observations of companion animals' unique mental, physical, and emotional lives. While children often described their relationships with pets as built around mutuality and intersubjectivity, they simultaneously acknowledged difficulties in living with companion animals, including the challenges of language, care, and responsibility. The findings suggest that children can be deeply attuned to the ethical and emotional complexities of dwelling within multi-species households. The potential implications for these findings include new insights into human-animal relationships and opportunities for children's voices to influence theory and practice within both humane and environmental education.


Katie Carroll

Date 2013
Pages 386
Publisher York University
Department Environmental Studies
Degree Doctor of Philosophy
Language English
University York University
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. animal companionship
  2. Animal roles
  3. Cats
  4. Children
  5. Death
  6. Dogs
  7. Grief
  8. Human-animal relationships
  9. Mammals
  10. Pet loss
  11. Pet ownership
  12. Pets and companion animals