Where the Wild Things Aren't

Pets can't fulfill our needs

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At an aquarium in California a fish swims indolently along the glass. A man and two children watch. He waves his hand next to the pane, taps it. The fish does not respond. At first it seems to be looking, pauses, but then swims on, clearly oblivious of the man and children.

At the crocodile sanctuary south of Madras, India, boys watch the immobile reptiles in the sun. Finally one boy, then others throw pebbles at the animals.

I tell a famous ornithologist at Crater Lake National Park where we both work as seasonal ranger-naturalists about my experience on a high slope, where two hawks played overhead with a wad of lichen -- the kind that hangs in festoons from conifer branches in wet forests. One hawk, higher up, would drop the lichen, to be caught in its talons by the other, which would then climb above and drop the lichen to the first. After several rounds of this, the lower bird, having caught the lichen, sailed over my head 'and,' I say to the scientist, 'dropped the lichen to me.' At this he snorts, turns abruptly, and leaves.

All of the foregoing scenes are glimpses of a widespread yearning for a sign from Others -- those creatures with whom we share the planet -- and of skepticism that it is possible. Usually we wait in vain and in frustration. We seem frantic to contact intelligences more assured than ourselves, to be blessed in their witness of our mutual presence, to be given their surety that life is real and purposeful, even if the purposes lie beyond our grasp. As human numbers increase and the Others recede, it becomes our last passionate desire and we feel like calling, as the birds fly away, 'Come back!... Hear me!... Look!'

To pet is to touch. The desire to hold the wild as we do our pets is acute. In the past quarter-century of television, Marlin Perkins, Jacques Cousteau, and others, in the name of science, have captured manatees, lassoed gazelles, grappled with crocodiles, and anesthetized lions -- ostensibly to treat a disease, restock an area, mark for further study, or rescue from rising waters or industrial development. In every sequence men clutched, held, or reached out and touched the animals. They fostered our yearning to recover a lost world, to be once again the trusted friend of all beings. They put the animals vicariously into our hands, and we wait for them to tell us something.

At home Rover is told to sit up and speak. Polly is asked if she wants a cracker. The news is full of the language of apes and dolphins, who, it is speculated, may be smarter than people. The scientists claim to be doing studies in communication, but the rest of us know what's afoot. We just want the whales and chimps to talk -- not just about hunting shrimp or fruit but to speak to our mutual situation, claim our shared purposes, mend what LZvi-Strauss calls 'the ultimate discontinuity of reality.'

Against the indifference of the wild animals, the impetuous affection of our pets seems like an enormous boon. In a world so full of problems and suffering, only the worst curmudgeonly cynic would sneer at our indulgence, their simple pleasure in us and our joy in them. Something, however, is profoundly wrong with the human/animal pet relationship at its most basic level. Given the obvious benefits of that affiliation, one has to poke very carefully into its psychology and ecology before its fragile core can be exposed.

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