Pet1 – a domestic or tamed animal or bird kept for companionship or pleasure.
I was strangely touched by an article I read a couple of weeks ago, on the subject of dogs. The fact that dogs have been domesticated and worked by early humans, is a well know fact. Bones dating back 24-27,000 years have been discovered in the Czech Republic and indicate that dogs resembling hefty Siberian huskies (80lb) were buried carefully and with obvious care and ceremony.
Although showing the physical signs of having been used to carry and pull weight, each had been arranged in its grave, one having had a mammoth bone placed in its mouth. Their skulls had been drilled open, in an identical gesture to those of the human remains found alongside them. Anthropologists believe that this was in order to remove the brain, thereby freeing the ‘soul’. All of this is supposition of course but what touched me was that some of the dogs that have been found were clearly fed and looked after when their ability to work and protect their human companions was long past. In an age when people rarely made it into their mid- twenties, dogs were being provided for, valued and nurtured.
Why are human beings so drawn to the idea of keeping pets? Dogs have been selected and genetically modified for the past 30,000 years and are, therefore, hot wired to respond to people in a (generally) friendly and communicable manner.
Without this interference, gathering a pet from the wild is an altogether different experience. I have, over the years, provided fingers and rehabilitation to injured wild birds. Broken wings, legs and other hideous malformations have been treated successfully by a good diet, large outdoor aviary and protection from cats and other predators. Several of my crows, referred to uncharitably as the ‘bin birds’ by unsympathetic family members, have lived for many years, hobbling around the garden and dedicating their leisure hours to finding and bullying less able members of the collective (Yes, shit rolls downhill). Most have tamped down but not completely conquered their fear of people and will tolerate my presence, if not being manhandled by me. They are not pets.
I have pet dogs and had a pet raven, whose ‘happiness’ revolved around their physical association with both family and myself. I am trying not to use emotive and anthropomorphic language such as ‘happiness’ when trying to assess another creature’s experience of being alive.
Perhaps that is why we keep pets, not just to stave off loneliness and provide the stress-buster that is a lovely fur coat and a tolerance of having it stroked; maybe it’s the ‘otherness’ of your pet and knowing that there is something else out there that is processing experience alongside us. Do we not spend $2.5 million annually to run SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Life)? Quite what we will do when we discover that the most sophisticated life form ‘out there’ is no more complex than E. coli, is anyone’s guess. The irony will presumably be lost after our orchestration of the sixth extinction.
No other species of animal acquires pets. Farmer ants will nurture aphids but this is an economic relationship and no aphid has been found receiving full ant burial rites as such. Koko, a captive female lowland gorilla, who was able to use and manipulate American Sign Language, ‘vocalised’ her desire to own a pet and selected a kitten that she named ‘All Ball’. Her commitment to the creature extended to a period of mourning when the cat was killed. There is a great deal of evidence that some animals are capable of making emotional attachments across species. However, the ability to bond with other species is not the same dynamic as pet and owner, where the owner takes responsibility for the biological needs of the animal and establishes a hierarchy. So, why do we love our pets and grieve at their passing?
They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.