Sunday, 20 February 2011

Animals and attentiveness

I am animal-less at the moment, plus today I met my cousin's excellent puppy Buddy, and these things have been making me think about the soothingness of pets. A lot of the debate that goes on about animals, at least the debate I encounter, has to do with animal rights, and concentrates on ideas of damage. I wondered if anyone reading this blog has come across stuff written about domestic animals as a benefit to humanity beyond their production of food-stuffs, fibre, or crop-fertilising manure. I don't want to say animals as 'friends', because I think using the human term sounds a bit eugh, but I suppose that's not far off what I mean. Take the riding for the disabled programs that you find all over the country, or the PAT dog thing. Or that man who recently found that horses were incredibly good for his autistic son and wrote a book about it. I know there have been studies where people with pets have had better blood pressure, or such, but I'm assuming that the benefits of pets are essentially mental or spiritual or however you describe the non-physical you. I'd be really interested if anyone knows of something in the realms of theology, philosophy, or psychology that looks at this.

For one thing, it annoys me when people, both pet-owners and pet-sceptics, treat pets as replacements for people. People are complicated and spending time with them involves taking into account huge webs of obligations and connections which are totally absent with animals. Animals force you to be quiet and consistent, to be gentle and calm and to have a sort of honesty in your movements, and this feels refreshing. People are more challenging and make you use your brain differently.

Me (two years) and my puppy (two months)
On the other hand it seems that finding animals comforting is not the case for everyone. I grew up with pets -- our dog Peggy was partly my mother's twenty-seventh birthday present but also partly for my second birthday. I didn't have a brother yet, so Peggy and I used to share things. The point where my mother stopped making me lovely stuffed toys was when she sewed me a pretend polar-bear-skin rug, complete with carefully-made stuffed head, and I immediately swapped it with Peggy for something squeaky. And when I was a bit older Peggy was an excellent listener too, attentive and without the implications of talking to adults. I also rode a lot when I was young, which is great for realising that the human--animal relationship is not a master--slave thing but relies on mutual trust and kindness. So on the whole I find animal company rewarding. My sister-in-law, on the other hand, grew up with potentially life-threatening asthma, and her animal allergies trigger this. She hasn't spent much time around animals as a result, and of course cats being cats seek her out from great distances as if deliberately trying to make her wheeze. I hadn't realised quite what a difference this made until I told her the other day about my scheme for making shoppers slightly more relaxed by offering them the chance to pat donkeys, and she said that on the contrary this would make her agitated.

So if this is a subjective experience then maybe that would get in the way of its being written about by psychologists, theologians, and philosophers. But if, when I say that I think being around domestic animals makes me a slightly better person by training me to be calm and to concentrate on gentleness and consistency, that rings a bell with anyone in something they've read then I'd be interested to hear about it.


  1. Aw, that's such a cute picture of you and Peggy! I must have had pretty much an identical kilt -- I was dressed pretty much all of the time in kilt, jumper, knee-high socks and sandals like a miniature Princess Anne from the fifties....

    I was sorry to read about Osith :( :(

  2. I also wore a lot of cloth-kit dresses with enormous lurid flower prints which looked like they were made from the curtains of old caravans. In the 80s and 90s they looked horrible to me but for a while recently they looked really vintage.

    I do miss Osith, but I have to remember that I was pretty lucky to have her as long as I did. She wasn't far off three, which is very old for a rat. My nephew stills asks about her, which I have ceased to find depressing and now find rather endearing, because he's so young that I thought he would have forgotten her by now.