By NATALIE ANGIER
October 2, 2007
A couple of weeks ago, while I was out of town on business, our cat, Cleo, died of liver failure. My husband and daughter buried her in the backyard, not far from the grave of our other cat, Manny, who had died just a few months earlier of mouth cancer.
Cleo was almost 16 years old, she'd been sick, and her death was no surprise. Still, when I returned to a home without cats, without pets of any sort, I was startled by my grief
-- not so much its intensity as its specificity.
It was very different from the catastrophic grief I'd felt when I was 19 and my father died, and all sense, color and flooring dropped from my days. This was a sorrow of details, of minor rhythms and assumptions that I hadn't really been aware of until, suddenly, they were disrupted or unmet.
Hey, I'm opening the door to the unfinished attic now. Doesn't a cat want to try dashing inside to roll around in the loose wads of insulation while I yell at it to get out of there?
I've just dumped a pile of clean laundry on the bed and I'm starting to fold it. Why aren't the cats jumping up for a quick sit? Don't they know everything is still warm?
We expect the bonds between children and parents, or between lovers or close friends, to be fierce and complex, and that makes them easy to understand. We expect the bonds between people and their pets to be simple and innocent, an antidote to human judgment and the fog of human speech, and that can make the bond paradoxically harder to track or explain.
How do we feel about the nonhuman animals whose company we crave? We think we know. Our pet is our "best friend," a "member of the family," a surrogate child for the adults, in loco parentis for the kids and the best possible pillow for whoever has first dibs.
We love our pets and we love the idea of pets, of reaching beyond the parochial barriers of the human race to commune with other species. When Alex the African gray parrot, renowned for his ability to communicate,
do simple arithmetic and describe objects by their color, size, shape and material, died last month of cardiovascular disease at the age of 31, his obituary appeared everywhere, and Irene Pepperberg, the scientist who had trained Alex since 1977, was flooded with condolences.
"Alex touched so many people," Dr. Pepperberg, a lecturer and research associate at Harvard University, said in a telephone interview. "He broke all preconceived notions of what it means to be a bird brain." She admitted to feeling devastated. "There's a parrot-size hole in my life," she said.
Yet part of the reason Alex's death attracted so much sympathy, and why Dr. Pepperberg's grief seems normal rather than excessive, is that Alex, in the public eye, was neither pet nor ordinary parrot. He was Pinocchio, striving to realize his full potential
-- his humanity. Importantly, Alex didn't merely nuzzle his affection for Dr. Pepperberg.
He had genuine dying words, the fine four-hanky phrase, "I love you."
By contrast, when Leona Helmsley, the hotel magnate who died in August, specified in her will that she was leaving $12 million to her pet dog, Trouble, while stiffing two of her grandchildren, there was scant talk of dogs as best friends. There were hoots, clucks and growls, with one reader on The New York Times Web site advising the grandchildren to "go kill that stupid dog."
Marc Hauser, professor of psychology at Harvard and author of "Wild Minds: What Animals Really Think," says ambivalence and tension have long been woven into our feelings about animals. "On the one hand, we feel a connection to other animals and we can't imagine a world where we're the only species on the planet," he said.
"On the other hand, we're always trying to show that we're not animals. We're like them, yet we don't want to be like them."
Dr. Hauser traces this tension to self-defense. We use animals, and we want to feel justified in using animals. We eat their muscles for meat, flay their hides for shoes and accessories, inject them with experimental vaccines, genetically engineer them into grotesque morphologies to study human diseases. This requires a certain mental distance.
We adore our pets and can come to identify with them so deeply that we attribute to them some truly daffy notions, like the radio listener who called in a comment to Colin Allen, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at Indiana University's Center for the Integrative Study of Animal Behavior.
"She wanted to tell me about how her cat had very gingerly brought in an injured bird to show her, as though to say, It's hurt, please take care of it," Dr. Allen said. "I suggested there might be other interpretations for her cat's behavior."
Yes, we love our pets and anthropomorphize them to the point where we think our cat might enjoy wearing the mouse hat Halloween costume now on sale at Petsmart.com. And still we abandon difficult pets, and shelters euthanize some 10 million pets a year.
I understand the ambivalence of the human-animal bond. I loved my cats, and I miss them, but I resent them, too, for showing me what a creature of small habits I am, and for reminding me that even love is not enough. Life, like the laundry, will always cool down.