Sunday, May 23, 2010

Feathery, Furry, & Scaly Children

Of course the obvious title would be “Pets Are People Too,” but that would be cliché. It’s a shame how that happens: a meme becomes meaningless through overuse, tired to our ears. We’re convinced that the person saying it is just mindlessly repeating a popular phrase. To look at it from both sides, I can tell you that when I first learned C++ after years of C, there is little way to describe the process that went on in my brain other than “paradigm shift,” and it irks me to know that people will dismiss that as buzzworditis; on the other hand, if I hear one more actor/director/scriptwriter say that the house/city/car in their movie has become “another character,” I think I shall scream. So I am both bothered and completely sympathetic to your likely reaction if I were to say that pets are people too. Thus, I shall attempt to avoid doing so, even though it neatly encapsulates my message.

I heard an interesting story on the radio the other day, about a journalist who was writing a book about his recent experience adopting a new dog. He and his wife, apparently, had chuckled often over their friends who had gone “dog crazy,” doing such things as searching for organic dogfood and taking their canines to pet therapists. “We won’t ever be that ridiculous,” they vowed. And, of course, soon after they brought the dog home, they found themselves the butt of similar jokes from their dogless friends, as they navigated dogpark politics and received prescriptions for canine separation anxiety.

It gives me a bit of hope. I continue to believe that most people who disdain the concept of pets—two of whom are pretty good friends of mine—just lack experience ... that, if by some miracle you could convince them to actually bring home an animal, their whole outlook would change. At least I have to hope so. Because the problem is, people who don’t like animals always strike me as a bit ... creepy. I’ll never forget describing the first person I had a business-partner-like relationship with to my then girlfriend: “Does he have children?” she asked. No, I replied. “What pets does he have?” was her next question. Actually, I told her, he doesn’t like pets, really. “I don’t trust him,” she replied immediately. And, as it turns out, that wasn’t a wholly inaccurate assessment.

At least my two pet-hating friends both have children. But that bothers me too. As a child, I had a rather large proliferation of pets: dogs, hamsters, parakeets, tropical fish, and a turtle or two. And I learned quite a lot from them. I learned the hard way that if you don’t feed them, they die, and if you don’t love them, they turn mean on you. I learned about unconditional love, mutual respect, and vague tolerance. I had richer relationships with my various pets than with most of the other humans I knew. Some people will think that’s sad. But I in turn feel sad for them, because apparently they never experienced the uncomplicated relationship between child and animal; they’ve missed something fundamental in their lives, and it may be too late for them to ever have it now. I hope not, though.

Being the father of various dogs and hamsters and, later, cats and ferrets, made me a better father to my human children. Being responsible for small furry lives prepared me for being responsible for my biological offspring, and whatever balance I’ve managed to achieve between permissiveness and discipline was given to me by interaction with carnivores, not primates. Most of my opinions on how to introduce yourself to new people was formed from hard lessons on how to approach unfamiliar canines and birds and rodents. Cats taught me not to be pushy; ferrets taught me to play every day, no matter how old you are; pythons taught me how to relax and enjoy someone’s body heat; fish taught me that, sometimes, you just need to stop and watch people drift around for a while, and it mellows you out. One of the most common things I hear no-pet-parents say is that pets will die and they don’t want to put their children through that. But what a silly sentiment! As if you could protect your children from experiencing death indefinitely. Most of what I know about death I learned from animals, and I can tell you I’m stronger for it. Could I have dealt with the deaths of my grandparents, who started checking out shortly before my 18th birthday and finally finished up shortly before my 41st, nearly as well as I did without the experience my pets had given me? I don’t believe so. And I believe my own children are better prepared for whatever human deaths they will inevitably have to face in years to come because of the ferrets and cats they’ve had to bury.

Over the years, I’ve had as roommates cats, dogs, ferrets, rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, rats, parakeets, chickens, squirrels, iguanas, geckos, pythons, turtles, goldfish, freshwater tropicals (including fish, frogs, snails, shrimp, crabs, crayfish, and rubber eels), crickets, and sea monkeys (although those last two admittedly can double as pet food). Some were my children; some were children of my human roommates that I just babysat for occasionally. I found the rabbits too mean, the goldfish too messy, and the birds too much effort to bond with—and I certainly don’t recommend you adopt wild animals such as squirrels like my mother was wont to do—but other than those few misfires I loved them all in various ways and in various measures (and, to be honest, I even loved the bunnies and parakeets, sort of). They all had their distinct personalities and their individual quirks and their strengths and weaknesses, and they were nearly all capable of showing affection, even the ones that are cold-blooded. When your python snuggles around your shoulders to give you a hug, or when a tank full of tropicals suddenly rushes excitedly towards you when they see you coming, you can explain those reactions in stark zoological terms: the snake is seeking body heat to warm himself up, and the fish have come to associate you with food. Sure, those things are true, but if those reactions also cause you to smile and feel appreciated and loved, who cares?

When I hear someone talk about a person who treats their dogs (or other pets) “as if they were their children,” I can only shake my head sadly. They are their children, and the speaker has missed it. In my experience, having a blind spot sooner or later leads to a crash, and not understanding how to interact with the living creatures that outnumber us by over a million to one—on the basis of quantity of species alone, not even considering raw numbers—that seems like a pretty big blind spot to me. If all animals are to you is food, or amusing child-substitutes for people who don’t know any better, or just generally inferior lifeforms, I think you’re missing something fundamental in life, and while it does occasionally frustrate me, more often it just saddens me. Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not a PETA proponent. I still eat animals sometimes, and wear them sometimes. I believe that we exist as a part of nature, and nature’s way certainly includes creatures exploiting each other for food and other purposes. But that doesn’t preclude seeking comfort in the company of other living creatures, regardless of their species.

Your human children come to you even more helpless, even less able to reason when you first acquire them, even more dependent on you for food and shelter, but somehow the animals are the “inferior” ones. If something happens to one of my human children, everyone understands and respects my need for time off. If something happens to one of my furry children, it’s “just a cat.” As if that makes it any easier.

If you’re one of the people I’m describing, perhaps you should consider adopting an animal. Perhaps when you bring home that singular life, and experience being solely responsible for its welfare, share its love and affection which is so similar to that you receive from your human children, yet so different as well, perhaps then you can understand what it is you’ve been missing in your life thus far. Or perhaps I’m wrong (that does happen a lot) and there are just different people in the world, and some of them just don’t see animals the way I do. But I suppose you’ll never know unless you try. Maybe one day you’ll discover that pets are people too.

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