Animal Clubs in Prague

Where to go when your child can’t have a pet of his own

I’ve heard the “please, please can I have a puppy, I promise I’ll take care of it all by myself,” argument from my children too many times to count. My middle child, Oliver is particularly persistent. “You had a dog when you were a kid. If you don’t let me it won’t be fair.” Or, “how I am supposed to learn how to be an animal doctor (his current dream profession), if I can’t even have a pet to practice on?” When his younger brother and sister add their own voices to Oliver’s protests, it’s all I can do to stand my ground.

On one hand, I respect my children’s desire to focus their attention and love on a life other than their own. Learning how to care for an animal teaches children the importance of routine, discipline and hard work, while rewarding them with a pet’s love and affection. Having a pet is good therapy for stress and can be a lot of fun. As my children have pointed out, watering a cactus or tending the strawberry patch just doesn’t have the same appeal as being a pet owner. However, with our family’s active traveling life, it doesn’t seem realistic to acquire any animal that needs daily attention or requires finding an animal-sitter every time we leave Prague. I’m not a mom who’s willing to pick up the slack in pet care. Neither is my husband.

When I was child, my brother and my “house” dogs invariably turned into farm dogs once their newness wore off and the reality of daily pet ownership set in. My grandfather lived alone, maintained a farm and was always willing to make space for a new animal in his life. Once Checkers, a black and white mid-size mutt, and Amos, a miniature dachshund, grew beyond their cute puppy stage, one by one they joined my grandfather and the cows on the farm. We still visited them – petting them, feeding them doggie treats and calling them to come by name. Yet, when we drove off toward town, the dogs sat happily in the front seat of my grandfather’s pick-up, their heads stretched out the window, enjoying what looked like the high life, riding through the fields on the farm. My brother, now grown with a family of his own, has a dog and a cat, so I figured, if we couldn’t have a pet, being a surrogate pet owner in Virginia every summer might work.

I should have known better. Last March when my husband and sons came back from a trip to Hornbach (the Czech equivalent to Home Depot), ostensibly for light bulbs, they returned with tiny white hamster, a wire cage complete with a running wheel and what looked like a lifetime supply of hamster food. When I asked my husband what had gotten into him (incidentally, it was on the day of my birthday), his response, “Well, you know, we promised Oliver that someday he could have a pet,” was quickly followed by what might have been closer to the truth, “on the bright side, the hamster cost less than the light bulbs.”

The children named the hamster Jessi, and we became pet owners. They fed her and played with her, making houses for her from their Legos or setting up Oliver’s medieval castle for her to crawl through. In the beginning, Oliver tried to train her to climb up the playroom steps, although once Jessi’s newness wore off and he realized that he couldn’t take her for a walk or snuggle up with her in bed, he began begging for another pet.

After a recent visit to a vet’s office in my parents’ hometown where Oliver got a behind-the-scenes look at professional animal health care and got his hands on four warm, squiggly five-week old puppies, his badgering began anew. By the time we spent a weekend examining and holding snakes, lizards and turtles at a local Exotic Animal Rescue’s festival booth, Oliver begged to take home everything from an Australian vine snake to a one-eyed possum that had, by the efforts of the shelter, escaped becoming roadkill. When Oliver began to plead for a snake and a lizard and a puppy too, I had an answer ready for him.

Although I wasn’t ready to open our house to another animal (finding pet care for Jessi was difficult enough), I told Oliver that this September he could enroll in an afterschool animal club. In Prague and throughout the Czech Republic, included in the after school activities at some DDM Centers (leisure time activity centers for children and youth), there is a “chovatelský kroužek” which is essentially an afterschool animal club.

For parents who’d like their child to experience the positive aspects of learning to care for an animal without actually bringing a pet into their own homes, the animal club can be a lifesaver. For children who can’t decide which type of animal they’d like to have as a pet, it gives them exposure to a variety of animals without requiring a permanent commitment.

In Prague 6, the Dětský Klub Kodymka has an active chovatelský kroužek two afternoons a week led by Veronika Kodymka, animal aficionado and the center’s owner. At Kodymka, children have the opportunity to observe and learn about unusual reptiles like geckos, basilik lizards and grass snakes as well as handle and feed small mammals like rabbits and guinea pigs. In the center’s garden, goats have their own grassy habitat, and there is small pond for watching insects. For preschool aged children there is a morning zoo preschool. During a trip with my preschool English class to the Prague Zoo, Veronika pointed out several exotic lizards from her collection on permanent loan to the zoo. Kodymka’s animal club presents a viable way for children like Oliver (with parents like me) to have regular, first-hand contact with animals and to reap the benefits of Veronika’s extensive animal knowledge. Her calm demeanor and laid-back approach is an added benefit.

Another popular series of animal clubs are held at the Prague 5 DDM’s “Stanice přírodovědců” (Center for Young Naturalists) near the Smichov shopping center. At this center, children and their families can either come to visit animals, which include kangaroos, monkeys and crocodiles, during weekday and weekend open visiting hours, or they can sign up for a specific year-long animal club. With a wider offering than Kodymka, courses at the Naturalist Center are held each weekday afternoon and separated by subject matter and age into very specific offerings. Under the general heading “nature clubs,” there are 81 different course offerings with specific animal clubs for rabbits, different ones for mice, and still others for guinea pigs. There are also a range of science-based animal clubs in ornithology, entomology or paleontology for older children.

When I described the animal clubs to Oliver, he was game to try one, especially if he got to learn about snakes and lizards. Samuel wants to go with him, and I’m sure Anna will too. I may not be able to give my son the puppy of his dreams, but I hope that by using the animal club resources available, Oliver and his siblings will learn skills that’ll help them become responsible pet owners when the time is right.

As for me, I’ve grown kind of attached to our hamster Jessi.

Parents, if you know of other good animal clubs for children, please contact me at emily(at) email with details.

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