This month I resurrected the first commentary I wrote on this website 15 years ago to compare the status of human-animal relationships then and now. Until I reread it, I didn’t remember that I’d launched the website and wrote this first commentary not long after the 9/11 attacks. At the time I wrote it, I didn’t realize how the events of 9/11 would change the human-companion animal relationship–especially in the US. Nor did I realize that the more human-centered bond it spawned would continue today, for better or worse, even as the memory of the event that triggered it has faded.
In my home, these pictures represent the view of the current canine and feline residents from my desk chair as I work at my laptop. Although the cat appears somewhat more alert, that’s only because a blue jay beating a tattoo on the metal roof this frigid morning just woke him up.
January 1, 2002. The Human-Animal Relationship in Troubled Times
For many, the worldwide uncertainties of life highlighted by the attacks on New York City and Washington, DC have made their relationship with animals more important than ever. We hear news that frightens or saddens us beyond words in the company of other people and we feel obligated to summon those words anyhow, regardless how inadequate those words may be. If we’re lucky enough to find ourselves in the company of someone who shares our thoughts and feelings, we gain comfort from this communication. If not, if we must weigh each word lest we upset that person in some way, we only add to our own distress at such times.
When we hear that same news accompanied by only the dog, cat, or some other treasured pet, quite a different scenario unfolds. Regardless of our age, sex, intellectual, social, or political status, we can express our innermost feelings honestly and unashamedly. Unlike with our human companions, we don’t need to edit ourselves for fear they’ll desert us for acting “immature” or “weird” at a time when we may need their support the most.
Regardless whether animals respond as they do because they care so much about us or because the things that bother us hold little meaning for them, the fact remains that they do offer us this incredible service. So what if my dogs slept through most of the sudden bouts of tears that came out of the blue following the attacks? So what if my cat gives me his, “Oh, no, not you again!” look when I pick him up and hug his reassuring soft warmth while I listen to the news?
I used to envy those who could boast how their pets licked their tears or hovered worriedly when those people experienced the least distress. I’ll even go so far as to say that I still envy them to some extent. However, as I face changes that have brought the fears and uncertainties that used to be confined to some distant “there” to even my remote parcel of “here”, I’m grateful that the behavior of my pets and the wild animals around me communicates a far more meaningful message: No matter how important we humans think we are and no matter how much havoc we wreak on each other, the overwhelming majority of the other animals who populate this earth are unimpressed. “Life goes on,” snores my old corgi, purrs my cat, and lustily sings my canary. “Life goes on,” the chipmunks, red and grey squirrels, chickadees, jays, finches, hawks, eagles, wild turkeys, deer, fishers, foxes, coyotes, and bears who soar above or wander through my land all communicate in their own way.
And while wild animals may feel secure enough in their ability to cope without me or any other human, if for no other reason than because they have for thousands of years already, the seemingly oblivious response of my pets communicates one more powerful message I need to hear: “No matter how bad it seems to you, I trust you to take care of me. That’s why I can sleep and purr and sing.”
So even though I might want to remain glued to the radio or television, hearing the same reports over and over again, even though I’d like to spend hours pondering all the “what if’s” and countless fears just waiting to take root thanks to my fertile imagination, I find myself outside romping with the dogs and watching the cat play with fallen leaves instead. Thanks to the animals, I find the strength that comes from sharing peace and joy even in the midst of turmoil.