For seven-year-old Sophia, it’s all about the animals.
Where most children eagerly await birthday presents, each year she asks friends and family for donations of animal treats and toys, which she gifts to dogs at the Henderson Animal Shelter.
Her mother Marilyn Kelly, a Programmes and Partnerships Advisor at Auckland Council, says she suggested the idea for Sophia’s fourth birthday as a way of combining her daughter’s passion for helping animals and reducing the amount of waste generated at children’s parties.
“I didn’t want to end up with a heap of plastic and wrapping paper that had to be thrown away. I ran the idea past Sophia and she loved it, so I contacted the Henderson Animal Shelter and asked them what would be most useful.”
A lasting tradition
Three years on, it’s a tradition and something that Sophia looks forward to. In fact, this year she was worried that the dogs wouldn’t have enough, so she saved her pocket money to buy extra goodies for them.
Vicki Whitaker, Team Leader Animal Shelter Henderson, says Sophia’s generosity and dedication towards helping animals is extraordinary and provides a real boost to shelter staff and the animals in their care.
“We all love what we do and successfully re-homing or reuniting a dog with their owner brings a lot of joy. But there are days where we have to see mistreated animals, or encounter abusive owners, and those are difficult times,” she says.
“Having a ray of sunshine like Sophia come in with her dog presents just makes it worthwhile. She is a very, very special young lady.”
From baby steps to snakes
Marilyn is blown away by Sophia’s empathy and affection for animals and says her passion was evident from an early age.
“Pretty much as soon as she became aware of the world around her Sophia was drawn to animals. She’s the sort of child that will go for a bike ride and stop because she’s noticed a bug crawling through the grass. Don’t get me wrong, she still likes pink and loves playing with her toys.”
While many children gravitate towards the cute and cuddly, Marilyn says that Sophia sees the beauty in everything.
Reptiles are Sophia’s favourite – and her only pet is a two-year-old bearded dragon called Daisy.
“Daisy is beautiful,” she says. “I love all animals. Me and my mum and Daisy are here to look after animals.”
Sophia says if she could, she would have nine pets.
“An iguana to swim in the pool, a bearded dragon, a leopard gecko, a monitor lizard, two grown-up capybaras and a baby one, a crocodile – even though it’s a bit dangerous – and a komodo dragon.
“I’ve never held a snake but I want to. If I could live anywhere it would be Mexico – it has the best snakes and lizards,” she says.
Must love bugs
Although immensely proud of her daughter’s generosity of spirit, Marilyn admits it’s not without its challenges.
“We don’t read fairy tales at bed time; it’s all non-fiction animal books. We tried to watch the Tinker Bell movie but Sophia asked me to turn it off because a squirrel got hit in the head with an acorn in one of the early scenes and she couldn’t stand it. Plus, I’m not such a fan of bugs as she is. Sophia sees a cockroach and is captivated – I don’t have quite the same reaction.”
One of Sophia’s favourite shows is Vet Ranch, a YouTube channel dedicated to saving abused, abandoned and homeless animals with medical conditions, and having them adopted into forever homes.
“It can be very graphic and Sophia definitely feels sad about some of the cruelty, but she tells me that she wants to keep watching to see the dog go to where it’s going to be loved. Sometimes I think I find it harder than she does.”
Sophia is currently saving up to donate money to Vet Ranch.
The passion for animals also extends to care for the environment, or as Sophia sees it, rubbish hurting animals.
For instance, Sophia takes her bamboo toothbrush to her grandmother’s “because Grandma only has plastic ones” and will insist on picking up every piece of litter in a park so it doesn’t end up doing harm.
“She’s definitely conflicted on some things. Sophia knows McDonalds uses palm oil and that has a negative impact on animal environments, but sometimes she just really wants something to eat from there.”
Auckland Council Animal Shelters are located in Silverdale, Henderson and Manukau, and staff are always grateful for donations of toys for the dogs. If you have any specific items you'd like to donate please contact your nearest shelter.