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Monday, April 8, 2013


A pet is often defined as a non-human companion although humans can be pets too. The word implies a subordinate being doted upon by the pet owner. Most of us think of animals when we think of pets.

There is an enormous kaleidoscope of behaviours around this topic. People are usually very devoted to their pets, sometimes beyond death – I was astonished to find my brother-in-law has his late dog's ashes in an urn on a specially built shelf at the turn of his stairwell. This is years after the dog died. It seems so...unbalanced. Every time one goes up and down the stairs of his house, there she is. Perhaps I'd have felt it a bit more normal if there had been a picture of the dog there. However, the portrait, there is no other word for it, is an enormous oil painting-like photo set in a gilt frame over his fireplace.

There are a lot of funerary practices for beloved pets that are considered quite sensible – burying the dear departed at the end of the backyard is one. I think this is reasonable although it can be exhausting what with the fits of weeping and the damage to the lawn. Paying the vet to have the remains cremated is another for the more fastidious and less athletic. Buying a plot in an actual pet cemetery, where vast green lawns are dotted with full-sized statues of sleeping animals, seems a bit excessive. Worse still, one may be buried in such a cemetery, provided one is first cremated. This isn't much different from the Ancient Egyptians who mummified their cats, presumably to meet them again in the afterlife. Millions and millions of mummified cats. Of course, this did happen over the course of more than a thousand years so they had quite a while to accumulate.

At the other end of life is the expression of our love in the form of food. Mealtimes for cats and dogs are sometimes as fraught as those of small children. The pet owner (or the staff as my cat appears to believe) provides that adorable tiny tin of Duck and Wild Rice, or Cod, Sole and Shrimp – opens it, mixes it, just so, with a drop of warm water, and then is stunned by its almost instant rejection. 

“What? You liked this the other day! What have I done? What can I do?” 

Our hunt for ever more exotic and increasingly expensive delicacies to appeal to the feline palate is on-going. I have it on good authority that other pets like hamsters, gerbils and rabbits are not so particular.

Someone has made a shortfilm, in the style of the French existential cinema, black and white with a deep male voiceover and subtitles – it's called “Henri – le Chat.” In this, the tormented soul of an indoor cat ponders his fate – he is doomed to live a life where his Whitefish and Tuna is starting to taste the same as his Turkey and Giblets. It's all very sad. The difficulties in getting good staff are manifest.

There are more difficult cases. I have a friend who spoils her cats. She got a new kitten a couple of years ago, a very pretty tabby with unusually wide black stripes. It grew up into a beautiful young cat. And then it got bigger, and bigger, and bigger. Not in height, but in girth. It is now has the dimensions of an enormous furry beach ball. I presume this is not entirely the cat's fault. We love our pets to death.

What do I want to say about pets? I thought about saying they are useful in reminding us about Life and our humanity and the natural world, but it's really about love.

We need to love and we need to be needed, even if it is only by an ungrateful pet at mealtimes.

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