On being an animal person

Howie, with raccoon

Our dog Howie is at the vet today, for surgery. It’s routine (he was being neutered and microchipped) and the vet already called to say that he’s just fine.

I’m an animal person. I have friends who are afraid of animals of any kind, friends who are scared of dogs and friends who find cats to be evil. I have friends who think keeping pets in the house is unsanitary or weird. I have friends who are allergic to animals and consequently have never been able to build relationships with them. I accept these views, after all, they’re my friends and they’re entitled. But I have a hard time understanding.

I grew up with animals. A dog, then a cat, then horses. At some point I had a few fish, and in college I rescued a few mice from becoming a friend’s snake’s dinner. As a child I was fond of trying to catch frogs, salamanders and turtles. I wished for rabbits. I rode horses until the end of my high school years, and spent many of my days in dusty barns that housed not only horses, but the occasional goat, a wide variety of dogs, tough barn cats, and of course, (uninvited) rodents.

In college I knew someone who told me that his best friend, growing up, was the family’s collie. I laughed, but I also knew what he meant. As an only child, animals were — and are to me still — a source of companionship. I talked to them, and imagined that they could talk back. I loved C.S. Lewis’ A Horse and His Boy, because I thought my horse could talk to me, too. I considered my pets my friends.

And I’ve never been able to stand seeing an animal uncomfortable or ill. I hated (hated!!) the Lassie movies, with those awful scenes of the poor dog limping across some endless meadow to get home to help his boy master. I couldn’t (and still can’t, really) watch movies like that. Or read books like that: I hated Old Yeller. I hated Where the Red Fern Grows. The Red Pony — ack!

I should say that I’m not generally faint-hearted about blood or gross things — in humans. But in animals, even minor wounds make me queasy and upset. (What this says about me, in terms of my feelings about humans, I’m sure someone would have a swell time analyzing.) I have a tendency to put myself in others’ shoes, even when the “other” is an animal, and that means thinking about the fact that the dog (or cat, or horse…) doesn’t know what’s happening when he goes in for surgery, doesn’t understand. I don’t know, from a scientific perspective, how much dogs or cats or horses think or rationalize or feel. They can’t tell us how much pain they’re in. Despite wanting to communicate with animals directly, I cannot.

I haven’t had a pet in a long time, but already, after only two months, Howie has become a part of our house. He’s a friend who keeps me company during the day, who gets me outside (sometimes, on the fourth walk of the day, this can seem less lovely than it sounds), and who cheers me up. He makes me mad sometimes, but he also makes me laugh. His surgery was necessary, and I know he’s fine. But I’m not allowed to pick him up until tomorrow, so I’m thinking about him, because he’s no doubt sore and in a cage. I imagine that he’s wondering why I haven’t come back to pick him up, or why we’ve abandoned him to such an awful place. After all, he doesn’t know that I’m coming back, and I couldn’t tell him.

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6 thoughts on “On being an animal person

  1. what a sweet and wonderful post on your love for Howie. :)

    i too, hate Lassie movies–they have traumatized me ever since childhood and i refuse to watch the Lassie movies, so helpless and frantic they make me feel when i watch scenes like the one you mention.

  2. You can tell him, and he’ll get it, too. A funny thing: we give the horses hot grain at night in bowls, and when the bowls are empty, we go get the bowls. The horses always have the bowl on the ground or out of reach, but if you send them a picture of them giving the bowls to you, they’ll do it almost every time.

  3. UPDATE: Howie is home now, and he is fine, though a little zoned out and a little upset. But he’s got some good pain drugs and seems to realize he needs to rest.

  4. I appreciate your post very much. I love animals. I am sometimes late on rainy days because I slow down to rescue earthworms. At my wedding, my wife tearfully read a list of reasons she loves me, and one of them was “because you save small creatures in harm’s way.” I was touched. A number of my friends in college were Jains, who in their orthodox sects try not to even harm microscopic creaures, but who even in their secular societies run animal hospitals and rescue services in India. They believe something I think is quite thought-provoking: that people aren’t superior to animals.

  5. Last time we took Mr. Stripeypants to the vet, Dr. Tiffany gave him a shot and went through the skin. Then she had a do-over, at which time, Bravecat Pants (who was very well behaved) jumped up on to my shoulder and buried his head in the crook of my arm, all safe and sound.

    Somehow pain in animals is so much worse because they can’t verbalize it. I didn’t learn to open to animals until the latter portion of my life. It’s a great gift to be able to open the heart like that.

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