Pets can't fulfill our needs
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.
We believed ourselves until recent centuries to be continually in the proximity of a multitude of wise animal elders. These animals filled human life with excitement and strange associations for so long that our species continues to anticipate their reassurance. Wild animal life was a major focus of human attention, establishing the expectation of a rich, surprising, meaningful, and beautiful diversity of life around us. Some animals were sacred. All were conscious, unique, and different in spiritual power. During most of human history, people had easy access to livestock and wild animals. Even after industrialization, towns and their margins were occupied by an abundance of small wild animals: birds, insects, fish, and amphibians. People were seldom more than walking distance from a still richer fauna in nearby streams, fields, and forests. Even in cities, until the 20th century, rabbits, chickens, ducks, and geese were still kept in backyards, local fairs and markets had large livestock sections, draft animals were still abundant, farmers drove pigs and cattle to market down the streets, and knackers butchered them in alleys. There were few laws against keeping birds and other wild captives. Dogs and cats ran freely in the streets. But now even the shambling domestic forms that pulled wagons, laid eggs, or turned our garbage into sausage have been removed from sight. The artifacts of industry and media, all the human mob and its distractions and therapies, do not make up for the loss. Only pets remain, a glimmer of that animal ambience, sacredness, otherness.
In 70 centuries of human cohabitation with animals, the sources of manure, milk, meat, and skins, as well as sacrificial offerings and symbolic and aesthetic objects, have not always been separated from their pet function. In the past a tiny bullock might be cared for with familial warmth and attachment in the household, exchanged as currency, kept as a fertilizer machine, admired for its strength and beauty, or sacrificed on an altar and then eaten, all the while talked to, touched, and loved as a member of the family. Domestic animals have gradually become surrogate companions, siblings, lovers, victims, workers, parents, competitors, deities, oracles, enemies, kinfolk, caretaker-guards, and so on.
Now pets have become part of the pharmacology of medicine, ten thousand years after people first took in the dog, sheep, and goat. Indeed, pets have recently taken a new leap into institutional respectability, becoming 'companion animals' as part of an integrated treatment. In the presence of pets, those who suffer from Alzheimer's disease and autism are inclined to speak. Incarcerated incompetents, handicapped outpatients, plain folks who are just getting old, impoverished or stressed executives and their lonely children -- all are happier and live longer in the regular presence of friendly animals. There is also less suicide and aggression among the criminally insane, greater calming among the bereaved, quicker rehabilitation among alcoholics, improved self-esteem among the elderly, increased longevity among cardiac patients and cancer victims, improved emotional states among disturbed children, better morale among the blind and deaf, more cheer among the mentally and physically handicapped, faster learning among the retarded, solace for the terminally ill -- and general facilitation of social relationships. Hearing dogs accompany the deaf, guide dogs lead the blind, hospice pets give unqualified cheer, animals help retarded children, monkeys have 'hands' for the handicapped.
Professor Leo Bustad of Western Washington University's Department of Veterinary Medicine wants aquariums in all dental and medical offices and in waiting rooms, conference rooms, classrooms, lunchrooms. He thinks there should be wards in all hospitals where patients may keep pets, animal refuges from which the terminally ill may get animals on loan, professional referral systems, animal visitors in nursing homes, and provision for them in government housing, penal institutions, and community service agencies. 'We believe,' Bustad says, 'that the health of our society is dependent on the nature and the extent of the association between people and other animals and their environment.'
This view would no doubt be endorsed (for other reasons) by Eskimos with their dog teams, by 18th-century furriers and fur trappers, the butchers and meatpackers of the world, all the pastoralists since the horse was domesticated, circus personnel, the guilds of leatherworkers and shoemakers, and so on. Of course that is not what Bustad means, but underneath there remains the shadow of utility: the animal commodity dressed out as medical treatment instead of pulling sleds or growing furs. In return for the work of a well-kept slave the animals in this bond get 'friendship.'
'Pet-facilitated therapy,' casual or institutionalized, reduces human suffering. It is truly an astonishing solace. The 'companion animal' is a medical miracle to which we should be kind and grateful. It cheers, modulates pain, and helps the patient to cope. But like all psychotherapy, it is not a true healing. We falsify our relationship to wild animals with our husbandman's eye, social worker's agendas, veterinary tools, and breeder's books. Animals were present at the center of human life for thousands of centuries before anyone thought of taking them captive, making them companions, forming the 'friendship loops' of which animal-facilitation therapists and ethicists speak.
However, the domestication of animals has never ensured their tender care. In recent Anglo-American tradition the dog is 'man's best friend,' but it is abhorred in the Bible. In Muslim tradition the dog's saliva is noxious, and contact between people and dogs requires ritual cleansing. Over most of the planet the dog is a cur and a mongrel scavenger, feral, half-starved, the target of the kick and thrown rock, often cruelly exploited as a slave. Although they're looked upon with affection, even modern pets are property that is bought, sold, 'put down,' and neutered. Pets are deliberately abandoned by the millions and necessitate city-run slaughterhouses, shelters, and 'placement' services. This paradox of frenetic emotion and casual dismissal reveals our deep disappointment in the pet's ability to do something, be something, that we cannot quite identify.
Domestic animals were 'created' by humans by empirical genetic engineering over the past ten thousand years. They are vestiges and fragments from a time of deep human respect for animals, whose abundance dazzled us in their many renditions of life, helping us to know ourselves by showing all that we had not become. The pet cannot restore us to that wholeness any more than an artificial limb renews the original; nor can it do more than simulate the Others among whom our ancestors lived for so long, the Others that constituted for them a cosmos.
What is wrong at the heart of the keeping of pets is that they are deficient animals in whom we have invested the momentum of 2 million years of love of the Others. They are monsters of the order invented by Frankenstein except that they are engineered to conform to our wishes, biological slaves who cringe and fawn or perform or whatever we wish. As embodiments of trust, dependence, companionship, aesthetic beauty, vicarious power, innocence, or action by command, they are wholly unlike the wild world. In effect, they are organic machines conforming to our needs.
No one now doubts that pets can be therapeutic. But they are not a glorious bonus on life; rather, they are compensations for something desperately missing, minimal replacements for friendship in all of its meanings. Mass society isolates us in ways and degrees that seem to contradict our population density. Pets occupy by default an equally great human need for others who are not part of our personal lives. Pets are unacknowledged surrogates for human companionship or substitutes for the resolution of interpersonal social problems, and therefore impair normal human sociality by enabling people to avoid mending, maturing, or otherwise dealing with their personal relationships. Pets, being our own creations, do not replace that wild universe. But as living animals they confuse our perception and hide the lack of a wild, nonhuman comity of players on a grand scale -- a spectacular drama of life to which our human natures commit our need and expectation.
Excerpted with permission from The Others: How Animals Made Us Human, by Paul Shepard (Island Press/Shearwater Books, 1995). Paul Shepard is a leading thinker in human evolution and ecology. Sierra Club Books will publish an anthology of his work in the spring of 1996.