It’s been my fate and fortune to live next to a university campus. Bar-closing time poses problems, especially when it’s warm enough for open windows to air the noise and other fluid substances that drunk undergrads discharge on their way to somebody’s bed. My dog Bella has marked the campus turf as her own. Her hungry sniffer is always on high alert for rich rotten smells, and she’s something of a celebrity, the Big Dog on Campus who can attract a small crowd with a few wags of her tail.
I don’t clue the students in on Bella’s attraction to strong underwear. I was once a student myself. But when they stop by in twos and threes to give my pooch a belly scratch I have a question for them: “Who do you miss more, your parents or your dog?” So far the answer has been unanimous, except for the sad co-ed who told me her father died last year.
I’m not ready to conclude that student preference for dogs is just one more sign of the decline of the family. If family has anything to do with people putting their money where their hearts are, some leading indicators suggest the family is becoming extended in an original way. A recent Associated Press poll tells us that 52 percent of U.S. pet owners plan to buy their creatures a holiday gift, with six of ten dogs assured of having not only presence but presents near the tree on Christmas eve. The pooch belonging to the poor girl who lost her father last year might turn out to be a very lucky dog.
I have two close friends currently experiencing profound grief over the death of their dog. When their first dog died some fifteen years ago I was unprepared for the deep funk that possessed them for months. I’ve often looked to them for friendship and advice, for I respect their practical good sense and the perspectives they’ve gained through long study and experience. Now it’s happened to them again, and the loss of the first has not made this second death easier. They’ve gone into hiding with their grief, telling me that when they’re ready they’ll get in touch again. It’s been weeks since I’ve heard from them.
My friend Ray Howe does keep in touch. Maybe because he has a nose for the faintest–and often most revealing–hints, he routinely sends me news of the unheard of ways wildlife is losing both its wilderness and life. Though he’s something of a loner who seems to keep solitary vigil at nature’s deathbed, he now and then picks me up with a bit of good news. Recently he sent me a clip of a young bobcat and fawn–huddled together, cuddling, perfectly comfortable with each other’s company. They had been rescued from a California wildfire, and the rescuers, lacking proper cages and facilities, herded the unlikely young pair together, only to find that they behaved like the Biblical lion and lamb.
After I’ve feasted on pork tenderloin and hit the sack for a nap I wonder why I don’t kick my cat Milo off my bed. Am I more animal for eating the pork tenderloin, or has the pork tamed my savage hunger and made a civilized human being of me? If I’m a civilized human what’s that cat doing sharing my bed? My Christian upbringing requires me to think of myself as above the animals, as a soul charged with the duty to subdue the earth and separate myself from the savage in nature and in my own beastly self. In short, the civilized good Christian human being in me would kick that cat off the bed while I coddle my salvation dream and snore the tenderloin away.
I’m also the one who looks the other way when a Sunday drive takes me anywhere near one of those pig confinement factory farms you can smell across state lines. The unseemly things that happen to the pigs in those sheds happen off my watch, I suppose, because my pork tenderloin comes from supermarkets rather than pigs. I need to think that what happens to pigs happens because of what they are and who we are. I’m sure most pigs would agree that pigs and people are not the same.
But I’m like other civilized human beings, so I have a weakness for Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web. Wilbur is too human to die so some stranger can eat Wilbur’s tenderloin, and our affection for the condemned hog goes beyond words when Wilbur leaps off the page and is realized for us on the silver screen. There Wilbur takes his place with the other Animal Kingdom celebrities–from Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny to Bambi, Nemo, Antz, and the Lion King. If stuffed animals and robotic hamsters are crowding sleepers out of bedrooms these days, on Hollywood screens cartoon animals are no longer mere appetizer preludes to the feature film; these days the animation is the main course.
What’s the attraction? Hollywood loves the sound of the cash register, so Hollywood gives us what we want. Do we want our animal life sanitized and sentimentalized into cartoons on the screen because we don’t want real Mickeys in our kitchen cabinets and Wilburs in our yards? Are animated films our way of establishing an archive for the purpose of memorializing the decline and fall of animal life on planet earth? Or do we mainly watch these films because Bambi, Nemo, the Lion King and even Antz are versions of ourselves, useful as models by which we may reinvent our lives? Name one red-blooded boy who after watching the Bambi movie doesn’t want to be a stag.
Imagine trying to get rid of a big-antlered stag snoozing on your bed.
We have the Book of Genesis to thank for blessing us with one of the major ways we reinvent ourselves. There all creatures great and small are invented in turn, and all, even those that creep, are declared “good” by God. Then comes the Apple Episode–the temptations offered (variously) by the Tree of Life and Tree of Knowledge (of Good and Evil). We take the bait, “fall” into Life and Knowledge, and Eden, a garden in which lion and lamb share the same bed of grass with things that creep, becomes a jungle red in tooth and claw. From then on our challenge as humans is to tranquilize the teeth and claws we’re told are necessary to our fitness to survive in the current market economy, and to seek residence in a Heavenly Kingdom where we are free of the desire for tender loins.
In these hi-tech times it seems that money rather than teeth and claws is more likely to make us fit to survive. As tasty brands of animal life are industrially multiplied before their leftovers are industrially dumped, zoos follow unnaturally enough. With animal turf shrinking and entire species giving up the ghost, it’s getting harder to find spaces where we can exercise our teeth and claws. Hunters know the problem best, some of them going ballistic as the season opener draws near. Guns, their power and precision carefully engineered, reveal themselves as living proof that man is still free and natural, like stags. Next to the animal blood stir that occurs when Bambi wanders by just in time to be blown away, zoos are boring. And when eyes staring at the antlered heads mounted on den walls begin to glaze over, the wide-screen TV lights the way into the wilds, with all those documentaries of creatures running free shrink-wrapped for survival as CDs in our memory banks.
We have to wonder if we’ll be next. If we, as cellular globs, rose from the swampland of DNA to become (like some of the undergrads who pet my pooch) homo erectus, if our Edenic apple bite then made us homo sapiens, and if then we learned to farm and invent first huge and now tiny machines, are we on our way to reinventing not only animals but ourselves as digitized technological wonders wonderful for us to behold on wide-screen TVs? Will the opposable thumb that did so much to get us out of jungle swamps become disposable as it goes digital?
We find consolation from such thoughts in our pets. There we reconnect ourselves to fur and flesh, to the slow and regular rising of breasts, to purring that makes affection audible, to adoring eyes that make it obvious. We speak to Milo the cat and Bella the dog as if they were human beings, and we deem them almost civilized. We wish that Milo the cat and Bella the dog were not in the least interested in the tenderloin on our dinner plates, and that pet food came from supermarkets rather than factories that grind and concoct bite-sized pellets out of unmentionable animal parts. We prefer Milo and Bella to lions in our streets lurking with intent to make tenderloin feasts of us. And while some members of our species insist it’s only natural to mine uranium on the million acres surrounding the Grand Canyon, we want Milo and Bella to console us as we become participants in the feeding frenzies of Wall Street sharks.
I prefer to do without uranium, and I feel safer knowing what’s eating me than I do reminding myself I am what I eat.
It’s easy to get cynical about what’s eating us. When students stoop to scratch Bella’s belly, I carefully avoid mention of Cerberus, the three-headed dog of Greek myth poised to make a meal of anyone getting out of hand on the way to the underworld. Nor do I give them a lesson on the etymology of the word cynic, which derives from the Greek word kyon, meaning “dog,” or on cynicism as a moral philosophy inspired by the dog-eat-dog habits of nasty Greeks not nearly as starved as the strays they no doubt abused. In a dog-eat-dog culture corporate greed comes to mind, though I’m sure even the nastiest profiteer at least now and then stoops to pet a pooch.
Greedy or not we wonder if we pet ourselves when we pet our pets. Is the cat or dog a version of ourselves we’re trying to love? When the family dog but not the sullen teenager speaks to us, when we clean up the stains on our rugs but not in our lives, when we stroke the cat but not the woman in the bed next to us, it’s easy to conclude our pets exist mainly in our minds. What is it our minds say to us then: That this stroking of fur is good, and the creature we’re stroking is good, and the life we’re living right then is good, and there is good in life.
Yes, we’re capable of making little gods of them. And there’s one question I don’t have the courage to ask the students who pet my pooch: Who do you miss more, your dog or God? Dyslexics who just say yes perhaps understand the question best, and no doubt are the least inclined to roast me as a heretic. To mention an animal and God in the same breath seems…primitive. But it’s been standard practice for thousands of years. Take, for example, the ancient Egyptian civilization that began cradling us toward the “end of nature” that appears to be the end-game of our current self-improvement schemes. We’ve all seen the jackal-headed figures–dog-men–pictured on Egyptian walls thousands of years ago, often alongside hybrid humans who have the heads or body parts of falcons, crocodiles, lions, baboons, bulls, cows, and cats. Henri Frankfort, Egyptologist of renown, assures us that the artists of these sphinx forms drew the world as they saw it. What did they see? That these hybrids authentically represented the identity of human and animal life, an identity at once sacred and real; that animals, even jackals, were divine because as such they possessed a “static reality,” a permanence more vital than individual human traits that come and go. For these inventors of civilization animals reflect the anima, or soul, of the universe.
Think about that when you’re stroking your cat or dog. Does your stroking smooth over the difference between Nature and God? As we destroy what’s left of wilderness areas is the permanence of animal life–and of God’s identity with planet earth–an endangered species?
I’m reminded of one of my favorite poems by an almost forgotten poet named H.D.
yet actuated by the same fear,
the hippopotamus and the wild deer
hide by the same river.
yet compelled by the same hunger,
the cobra and the turtle-dove
meet in the palm-grove.
It’s probably no longer possible for humans and animals to be actuated by the “same fear.” Animals are perhaps blessed to be free of the fear of global warming and nuclear war. But we do share the same hunger–for food, shelter, warmth, affection–and are capable, when these needs are met or when we face terrible emergencies, of hiding by the same river or meeting in a pine-grove. When the wildfires arrive a small bobcat and fawn know enough to give each other the space required to just be.
Whenever Milo the cat sidles up to her my jackal-headed Bella knows enough to do that too. Because I’ve never yet seen them fight like cats and dogs, I will have a little holiday gift for each of them this year.