This article first appeared in the Age on October 4 2008
We should be doubly mindful of animals' needs because of their uncritical natures, writes Sophie Cunningham.
A FEW MONTHS AGO I got into the back of a cab and the cab driver, for no reason in particular, asked my girlfriend and I if we'd ever met a man we'd loathed. My girlfriend suggested Sam Newman as a candidate - though as we were in a taxi in Sydney our sledging fell on uncomprehending ears. "I ask," the taxi driver said, "because women loathe me. Like the waitress at the restaurant I eat at."
"How do you know women loathe you?" I asked.
"Because they tell me," he said, morosely, before picking a muesli bar from the passenger seat and biting into it. "I think it's something to do with me being an Alpha Male." I asked how he knew he was one of those - thinking all the while that his chewing was so loud that I was having reservations about him myself - when he told me that it was because animals loved him. Indeed the stray cats in his street treated him as head of their pack. I put the fact that cats aren't pack animals to one side, because now I was getting interested.
"Do cats like you?" I asked.
"They love me," he affirmed.
"Do you love cats?"
"They are the only creature that comes close to perfection," he said, and at that point I didn't loathe this man at all. On the point of cats and their perfection, we were in total agreement. There is something quite extraordinary about living with creatures so utterly different to us, creatures that are so deeply present in their lives.
Take this morning: I have two Burmese cats and as I left for work, one of them followed me outside before stopping, dead still, to watch an insect move over the tiles on our front veranda. Her focus was absolute. She was all precision and delicacy and she reminded me of a line from Michelle de Kretser's The Lost Dog: "the dog, plumed tail held high, (was) absorbed in tracking a moth around the room, breathing on it."
Loving an animal broadens boundaries. They unravel our worldview and challenge our sense that humans are superior - something I find quite relieving because, frankly, if humans are the pinnacle of evolution, it's a pretty depressing prospect. De Kretser uses the word "beastliness" to describe these qualities. "It was easy to love such a creature. Nevertheless, his core was wild. In accommodating that unruliness, Tom's life flowed in a broader vein ... the dog unleashed in Tom a kind of grace; a kind of beastliness."
There is no sound reason why preferring dogs to cats should be like choosing between Sherbet and Skyhooks, or Collingwood and any other AFL team, though it seems to be that way. When Leonard Woolf's friend Sylvia Warner's cat died in 1963, he wrote her the following letter. "What you say about being admitted into a cat's world is true. I have kept many different animals besides cats and dogs. Each after its own kind has its own different kind of world, the dog's differing from the cat's and the cat's from the monkey's and so on. They will all, except for the horse, I find, admit you into their world if you go about it the right way and I have never felt any reason for not having an affection for, say, dogs because one has love for cats and so on." As if to prove the point he bred Siamese cats, owned dogs, and, for many years lived with a marmoset called Mitz who use to bundle herself up in silk to protect herself from the cold. After surviving years longer than considered possible in England's climate she finally succumbed to Sussex's bleak winters and Woolf woke one morning to find Mitz's tiny body curled at his feet.
As that story illustrates, there is no doubt that being a pet is a difficult thing, as it forces an animal into a debilitating dependence - left to her own devices Mitz clearly would have returned to South America - though you'd have to say that it's not just pets who are at the mercy of human behaviour. According to the New York Times, we are, perhaps, "causing a series of extinctions on a scale that hasn't been seen since an asteroid smashed into the planet 65 million years ago, and caused the extinction of the dinosaurs".
That might be the uncomfortable explanation for the fact that memoirs, literary essays, and more philosophical tomes about people's relationships with animals, are currently all the rage though most of them seem to be about domesticated dogs. This week the small but perfectly formed publishing house Finlay Lloyd has released The Finlay Lloyd Book About Animals, a selection of essays that attempts to address this bias. The collection explores everything from the minds of bees, to the ethics of eating tuna and fishing, to hunting and farming for food, to Ivashko in which Lisa Griffiths writes of the joy of finally meeting the right cat.
Other titles include the superb Dog Years by Mark Doty, the strange Stanley and Sophie by Kate Jennings, the twee A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas, The Whale Warriors by Peter Heller and the winning Lucky by Frank Robson. (About the only book I haven't read on animals, perversely, is the international bestseller, Marley and Me by John Grogan.) Doty's Dog Years is the most moving and best written of these and, as a poet should, he hones in on possible meanings of a lack of shared language: "another human being will never bring to us the same unqualified, unconditional regard that a dog does. Our full immersion in language brings with it qualification and condition; once we enter the worlds of signs we can never again be so single-minded."
With this love comes a lot of baggage and sentiment and Doty goes on to posit the theory that this sentimentality is a form of aggression. This is not unlike the point Virginia Hausegger makes in her Finlay Lloyd Book About Animals essay, A Glorious Kill and a Grubby Demise, in which she writes of her pleasure in watching the battle between man and bull, and the bull's right to live a glorious, if violent, life as opposed to the servitude imposed on the hapless cuties we get fixated on. She's particularly interested in Knut, the polar bear born in a German zoo two years ago, who became so dependent on his relationship with her keeper Thomas Dorlfein that his life is now a misery. (And it seems the dependence was mutual. Dorlfein, who had reputedly never recovered from his enforced separation from Knut, died of a heart attack on September 22). Knut became a pet, Hausegger writes, and what do we do with a pet? "Pat it? Set it down and say hello. Show it around the joint? Here's your bed, your bowl, and by the way, the bathroom is shared. Then what? Perhaps a stroll down my street - a sort of meet and greet with the neighbours. Maybe a latte at my local. Or perhaps a bit of shopping. My friend on a leash, and me leading the way. Surely everyone would see the capital P hovering above my purchased pet. P for pretend. This is no friend. It's simply pretence and pretend."
This is a far cry from the way in which Frank Robson writes of his terrier, Lucky, "I love him too much. If I didn't - and he was merely a conventional 'pet' - my responsibilities to him would be limited to food, exercise and shelter. But over seven years this remarkable, warm-hearted little critter has become one of us." I'm with Robson on this one and don't agree that the fact an animal is a pet automatically devalues the relationship. In fact I don't think of my cats as pets so much as housemates, creatures I live alongside who have a totally different relationship with the house and the world around it - their priority is territory, they cruise the suburbs at night, across rooftops and look out on a landscape that is totally different to the one I inhabit.
In Stanley and Sophie Kate Jennings wavers on the subject of pets. Indeed, about two-thirds of the way through the book, she gives Sophie and Stanley away even though doing so breaks her heart - a heart already broken by the traumatic death of her husband. It was grief over his death which lead her to get a pet in the first place and she, like Doty, writes well of the way a dog can tether you to the earth at moments when grief means that all you want to do is leave it. For Jennings, as for many pet owners, I think, loving Stanley and Sophie changed her relationship to animals entirely and, in the last third of the book, she moves towards the more radical position of animal activism. Her ambivalence certainly makes sense in the context of the hypocrisy with which we treat animals, and the false distinctions we make between those worthy of respect and those not.
As a nation we were up in arms over the death of Colin the baby whale who was lost and finally euthanased in Sydney Harbour recently, but seem unable to halt the rapid destruction of the marine environment. And how many of us put ourselves on the line to stop the wholesale slaughter of whales that occurs during whaling expeditions? National Geographic journalist Peter Heller takes up an analysis of those who put themselves on the line in this way in The Whale Warriors. As an "embedded" journalist for several months on the Farley Mowat, the flagship of the radical environmental group the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, he was forced to consider what lengths it is acceptable to go to save animals as intelligent as whales. Among other things the book is an interesting study of Paul Watson, captain of the Farley Mowat, who believes there is not one human artwork, building, or civilisation, that justifies a single animal's death.
For some of us, having a pet is the equivalent of children. Doty, Jennings, Woolf, me - none of us have children and those writers who do, like Robson and Thomas, have adult children who have left home. More broadly, an increasing number of couples are choosing to have only one child, or none. The reasons for this are complex and include the lack of child-care support for working women (a global problem). Certainly it's a phenomenon that has been linked to the rise in pet ownership and in Japan, according to Newsweek, "Honda is now designing cars that replace child seats with dog crates, and has even created a glove compartment with place for a Pekingese." Confrontingly, some people even have sex with animals, a subject that philosophers discuss with astounding alacrity. Australian philosopher Peter Singer caused a storm a few years ago when he argued that, as long as the animal does not suffer, there is nothing wrong with bestiality. This year philosopher Clive Hamilton took up a different position in his book, The Freedom Paradox, when he argued that bestiality is a strong taboo because, metaphysically speaking, animals are essentially different to humans. That is, Singer argues that inter-species sex can be "natural" and Hamilton that it is "unnatural".
Whatever your position on that tricky ethical issue, there is no doubt that humans and animals have very intimate relationships and that, despite this, we eat them. The classic Animal Liberation by Singer is a must-read on that subject, as are several of his more recent books on animals, and the choices we make about food. If you throw Kathy Stevens' Animals in Translation into the mix, things really get interesting. Stevens is autistic and, she argues, so are most animals. Her empathy with animals has led her to become a designer of abattoirs in an attempt to lessen the suffering of the animals who are slaughtered in them. Not surprisingly, her pragmatism offends a lot of people though I'd suggest that unless you're prepared to give up eating meat you should be thanking her, not attacking her.
There is no doubt that our increasing removal from the natural world leads to not just an admiration of creatures more in touch with their instinctive selves, but to a profound need for them. But as one reason for our disconnection from nature is to do with humanity's not-so-gradual destruction of it, it goes without saying that we're killing animals' habitats as well. If I do ever have children it is unlikely that they will know a planet where large mammals live anywhere other than zoos; where the ocean is full of fish; where skies and wetlands teem with birds. Every author of every book I've read on human animal relationships - and even the taxi driver with whom I began this story - emphasised that they loved animals because animals did not judge them. But given what we are doing to their - and our - environment and quality of life, they should be. We should certainly be judging ourselves.