Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
February 21, 2024
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COURTESY OF JACKIE RITTENHOUSE

Rittenhouse reflects on the way her pets have shaped her life and how she has had to adapt after losing them.

If you asked 8-year-old me to share a fun fact about herself, she’d tell you that she has so many pets she basically lives on a farm. She would probably even count them off for you, only exaggerating a little bit for dramatic effect, of course. 

This was pretty much my identity growing up. I was the kid with all the pets. It's how I made friends, it was my show-and-tell idea, it's how I presented myself to the world. 

Today, my identity is (hopefully) a little bit more multifaceted, but I will always be the kid who grew up with all the pets: Darla and Rusty, the sweetheart of a pit bull and the wiry terrier duo, both mutts from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals; Toby, Rocky and KT, the three foster kittens that we weren’t supposed to adopt, but how could we say no to those fat bellies and loud purrs? There were also chickens, lizards and amphibious creatures, various birds, hamsters, a tortoise and a turtle, fish of course, rabbits, even squirrels at one point — like I said, a farm.

Growing up surrounded by my pets shaped who I am in so many ways. Rusty was the one who started it all. He was the first family pet that I was old enough to be aware of. I still remember when my dad came home one Valentine’s Day with a bump in his red hoodie that weirdly started whimpering. My pit bull, Darla, inspired an argumentative paper I was assigned in middle school. I wrote about canine-breed laws and why pit bulls are given a bad rep despite being some of the sweetest dogs. My cats inadvertently helped me land an internship that, I have no doubt, helped my later acceptance to Hopkins. 

They also all helped me in more subtle ways, my unofficial emotional-support animals as I struggled to find my way through adolescence, tough academics, family drama and even mental health issues. Maybe the one greatest lesson I learned from my pets, though, came after most of them were gone. They taught me how to adapt.

The past three years have been some of the most challenging in my life, as I’m sure many people relate to. I’ve moved across the country to attend an unfamiliar school with unfamiliar people and unfamiliar routines. I’ve survived (and am still surviving) a global pandemic. I’ve gone through breakups, made new friends, lost touch with old ones. And I’ve lost some very important parts of my support system, including my pets. 

Darla had to be put down shortly after I moved away for college. We think she had cancer that spread to her brain. Rusty made it a year without his better half. He passed from old age. Rocky passed very recently. We think he got into a poisonous plant. Somehow, this was the hardest part of the last three years, looking back at all the loss and realizing how much has changed, how differently my life panned out from what I imagined.

Everyone has some sort of idea about their future. Kids often change their mind about their dream job a million times, but there are some milestones you assume you’ll hit, people and supporters who will be cheering from the sidelines, goals you expect to achieve or even experiences you assume you’ll get. 

I never had an extremely detailed plan. I changed my mind about my dream job constantly, always influenced by whichever TV show I was obsessed with at the time. I refused to think about college until I was forced to begin applications. I’m currently a junior and I still go back and forth about my major(s?) and minor(s?). I decided to study abroad in the spring nine days before the deadline. 

Clearly I don’t have everything figured out, but even still, growing up I assumed that I would graduate high school and attend some form of college somewhere, that I would hopefully eventually graduate and have a job and that I would have my never-faltering support system through it all. 

Perhaps it was my short-sightedness, or my naivete, but my pets were one of the parts of my life that I assumed would be constant. They were always there when I thought about my future. But we all know that's not how it goes, the circle of life and all that The Lion King nonsense. 

My dad once told me that I am “eminently adaptable.” He likes to drop intense and wise phrases like that out of nowhere, probably for dramatic effect — I guess it runs in the family. 

So, I do my best to be adaptable. I try not to get overly attached to plans and ideas, and I remind myself not to break down if things have to change. We’ve got no other choice, right? When life happens, and your plan is disrupted, you change it and adapt.

Jackie Rittenhouse is a junior from San Mateo, Calif. majoring in Psychology and Anthropology.


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