November 6, 2011

Our Pets and Other Animals

Poppy and Blinky when they were kittens, three years ago.

I've been thinking recently about our relationship to animals; we love our companions and are fascinated by untamed creatures. There are endless posts on Facebook of pets, of nature videos; there are numerous television shows dedicated to telling us the stories of wild animals. I remember being in Central Park one day, wondering what all those people with telescopes and zoom lenses were looking at; they were following the lives of the red tailed hawks living on Fifth Avenue. An essay that I'd read years ago by John Berger, the French artist and writer, came to mind; I remembered him writing about the intertwined lives that humans and animals used to have and how that had changed with modern life. The influential essay is called "Why Look at Animals" and was written in 1977 (which you can read here). I was happy to reread it; it's full of interesting insights, but is ultimately a bleak assessment of our modern human/animal relationships.

Blinky watching me work, sitting up on a speaker.

Berger writes that the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century began a process "by which every tradition which has previously mediated between man and nature was broken.". Before then, animals and humans were together, leading parallel lives; animals offered metaphor and magic; the human and the animal regarded each other across an "abyss of non-comprehension". How often do we feel when we return the look of an animal that we are encountering another kind of consciousness? but we can't know what this other is thinking. Berger writes that "Such an unspeaking companionship was felt to be so equal that often one finds the conviction that it was man who lacked the capacity to speak with animals..."

It was when animals became marginalized in the 19th century that zoos became popular, as did realistic animal toys and then pets. Berger sees this as a relentless removal of animals from human lives: "That look between animal and man, which may have played a crucial role in the development of human society, and with which, in any case, all men had always lived until less than a century ago, had been extinguished."

Ginger (1995-2008)

Berger has no sympathy for the contemporary pet owner, those of us who feel that we have a close connection, a deep look into the eyes of another species, so I was pleased to read an opinion piece, "Pet Lovers, Pathologized" in the NY Times last Sunday by the philosopher Kelly Oliver. In it she complains that "to love animals is to be soft, childlike, or pathological. To admit dependence on animals – particularly emotional and psychological dependence, as pet owners often do – is seen as a type of neurosis." She asks that society, philosophy, culture, take seriously our love of animals. When my dog Ginger – the charming, overly exuberant big dog who I could never train not to jump up on visitors, with one perked ear and one flopped – was alive, I often spoke of her as my best friend. When she died, I, who am not sentimental, buried her ashes under the spot by the house where she most loved to sit and survey the world.

Holstein heifers on a farm in northern Vermont.

I believe that even though we are far removed from John Berger's ideal world of the peasant, we are greatly enlarged by our encounters with animals, with these other spirits, whether in intimate relationships with pets, or with seeing animals on the farm or in the zoo, or if we're very lucky, in the wild; I vividly remember my two encounters with local bears, and my moose visitors. It is always good to remember that humans are not alone on this earth; we share it with all manner of creatures, all beautiful, all trying to survive.


  1. To be aware, really aware of another creature is also to be more aware of oneself.

  2. i enjoyed the article in the times last week...i think what is sometimes missed is the obvious...we are not the other. we are all animals and we over complicate our motives.

  3. tony, I agree. We often lose sight of the fact that we are a part of the animal kingdom and not separate from it; I think being truly aware of other creatures brings that home to us.
    t. amig, yes, we are not the other. You and tony are essentially, I think, speaking of the same thing.

  4. Hi Altoon -
    It's deep in us, I think too. All of them -- wild, farm, pets -- are our teachers. Paul Shepard's The Others: How the Animals Made Us Human is a good book on the subject. (Going off to read Berger and NYT article; thanks for those.)
    Do Blinky and Poppy ever curl up together any more?

  5. such an interesting topic Altoon. The role of horses is so different now than it was during other times like the Renaissance when they were so important for practical survival. And so is their representation in art of course.
    In drawings of horses now at the Morgan Library, every detail of each hoof is drawn in a Gericault.

  6. Susan, thanks for the reading suggestions. And no, Blinky and Poppy now go their separate ways; matter of fact, Blinky annoys Poppy quite a lot; they sleep separately, Blinky in my bed, Poppy in her fleece lined box.
    alicia, we used to be so dependent on horses, and though I know some people who use them for logging, they are mostly pleasure animals. Though it's always surprising to visit a country where you see horse drawn carts still being used, as I did in Turkey about 10 years ago.

  7. I have one kitten and cant decide if i should get him a companion. everyone seems to have different ideas about this. Do you think your cats are happy to have each other even if now they have grown apart?

  8. yes, I do, alicia. When I go away I'm happy to know that they have each other for company, even if that means chasing each other around a few times a day.

  9. yes Altoon and -- let's not gracefully accept being pathologized.

    Alicia: I have had both sets of cats -- a set that did not care for each other and a current set that does. I still think that they need the knowledge of proximity AND proximity to another animal creature.

  10. thanks Altoon for your thoughts. I really do think he would love to have another animal creature here too.

  11. chris, yes and yes.
    you're very welcome, alicia.

  12. All animals are individuals and getting to know them enriches our lives. Besides having just survived 8 days without power here in northwestern CT, I can definitely say two cats can keep you very warm in bed. They're practical.

  13. Poppy and Bllinky are simply adorable. I have always had cats until a couple of years ago. They
    are the best companions and know so much.

    We had a cat named "Little" who warned me that a
    light was too close to the wall and about to catch
    fire. She walked back and forth and meowed until
    I went to see what she was so upset about.

  14. Bettina, I'm sorry you lost power for such a long time, but that your cats provided some needed warmth.
    Myrna, thank you, they are very cute.
    It sounds as though you had an amazingly acute cat in Little.

  15. So much is written about animal/human relationship. We need animals in our lives as we need human relations. It keeps us balanced as all of nature does.

  16. Lovely photo of the cats together. I always like seeing one cat or the other as they pop up in your blog photos; definitely a part of your life. My life is happier with a cat or two in it; their spirit energies interweave with mine, though mostly we go our own ways very contentedly. Ruminations is a good word.

  17. I enjoyed the piece Altoon. Whenever I think of an animals 'consciousness', I am put in mind of a beautiful poem by Rilke. Its called 'The Panther', I was going to send you a link, but it looked a bit long, so have decided to cut and paste..

    The Panther

    His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
    has grown so weary that it cannot hold
    anything else. It seems to him there are
    a thousand bars, and behind the bars, no world.

    As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
    the movement of his powerful soft strides
    is like a ritual dance around a center
    in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.

    Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
    lifts, quietly. An image enters in,
    rushes down through the tense, arrested muscles, plunges into the heart and is gone.

    -- Rainer Maria Rilke

  18. Graham, thanks so much for that amazing poem. I wonder if John Berger knew it, because it is so close to what he felt about zoos and what has been lost in animal life.

  19. Squeakie (Lynette "Squeakie" Frohm), a cat, chose us three years ago...just appeared one dark morning, tentatively squeaking her presence as I walked to my shop.
    We are her pets now.