Strange, Strange, Strange
Two days ago I happened upon an odd sight: a twenty-something was walking his dog on a New York City sidewalk in Alphabet City. Given the sporadic dispersal of dog runs and open parks and spaces in New York, when a dog’s got to go, a dog’s got to go. What struck me as strange was not that the dog was shitting on the sidewalk but how the owner reacted to this. He praised the dog with baby talk and promptly shot his hand into his jeans’ pocket to procure a treat.
I believe it was Jerry Seinfeld who once quipped, “If aliens were watching earth from above and saw humans walking and cleaning up after dogs, who would they think was running the show down here?” Whenever I see a person walking a dog, I smirk to myself and wonder why so many people willingly put up with pets. Companionship is obvious, but our relationship to animals goes much deeper than that.
Domestication and You
When one looks back on human history, many questions arise. Why was it that Europeans spread out to conquer and populate the world? Why not the Native Americans or Africans? Why didn’t things unfold the other way around?
Part of the answer, as detailed in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, was Europe’s access to domesticable plants and animals. Have you ever seen anyone milk a lion, be best friends with a bear? How about ride a zebra?
In terms of environment and climate and the types of resources available to Europeans, it was no wonder the continent flourished. On the backs of cows, oxen, pigs, chickens, horses, etc. Europeans made their mark on the world. Animal husbandry is where the idea of “pets” must have gotten its start.
The Domesticator Becomes the Domesticated
From the moment we developed our big brains, humans realized we could use other animals for our own gain. When one imagines a farm, they see all of the different plants and animals that humans have acquired working in unison with environments to increase human survival. While we think that it is us who have done all the domesticating, it is also these animals and plants that have domesticated us.
While each day brings the extinction of more and more species, two in particular have seemed to secure their place under our feet. We’re talking here of course, about Felis catus and Canis lupus familiaris, or cats and dogs.
Many people do not like cats. It is amazing that there are so many cats running around the cities and suburbs; they are basically miniature tigers. They are hunters. They are killers.
Cats found their place amongst people because they were great to have around grain piles and silos. One problem with food storage is that the stores attract other competitors: microorganisms, bugs and rodents. While the two smaller of the bunch are hardest to keep away, rodents can easily be kept under control with the aid of cats. Cats have never lost their hunting instincts and though we think they are cute and have interesting personalities, if they were somewhat bigger, we’d probably become the hunted.
Dogs are the descendants of wolves. Even the tiniest tea-cup Maltese must have wolf blood, or something close to it, surging through its veins. Dogs are also hunters who used to live in packs and have many similarities to humans, and may even be the most similar species to humans in terms of behavior and social groups.
This makes dogs extremely compatible with humans. Somewhere along the line many thousands of years ago, abandoned wolf pups may have been discovered by a tribesman who instead of killing or eating the pups, assimilated them into his tribe. Dogs are great for hunting and protection, and some evidence suggests that early peoples hunted alongside packs of wolves to take down large prey. Dogs can be dangerous, but when they’re on your side, they’re on your side for good.
Pets are fascinating. They provide unconditional love and aid and care to some people and make unmatched companions. I’ve never personally had a pet but I’ve never met one I didn’t like. If I were to get a pet, I’d get something exotic. Some rare breed or one I didn’t have to keep in a cage or on a leash.
It is strange to think that some people have beasts living in their homes. It is also strange that some of these animals lead healthier and happier lives than some humans, i.e. homeless humans. It seems that the human story is one of conquest – conquering the environment, conquering the elements, conquering each other – but now that the age of conquest could easily be moved beyond, we are still not treating members of our own species as well as we treat some members of others.
Animals vs. Pets
The last oddity about pets is the selfish one. Many animals are not considered pets because we eat them: I’ve met farmers who never name their cows or pigs or chickens because they don’t want to get too close to them. There is danger in doing so. Having respect for one’s animals is one thing, but treating an animal as a pet is a horse of another color.
So why do we make this distinction between some animals and not others? Why do we allow some to get closer to us, almost treat them as a child or an equal, even cry at their deaths, while others we send to the slaughterhouse or keep cooped up in factory farms so we can buy their flesh for $2.99 a pound? Why do we love some and treat others like shit?