I do love my cat. Gods, do I love my cat. Cu Gwyn is his name, meaning “White Dog” in Welsh; we chose it for him because he’s a black cat, and that’s the kind of sense of humor we have.
Cu wanders the house at random, mostly sleeping or looking out the window or playing with his toys. Sometimes he comes over to us for pets. Sometimes he stalks us and attacks us. And sometimes he does things we just don’t understand. For example, he watches the birds intently, and makes odd little chirping noises, as if he were trying to sing with them. He brings his stuffed tiger to us, mewing plaintively for no reason we can see.
We feed him in the morning, and he thanks us by purring and rubbing his head against our hands. We pick him up and cuddle him until he gets fed up and wiggles free. We play with him, throwing his ball so that he can chase it up and down the stairs. He sleeps in our bed sometimes. He follows us from room to room — not to get attention, or to watch us, but simply to be near us. He also likes his stuffed tiger toy, although it’s a little confusing whether, in Cu’s universe, Tiger is a sibling, a friend, or maybe… something more. (But Cu doesn’t get too “involved” with Tiger, because Cu has been to the vet.)
It’s odd, when you think about it — this whole “having a pet” thing. Of course we love him, and we’re pretty sure he loves us, in his way. But what other animals on earth “keep pets”?
I Don’t Work With Children or Animals
Well, depending on what exactly you mean by “pet”, the answer appears to be “none of them.” Humans are the only ones. In fact, not all cultures have pets — many languages have no word for the concept — and there’s tremendous variability in what kinds of animals are kept as pets, what kinds are eaten, and what kinds are farm animals. In some cultures, the line between ‘pet’ and ‘food animal’ doesn’t exist: they routinely kill and eat their pets. And in some cultures, the line between ‘pet’ and ‘child’ is rather fuzzy: women will actually breastfeed pigs, puppies, monkeys, and even bear cubs.
The fact that only humans have pets, and that there’s so much cultural variability, points to the hypothesis that pet-keeping is one part biology, one part culture. The biology part comes from our natural child-rearing instincts: we’re drawn to adore and care for things with big eyes, large heads, and so on. The cultural part is more random, and depends on what kinds of animals are nearby, how much extra food and time we have available to devote to pets, whether our culture has farm or herd animals, and so on.
Cities and Kitties
When people think about the way civilization began, and How Man rose up above His Primal Nature to take Stewardship of the Earth, or whatever, they usually think about agriculture, toolmaking, language and writing, irrigation systems, and so on. Pets don’t often play a big role. But I tend to think that our relationship with animals was essential, and shaped the progress and form of human civilization.
First, animal domestication allowed for large-scale agriculture. An ox can plow a lot more field than a person can. Without oxen, how could a small population of farmers feed a large city? (In areas where there were no such animals, such as the Americas, cities were smaller and took much longer to develop.)
Second, all the worst epidemics have started with our pets, our farm animals or the parasitic animals that live among us; and disease has played a crucial role in history. Things would have turned out vastly differently if the Eurasians hadn’t had biological warfare on their side when they invaded the New World; and if Jared Diamond is to be believed, the epidemics which killed 90% of the American population were fostered by animal husbandry, which was much more common in Eurasian societies than in American societies. The Native Americans did not have cows, sheep, goats, horses, pigs, donkeys, cats, rabbits, chickens, or just about any other domesticated animals except dogs; and so their immune systems were unprepared.
Third, more controversially, the techniques of domestication work on humans as well as animals. Animals are most easily domesticated if they are not too aggressive, not too prone to panic and scatter, and have an instinctive social organization which can be leveraged by humans. The horse, for example, has an independent spirit, but a wild horse will not attack or flee from humans on sight, and their rigid social structure — in which a dominance hierarchy is instinctive — allows them to be coaxed into obeying a human’s commands, even though it is much stronger and faster than a human. But all of this applies to people as well as animals. How much of the knowledge gained from herding and animal husbandry was used by the first kings in the establishment of the first city-states?
The Gods of Dogs
Finally — and I don’t think most of my readers will agree with me here, but bear with me — I wonder if keeping pets, particularly carnivorous pets such as cats and dogs, has contributed to the sense of human exceptionalism that is so poisonous to our societies. After all, if we humans keep other animals as pets — and nobody keeps us as pets — how can we help but feel special? How can we help but think we’re exceptional? How can we help but think that, surely, the gods have chosen us as gardeners and guardians of this green Earth? And carnivores! Animals that are never eaten by other animals — the undisputed kings of the food chain. We’re above even them! To the cats and dogs, we are the gods.
Well… to the dogs, horses, pigs, goats, and sheep, anyway. To cats, to Cu, we’re just the large herbivores who share the house. Cu loves us, he likes spending time with us, he’s happy to be fed, but it’s quite clear he is his own master. Perhaps the best cure for the curse of human exceptionalism is a cat.
- Northern Pass: stop the new power lines project in NH. “It would destroy my place of worship.”
- Mind reading, solitude, and living memory. Jack Daniels Makes You Telepathic.
- For Sarah Palin, the American Revolution is the Bible (Part II).
- The way to become rich is to put all your eggs in one basket and then watch that basket. – Andrew Carnegie
- The tribe has elected you to tell its story. You are the shaman / healer, that’s what the storyteller is. – Ben Kingsley