“What a luxury a cat is,” wrote novelist and cat owner Doris Lessing, “the moments of shocking and startling pleasure in a day, the feel of the beast, the soft sleekness under your palm, the warmth when you wake on a cold night.”
“Cats know exactly where they being and end” wrote Ursula Le Guin in her short essay on what cats can teach us about beauty. So much rich mental substance devoted to these creatures.
The complexity of our love for pets has developed for more than 50,000 years—the date, archaeological evidence suggests, we first became fond of animals.
While our helpless love for animals is demonstrable, why we love them (not to mention why we invest, sacrifice, finance and even image ourselves them to the point of absurdity) is less clear.
How It Begins
A puppy is a puppy is a puppy.He’s probably in a basket with a bunchof other puppies.Then he’s a little older and he’s nothingbut a bundle of longing.He doesn’t even understand it.
Then someone picks him up and says,“I want this one.”
From Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs
Fortunately, at the intersection of psychology, sociology, neuroscience, even biology sits the new science of anthrozoology. In this wonderfully researched and thoughtfully captured book, Animals Among Us, biologist John Bradshaw sets out to answer why pets?
Our thinking about animals has changed dramatically over the past century or so. Nowadays, we accord more kinds of animals ‘rights’ than ever. Over the past forty years, the idea has emerged, seemingly from nowhere, that having an animal in the home is part of a healthy lifestyle. We view pets as the antidote to the stresses of modern urban living, as a palliative for the loneliness that comes with the demise of the extended family.
How does evolution explain the belief that animals awaken our souls? Or a recent Gallop poll that found 44% of US cat owners wouldn’t part with their pet for less than $1 million dollars? We are helplessly devoted to pets. Surely, the survivalist in us would select out of these ridiculous habits to spend resources more wisely.
We might look at pet keeping as no more than an evolutionary accident that’s never been selected out, because, while we may indulge in it when we have surplus resources at our disposal, we can abandon the practice whenever it becomes a problem.
I will go further, however, and propose that it’s been positively selected for, because in the past it has afforded to those who happened to be good at it an advantage—or rather two advantages, each at a different stage of the evolution of our species.
In other words, we haven’t devolved from our earliest needs of using animals for food and skins because there has been no real harm to outweigh the benefits. (For those grieving, the benefits of owning a pet can be transformative.)
Until something of a plague occurs, (which is less likely in cats and dogs than, say, pigs or chimps or even birds because we aren’t susceptible to the same pathogens) owning certain pets hasn’t really been a problem. Keeping rats, for example, just isn’t done in most countries. Without the Black Plague, would rats be more attractive?
Bradshaw goes even further and suggests we have actively selected for pet ownership: “People who were naturally good at taking care of animals left more descendants than those who excelled at hunting them.”
Of course, the stereotype of the “crazy cat lady,” a woman bereft of society except cats, contradicts this notion. There is something of our modern obsession of pets that exists outside evolution. If the book falls short, it is in Bradshaw’s inability to address this convincingly.
He tries: “Any health benefits that result from ownership of a dog we can plausibly ascribe to the relaxing effects of exposure to green spaces.” But that doesn’t explain why people who live in city apartments and walk their dog to the nearest cement-surrounded tree while remaining on their phone, only to return indoors, find this ownership worthwhile in the long run.
Fido’s personality does everything to make him wonderful, but will the children of that family—if there are any—also want a dog? Although, evolution works in a cadence of millennia, not decades.
I think our modern obsession with pets addresses, first and foremost, our current loneliness and separateness from each other and from nature. Which is not a humanity thing; it is a civilization thing. 1
Biologist Frans de Waal has worked with primates his entire career and in makes a beautiful argument for our social natures;
Our bodies and minds are made for social life, and we become hopelessly depressed in its absence. This is why next to death, solitary confinement is our worst punishment. Bonding is so good for us that the most reliable way to extend one’s life expectancy is to marry and stay married. The flip side is the risk we run after losing a partner. The death of a spouse often leads to despair and a reduced will to live that explains car accidents, alcohol abuse, heart disease, and cancers that take the lives of those left behind. Mortality remains elevated for a half a year following a spouse’s death.
From Frans de Waal’s The Age of Empathy
There might just be a time when we decide as a civilization that pet ownership outweighs the benefits. But let’s not forget the animal’s co-evolving to make themselves useful and attractive. As those who have opened their souls to pets know, we might think we’re in charge, but we’re really not.
Whatever happens, it is and always will be human to have a deep bond with animals. As Douglas Adams wrote in Last Chance to See, his journey to discover critically endangered species like the Rwandan Mountain gorilla and New Zealand kakapo: “The world would be a poorer, darker, lonelier place without them.”