Wild at Heart

Whether or not you’re a pet owner, you can’t have helped noticing
the extraordinary amounts of time, money, and affection we
Americans lavish on pets. We treat them as surrogate parents,
siblings, children, even lovers. When Puss is ailing she is
attended by psychics, acupuncturists, chiropractors, and
Prozac-dispensing shrinks, and receives treatment ranging from bone
grafts to radiation therapy to laser surgery. Lucky Fido lounges on
his brass four-poster doggie bed enjoying the most recent selection
from the Bone of the Month Club, washed down with a nice bottle of
gourmet Thirsty Dog mineral water. However, we also enslave,
deform, sterilize, brutalize, abandon, and slaughter household
animals by the thousands every day. What can explain these extremes
of our feelings and behavior?

Paul Shepard, whose book The Others: How Animals Made Us
inspired the title of this section and is excerpted in
these pages, claims that our schizophrenic treatment of pets may
represent an intense longing to reconnect with the wild parts of
ourselves, and frustration at our inability to do so. Elsewhere in
this section, philosopher Stephen Webb notes that a dog’s love can
teach us something about the way we should interact with other
people; and Tad Friend points out that humans are no less
domesticated than cats, dogs, and even polar bears are.

Our connection with pets goes far beyond ordinary ideas of
ownership or even companionship: Questions of what it means to be
human are, it seems, inseparable from questions about pets. If —
as some therapists seem to think — ersatz companionship is the
only thing we need pets for, couldn’t scientists create a pet that
would provide this for us… without needing a litter box? Why do
politicians use their pets as mouthpieces? How long have people
kept pets? How can I tell if I’m ready to have a pet? These
questions and more are addressed in the following section. You’ll
never look at Puss or Fido the same way again.

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