A Helpless Devotion to Pets

“I sit down to be with him, it means slowing myself down, getting rid of the fret and the urgency. Then he subtly lets me know he understands I am trying to reach him, reach cat, essence of cat.”
Doris Lessing

Pets unravel carefully constructed personas and threaten deeply-formed maturities. In some sort of inside-out abandon we welcome these fuzzy ears, tails, feathers, even fits into our lives and hearts and unabashedly share that part of ourselves, that vulnerability even, with the world.

Because it is vulnerability, to love something so deeply.

Why do we do it? Never mind the expense, the occasional smell, the inconvenience and, for those of us who own cats or roosters, the early morning petitions to “get the hell out of bed right now!”

Helpless Devotion to Pets
Luna. Photograph by Scott Danzig.

Fortunately, to explain all this madness, there is a relatively new science called anthrozoology that studies the relationships between pets and their humans.

“Despite sometimes suffering due to our misunderstanding of their requirements,” writes John Bradshaw, biologist, pet owner and pioneer anthrozoologist, “cats and dogs were obviously benefiting from their relationships with people – there are far more of them in the world today than there are of the wild ancestors from which they emerged thousands of years ago.”1

Drawing from biology, neurology, anthropology, and psychology, Bradshaw dispenses with cosmetic arguments “dogs are cute” and the like and argues for deep cultural and neurological reasons.

For example, those who have pets as children are more likely to carry on “petting” as adults. This playmate bond, once formed, continues for life. My daughter’s best friends are our cats, they have taught her to bark, to scratch furniture, and to pace the kitchen at five PM when it is treat-time.

The youthful life-force of writer Gerald Durrell was developed in the affectionate company of many (many) pets. In one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in ages, My Family & Other Animals, Durrell notices all the little details of his beloved turtle, “Achilles”:2

The fruit that Achilles liked best were wild strawberries. He would become positively hysterical at the mere sight of them, lumbering to and fro, craning his head to see if you were going to give him any, gazing at you pleadingly with his tiny boot-button eyes.

When Achilles had an unfortunate meeting with a poorly-covered well, Durrell adopts a pigeon who promptly refused to sleep outside and often perched on the faces of his family members, “cooing loudly and lovingly.”

The frenzy of young love. I remember the moment I became a cat owner. I was six, we picked out siblings from a litter of Siamese cats. We carried them home in pillow cases and I sat for what felt like hours in front of a heater with the male one curled in my short legs gathering the courage to poke his foot pads. I wanted him to like me, I wanted to be his favorite.

A Helpless Devotion to Pets
Luna. Photograph by Scott Danzig.

The first domesticated animal is thought to be evidenced by a dog buried with a human in modern Israel, dating back about 12,000 years. Whether one died after the other is unclear, but their lives were intertwined in afterlife.

Many of us love and appreciate pets to the point of invasion. Moving furniture, house, even homes to accommodate.

My favorite great aunt is in her late 80s and still ventures out in Michigan winters because her Siamese must go out. “He keeps me young,” she often says. I imagine her bounding across the yard after him, I know she does. And gets him unstuck when he attempts to clear the chain-link fence and fails. The precious things we keep nearby are often alive.

Evidently, pets bring something into our lives that we miss, long for, and often don’t even recognize until it flies in our faces, in our laps and on our arms.

While grieving over the death of her father, writer Helen McDonald bought – and promptly fell in love with – a goshawk.3

The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angle.

As McDonald withdraws her presence repeatedly in order to lure the hawk she reflects that “nineteenth-century falconers were projecting onto their hawks all the male qualities they thought threatened by modern life: wildness, power, virility, independence and strength.”

We project onto our animals aspects of ourselves that we most admire, whether those aspects exist or not. The animals become our extensions, perhaps we give them the adoration and forgiveness we cannot self-give.

When people speak of their pets, I cannot help thinking that these individuals are speaking of themselves.

Like John Steinbeck who, the year he won the Noble Prize, traveled with his dog, Charley, around America. When Charley desires to “salute a tree”, Steinbeck writes lovingly:4

It is my experience that in some areas Charley is more intelligent than I am, but in others he is abysmally ignorant. He cannot read, cannot drive a car, and has no grasp of mathematics. But in his own field of endeavor, which he was now practicing, the slow imperial selling over and anointing of an area, he has no peer. Of course his horizons are limited, but how wide am I?

Travels with Charley was written post-illness and when Steinbeck felt a particular homesickness to “know” his country. Steinbeck’s mood, clearly, indulged a bit of self-pity. Pity he extended to his dog, almost as if they were one and the same.

Animals enact on us a sort of relationship that is completely unique – pet and master – and yet, we treat the relationship in the manner of the relationships we already know and have well-worn; parent, child, friend, colleague.

That is because, Bradshaw argues, a love of pets imitates our most primal relationships: “Stroking the warm fur of a dog may tap into our primate instinct to build friendships through grooming” elevating both endorphin and oxytocin and that “testosterone, with an established role in child care, might reasonably contribute to the more tough-and-tumble interactions that many men have with their dogs.”

A Helpless Devotion to Pets
Luna. Photograph by Scott Danzig.

A less-theoretical case: the many cats in British writer Doris Lessing’s numerous cat-themed essays appear like people in her life, meaningful, forcing from her a sort of engagement. Did Lessing, who famously said “I felt I wasn’t the best person to bring them up” when she abandoned her own children, find an untapped maternal love for her cats?5

I think so, especially when her “young grey,” who had no interest in being a mother herself, was reluctant to stay and nurture her kittens. It is a rather humorous account of man vs. beast while Lessing seems to use psychological know-how to trick her cat into acting like a mom. The mother Lessing herself never was.

There is pity in our relationship with pets, a form of empathy. Empathy for someone who needs something, needs us. It is often solidified in that first meeting. E.B. White’s acquisition of a dachshund, for example:6

I bought a puppy last week in the outskirts of Boston and drove him to Maine in a rented Ford that looked like a sculpin. There had been talk in our family of getting a “sensible” dog this time, and my wife and I had gone over the list of sensible dogs, and had even ventured once or twice into the company of sensible dogs…. But after a period of uncertainty and waste motion my wife suddenly exclaimed one evening, “Oh, let’s just get a dachshund!

Turns out they had a particular one in mind. So many well-laid plans ruined by a pair of searching, liquid eyes.

Although domestication was more recent, our affection for animals in our communities, dates back at least 50,000 years. For 50,000 years we have had some sort of relationship with these beasts, more than needing them for food and fur, and to us they have brought some level of pleasure.

Of a particular cat, Doris Lessing mused;

I sit down to be with him, it means slowing myself down, getting rid of the fret and the urgency. When I do this – and he must be in the right mood too, not in pain or restless – then he subtly lets me know he understands I am trying to reach him, reach cat, essence of cat, finding the best of him. Human and cat, we try to transcend what separates us.

What a beautiful concept, “reaching-cat.”

It is exactly what McDonald sought of Mabel, her goshawk, and to get there, McDonald knew she had to disappear: “you must learn to become invisible.” She explains goshawks are motivated by food alone and the only way they eat is if they trust the hand that feeds them.

I have owned cats, mostly Siamese, ever since the first one whose feet I couldn’t bear to touch lest I frighten him. One now circles my ankles on the off-chance I have a sudden craving to brush him or open some yogurt. I invariably give in. I have a helpless devotion to cats.

The weaker our wills the more cats demand. And love.

My own thoughts on pets – every single pet owner ever has their own thoughts on pets – are that they give us something we lack, whatever it might be. Peace, comfort, calm, sure – but also, love. Perhaps love most of all.

Film-critic Roger Ebert said it better (he said everything better).

On Ebert’s list of the ten greatest films ever made is a little-known documentary called “The Gates of Heaven.” This 1978 film was about a pet cemetery, the cemetery’s owners, and its patrons. I’ve seen it many times. I was, like Ebert, quite blown-away by the compassion, reality, and devotion captured. It’s like a Hemingway short story. Markers on the various graves state simply: “I knew love; I knew this dog”, and “For saving my life.”

“These animal lovers” writes Ebert, “are expressing the deepest of human needs, for love and companionship.”7

In the emptiness of the post-religious modern era where we have become distanced from nature, extended family and saddled with aching self-awareness, is it any wonder we need pets so deeply?