I’ve had pets for as long as I can remember. At various points in my childhood, you would have found the following animals in our house or backyard: chickens, goats, pot-bellied pigs, rabbits, cats, kittens, ducks, bad-tempered geese, a pony, a Great Dane the size of a pony, and dogs–small dogs, medium-sized mutts, herding dogs, purebred dogs for sale. I am currently owned by two cats, who have mostly recovered from the many cross-country moves, subway rides, and cramped apartments to which I have subjected them. Although I would like to have a dog and a bunny, and possibly a baby deer, my mother tells me that my life is too unstable to introduce a creature that requires more than an occasional scoop of food and fresh litter (she has flatly refused to let me have one of her dogs, in fact*).
Growing up with animals around, dairy farms down the road and parents who acquired dogs the way some people acquire Precious Moments figurines provided my siblings and I with what I would call a healthy respect for wildlife. That is: pets are great, but they have to know who’s in charge. (A certain family member was spotted, on more than one occasion, biting his cat to teach it a lesson.) I am fascinated by the ways people who did not have similar childhood experiences interact with their pets. In Brooklyn, for example, bored people with too much money take their dogs to the gym (not a human gym–a dog gym, with personal trainers) and paint their toenails. Brooklyn is also where I first discovered that there is an entire industry devoted to pet therapy. That is, therapy for humans who need extra support dealing with their pets.
The fantastic, queer-owned veterinarian clinic where I took my cats during my time in Brooklyn hosted not one but several support groups for pet owners, including a grief counseling session for people dealing with the loss or sickness of an animal. The clinic also employed a full time social worker who could met with people individually to discuss feelings about pets and be on hand in times of crisis if a doctor had to make a scary diagnosis for someone’s pet. I found this all incredibly New York. Don’t get me wrong–New York is great. New York is a line I can’t cross without either wincing or laughing. It’s hard to explain, but there is a certain element of what to a corn-fed Midwesterner like myself smacks of pearl-clutching, fussiness and/or melodrama inherent in New York.
Yet it occurred to me recently that my cats inspire very strong emotions, and emotional reactions which are entirely irrational, in me. Reactions that, if my cats were human, may necessitate court-mandated parenting classes and years of therapy for my children. Today, after one of my cats had knocked a glass bottle of soy sauce off one of my kitchen shelves while bounding around the kitchen (glass shards everywhere; my kitchen will permanently be as sticky and fragrant as a Chinese restaurant), as I was sweeping (he is scared of the broom, but every time I get it out, he won’t do the logical thing and JUST LEAVE THE ROOM–no! he follows me around, underfoot, darting back and forth to keep an eye on the broom, growing increasingly agitated until the broom goes away or he knocks something over), I found myself streaking down a city block after him, feeling something just shy of murderous. It may have been only because people were watching that I did not pick him up by the tail and slam him against a tree. In love, of course. Meanwhile, my other cat, who came into the kitchen to see about the racket, had gotten teensy glass shards in her paws while I was away. (Fortunately I was able to get her wiped off and shard-free before she cut herself seriously; she’s fine.)
Mopping up soy sauce with glass shards in MY knees as my cat cowered under my bed, I pondered pet therapy. One of the trainings I attended as part of my job in New York was an eight-week course on parenting skills education and development. As part of the course, the instructor talked about the telltale symptoms of teen parenting gone wrong–a hallmark of which is the lack of understanding what children are capable of at various stages in their development. We have all seen this to some degree or another. I cannot tell you how many times, during the course of my work with young mothers (or even older ones!), I would hear things like, “She’s just crying because she knows it makes me mad”–when, even to my inexpert and child-free eye, I could plainly tell that the baby was crying because she was hungry, wet, and her mother still hadn’t put her to bed at 3am.
Yet I am guilty of this with my cats. I have convinced myself that they know exactly what they are doing when they meow for food–they’re not hungry, they’re doing it on purpose to wake me up half an hour before my alarm goes off, etc. Throughout the course of the day, my cats can inspire love, affection, aggravation, worry, and on occasion, intense anger. I’m not sure if this is within the range of normal human reaction to pet ownership, or if I’ve slipped into DSM-codable territory. I do know that my life feels palpably different without my cats: for months after moving to Guatemala, I had “phantom limb” syndrome at night–that is, I would shift in my sleep and reach over to rearrange Thurston or pet Nadia, only to realize that they were hundreds of miles away. Having them with me for worse (biking home with 20-pound bags of cat litter strapped to your back is soooo not sexy) or better (coming home to a dead squirrel that Nadia killed just for me) is a relief and a joy.
*Although she did tell me once she was saving one of her dogs for me–a Papillon named Phoebe–for when I am more settled. According to my mom, the dog looks like and reminds her of me. (According to my mom, this is a compliment.)