I will confess – I often wonder who has made a pet of whom, at least in our little flock.
Here is why I say this.
If you were to drop into our casa at nearly any point in nearly any day, you might find me cleaning up cockatiel poop, washing down the box turtle and redfoot tortoise habitats, preparing carefully curated meals for each flock member’s unique dietary needs, covering and uncovering cages and enclosures, transplanting and watering greenery in the turtles’ backyard play area…you get the idea.
Somehow, in between the long and growing list of chores associated with caring for Pearl, Malti and Bruce, I manage to grab a bite for myself, shower, earn rent money and sleep.
In fact, now that I think about it, I realize it is not at all uncommon to hear me tell family or friends I have to come late or leave early to accommodate one or more flock members’ scheduling needs.
So who is the real pet in this scenario?
To an outside observer, I would probably pick me!
All of this got me curious about what the word “pet” even means. A casual internet search for definitions yielded these curious insights:
…a domestic (or tamed) animal kept for companionship (or pleasure).
…a thing (?) one devotes special attention to or feels strongly about.
…an animal kept for company rather than to work.
The more I think about it, the more the whole pet thing just feels odd, odd, odd.
My former partner of many years had a real issue with people who keep pets, including me. His reasons were mostly good ones, especially in cases where a pet-keeping person didn’t take good care of their animal companions or even caused outright harm.
I agreed wholeheartedly with him that other beings are not accessories and they are not extensions of the people they live with or any people at all. Each animal, like each person, is a whole and complete independent being in their own right and needs and deserves to be treated like it.
Of course, this didn’t stop me from adding not one but two additional pets to round out Pearl’s and my little family during the years he and I were together.
The first addition was Malti, a hatchling redfoot tortoise. Next came Bruce, a rescued 3-toed box turtle. And then right after Bruce came along, my parents brought home Flash Gordon, a standard wire-haired dachshund puppy I adored from day one.
So clearly I am a “pet person,” which I take to mean someone who just craves animal companionship for whatever reason. My former partner didn’t have any desire for interspecies company. I do and always have had. It was actually one of the biggest sticking points that finally resulted in our painful demise much earlier this year.
My partner is obviously no longer in my life but all three of my animals still are. And oh how heavily I have leaned on their love and support (as well as my commitment to care for each one of them with diligence and excellence no matter what) as I have learned how to be single once again.
Yet still, underneath it all, I dream of a world where homo sapiens and all the other species can live – coexist – without one species feeling the entitlement it absolutely takes to make a pet of another.
One history of pets I read online suggested that the first pets likely arose when early iterations of modern us took in abandoned baby animals, cared for them, raised them, bonded with them.
Around the same time, historians suggest, our ancestors were likely exploring the shared benefits of partnering with wild animals to hunt and gather. Some intriguing theories indicate all this may have happened as recently as 12,000 years ago.
At first, it probably looked like a real win-win. For example, perhaps early canids stuck closer to human encampments, eating our leftover snacks in exchange for keeping an eye out for hungry saber-tooth tigers who wanted to make snacks of us both. This worked pretty well. We all started to settle down.
Along came cattle. And cats. And horses. Camels, sheep, goats, oxen, donkeys….oh, and chickens, geese and ducks, of course. And they brought with them eggs and steaks and snazzy rides while doing most of early humans’ heavy lifting (quite literally).
At some point, early us must have also noticed the “cuteness.”
Baby cows, kittens, foals, chicks, ducklings, et al, they are all very, very cute.
Those early hominids probably oohed and aahed over these baby animals just like we do today, especially as the babies quickly caught on to how their very cute begging behaviors reliably produced ever more tasty treats. Yet those babies were not just cute but were also quite valuable – a representation of countless hours spent feeding, breeding, grooming, training, securing, guarding and caring for each generation of cuteness.
So we got attached. In some parts of the world, we got sufficiently attached that the “housebarn” was born.
To hear the historians tell it, at first this arrangement was probably purely practical. For example, animals overwintering indoors with their keepers were expected to contribute body heat to warm the house in exchange for their indoor room and board!
But it wouldn’t take a huge stretch to see how a newly-birthed litter of kittens, puppies or imprinted motherless goslings might have tended to end up snuggled amongst their doting human housemates instead of in their own beds or boxes.
However, I remain well aware that the only real reason my pets are, in fact, pets, is because humankind has quite literally forced them into a role of dependency. My animals don’t need us, or me, at least when they are allowed to be born and grow up and live free in their natural wild state. I am the one who needs, craves, depends on their company to feel whole, sane, human.
Pearl and Malti were captive-bred and born for the specific purpose of keeping company with people. If not with me, they would have absolutely been rehomed with a different homo sapiens for the balance of their respective lifespans. Bruce initially had the best chance of living free, at least until someone’s grandson plucked his small round box turtle body out of a field and “set him free” in his grandma’s backyard, where I discovered him being terrorized by the local dogs and brought him home to stay with us.
For me, the opportunity to cohabitate with different species is a treasure I hope never to be without. But in return, I hold myself to a very VERY high standard of care towards these special beings. Ultimately, I see it as my personal challenge to curb any instinct (beyond those directly related to flock safety) to behave like I am the owner and they are the pet.
In other words, if – as one of my favorite mentors and authors, Dr. Temple Grandin, states – “animals make us human,” then I must bring every ounce of my humanity to the table to care for these three amazing species I share my life with.
Here are three examples.
If my cockatiel, Pearl, shrieks repeatedly, I need to pay close attention and realize he is not trying to annoy me (not that he ever could – it is the “cuteness,” you know).
But I have to realize he is trying to communicate his needs. Is he hurt? Hungry? Bored? Tired? Does he just want to talk and connect? The way I see it, it is my part of our partnership, as it would be for any partnership between any two species of beings, to communicate back and participate in our relationship to make it work well for both of us. That is what I signed up for when I invited him to share my life.
If my tortoise, Malti, seems starving all the time, I have to do the hard work of figuring out if she is truly hungry or just acting on her genetic programming to eat more when the eating is easy.
If it is the former, I need to adjust her diet accordingly. If it is the latter, I need to take a step back and examine how to offer food in a more biologically appropriate and naturalistic way so she has to work for her dinner rather than just walking up to me, sitting down, displaying “extreme cuteness” and opening up her mouth!
If my rescued box turtle, Bruce, is terrified of being picked up, it is my job to do everything in my power to lessen two things: my handling of him and his fear of being handled.
Sometimes, I simply have to handle him. For instance, if he gets sick and has to be seen by the veterinarian, or if the weather outside is so bad and dangerous I must temporarily move him indoors, or if it is his turn to go into the large enclosed outdoor play area to stretch his legs and run around, then I have to handle him.
At other times, no matter how much “cuteness” he displays and how much that tempts me to pick him up, I literally do my utmost to not touch him and instead find other more positive ways for us to connect. In the meantime, I am continually developing strategies to get him used to my hands, his travel carrier and the process of moving him so he isn’t so afraid when handling him is not optional.
Ultimately, I would still prefer to live in a world where my animals were free to come and go in total safety, to live their lives without the risk of becoming lab rats (literally), snacks or roadkill.
Perhaps this is yet one more outgrowth of my own recovery process, where now every single life seems just that much braver, more unique, immeasurably precious, and never one to take advantage of or take for granted.
Right now, nearly everything about being a modern homo sapiens feels essentially unnatural and something deep inside of me is constantly trying to fix that. Truthfully, like most of my kind, I live largely outside the greater food chain o’ life to the point where I am actually at risk of forgetting I am not invincible. I live in a world where even cohabitating with other homo sapiens, let alone different species, has become rather….optional.
But I don’t necessarily want it to be. It doesn’t feel right for it to be this way. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want to get eaten. And I’m not much of a fan of the prepper/survivalist movement, mostly because I can barely boil a carrot, let alone a sirloin. There are many parts of my modern life I adore and I hope will never change.
But not the part where I get to share my life – as equitably and equally as I possibly can – with all the different beings in my little interspecies family.
With great respect & love,