I can’t remember when I crossed over the line between seeing my pets as animals and seeing my pets as people.
Perhaps it was at my nine-year-old birthday party, when the first guest on my list was Perky, my green and yellow parakeet bestie.
Or maybe it was when, around age 12, my folks convinced me it would be best for our growing collection of water turtles to release them to a local animal sanctuary so they could live a wild life. But then Red, the eldest of the bunch, turned around and tried to follow us back to the car.
I still cry thinking about it.
But I suspect it was an older me who first actively, consciously, stepped across that line and didn’t look back. Until now.
This is relevant because I grew up feeling very afraid of dogs. Size didn’t matter. What mattered was that they all had teeth. And each and every one of them could chomp down on my wrist just like the very first dog I tried to pat at the innocent age of two.
So around the age of 30, worn out after a much more serious bite incident that sent me to urgent care, I started reading about dogs. I wanted to know what everyone else thought was so great about them. I needed to understand, since all I saw was a bunch of drooling, slavering, stark raving lunatics, barking, barking, barking at all hours of the day and night, pooping and peeing absolutely everywhere and basically making my whole life feel like I was always just one bite away from my next bite.
What DID all these people – including my own parents – see in dogs that compelled nearly every single solitary homo sapiens except myself to own one?
I had to know.
So I started to read. I read about dog behavior. I read about dog psychology. I read about dog health. I read about dog training and dog breeds and dog history. Eventually, thanks in large part to all that reading, I even got a job as a dog blogger.
Slowly but surely, I started to see the wonder and magic in Canis lupus familiaris. I knew the tide had turned when I found myself cuddling a tiny dachshund puppy who is now three years old and lives with my folks. His name is Flash Gordon and I think he loves me most of all.
Flash wants to go where we go and be where we are and eat what we eat and do what we do. When he gets really tired or bored or hungry, he will bark and bark and bark until someone notices and does something about it. He hates being alone and he likes to have both of my parents within eyesight at all time (one parent really isn’t good enough).
He acts a lot – I mean a LOT – like my first nephew did when he was about three years old.
Then the other day I was reading a post from one of my favorite Instagrammers and she made such a good point. She was talking about this exact topic – how much animals can seem like little people with fur or feathers or a shell or scales.
They really can – except that they aren’t. They are animals.
It is easier to see this when the animal is truly wild. Take wild cockatiels, for example. I might see a cockatiel in the wild (bucket. list.) and walk right up and stick out my hand assuming the little cutie will readily hop up onto my hand for a neck pat.
I’d be lucky to even get close enough to see that the bird was a cockatiel before the entire flock was hightailing it up, up and away from the terrifying large featherless two-legged predator.
And this is as it should be.
Now compare that wild cockatiel’s behavior with the behavior of my 21-year-old, hand-raised, hand-tame pet cockatiel, Pearl.
In Pearl’s world, everything is his, including me. I am his flock, his mama, his mate, his whole world. If he was a human child a psychologist might say he is “insecurely attached” to me. He loves my parents so much, but even when we are visiting them and he is safely perched on or near one of them, if I try to leave the room he will scream until I come back.
And here is where it starts to make such sense that animals are people and yet they aren’t.
The screaming behavior Pearl exhibits might well be abnormal behavior for a healthy young human child. But it is entirely normal for a cockatiel of any age, since cockatiels are a flocking species for whom being alone is basically equal to being lunch.
This is why I don’t get frustrated with Pearl when he screams if I break line-of-sight. Instead, I come right back. Or I take him with me in the first place. I can’t explain to Pearl that mommy will be right back. He will never understand and this is a protective function in his DNA that I can’t and don’t want to undo.
And I think this might be what the Instagrammer I mentioned earlier meant by remembering that pets are little people and yet they are not.
Another great example is the case of wild dogs or wolves versus companion canines.
Thanks to science, we dog lovers now know that dogs have literally evolved in such a way as to foster further closeness with people. Dogs’ facial expressions, maturity rates, social behaviors, dietary needs and certainly their appearance – all of it reflects adaptations away from their wild Canis lupus wolf ancestors and towards becoming a species that is ideally equipped to live side-by-side with humans.
Yet our companion canines still have instincts, urges, behaviors and preferences that only make sense when we remind ourselves that they are dogs, not people.
Birds do too.
So do cats.
Horses, goats, chickens and other livestock do as well.
All animals that have lived alongside homo sapiens through the ages have deliberately evolved in ways that support the animal-human connection – it is survival of the fittest at its finest.
And actually, this is basically the first period in the evolution of our species that we have lived lives that are so separate and apart from animals! Perhaps this is at the root of the rise of the “pet,” an animal that has no work in life aside from keeping their person company.
These are the animals that are most commonly mistaken for little people. I do it every day. I even wrote a whole blog post about it.
When I chose to share my life with Pearl nearly 21 years ago, I chose to put his needs on a level with my own. As Anatole France so famously said, “You are forever responsible for that which you have tamed.”
And I do feel forever responsible. It is a joyful responsibility, yes, but a responsibility nevertheless.
A huge part of that responsibility, to me at least, is to remember that my animals – and all animals – are not truly “little people.” They are little (or not so little) animals. They have people-like qualities, which are especially easy to see in the animals that have evolved side by side with my own species for mutual gain.
But they also have animal-like qualities that I will never understand or be able to relate to (if you have ever caught yourself wondering why your dog/cat/bird/turtle seems to relish in eating other animals’ waste, you already get my point precisely).
There are reasons for these very un-human-like qualities that speak to the survival needs of a species that is not my own. I don’t have to allow my animals to eat poop – if I can catch them in the act and stop them, that is – but I do need to ask myself what may be missing in their diet that could only be met by eating waste if they were in a wild setting.
Then I need to talk to our veterinarian or do some reading or both and remedy the situation as best I can.
It is an ever-finer line, for sure, the one that separates homo sapiens from all the rest. The more we learn, the more we realize how very similar we are, right down to our DNA. And yet we are different, too.
The more I remind myself that my trio, Pearl, Malti and Bruce, are little animals who are part of my interspecies family, the better able I will be to meet their needs in full so we can continue to share our lives together.
With great respect and love,