Creature comforts - FamilyEducation

Creature comforts

October 17,2011
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

I'm reading this book now. I started it, thinking it would be similar to Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safron Foer, a book that really affected me on many different levels. But Herzog's book is very different. For starters, he is not a vegetarian, and he is pretty honest and up-front about this early on. His book is meant to challenge our bizarre and illogical approaches to how we view animals; how we don't think twice about eating animals who have suffered tremendously to become the fried chicken in a family dinner, yet we will go to great expense over the care of other animals we deem worthy of great love and attention. We fought with great energy to stop the clubbing of baby seals, for instance, yet were satisifed with legislation allowing the slaughter of seals once they reached a certain age: coincidentally the age at which they stop looking so young and appealing, with their huge dark eyes and baby faces. Herzog points out that we have damaged dog breeds in our effort to accentuate the baby-like characteristics we react to (English bulldogs, for instance, can't even give birth naturally because they have been bred to have such oversized heads. The mother dog can't even push her pups through the birth canal, and the pups must be born through a C-section). Herzog's book looks at our relationship with animals using over two decades of research in the field of anthrozoology, a relatively new science of human–animal relations. While I don't agree with everything Herzog presents in his book (especially his stance on owning cats!), I am finding it a fascinating and thought-provoking read.

So I've been thinking quite a bit about animals, and our relationships with them and to them. On Saturday, the kids and I had the chance to visit a working farm. A friend had passed along a free horseback riding lesson to T., and I loaded up a grouchy and loudly complaining L., and an excited and chattering T., and we drove out about 25 miles to the farm, passed through a wide farm gate we had to open and shut ourselves (T. loved this part) and up a dusty, dirt road where we were met by a pack of barking, tail-wagging dogs. No sooner had we opened the van doors when the van was filled with wet, curious noses. There were dogs of all kinds--mainly mutts (my favorite kind) with an incongruous pure-bred dog thrown in here and there, like the tiny, long-haired Yorkshire terrier that had no trouble keeping up with the pack. We had a great time at the farm. The owner believes in "natural horsemanship" (bitless bridles, and no shoes on his horses) and also in letting kids learn to ride by letting them just get up on the horse and ride--which was how T. ended up on a solid and stubborn white pony and the two of us rode for about an hour across a long and beautiful wooded trail. We were acoompanied the whole time by the pack of dogs (and the owner, of course), and I couldn't stop noticing how they were the happiest dogs I had ever seen--not just because they were doing their doggie thing, noses to the ground, zig-zagging over fallen logs and sniffing ever scent they could find, but because they were together, a pack. There was a real fellowship between them, and between all the animals on the farm: the llama guarded the goats fiercely and protectively (we had to show the llama what was in our hands before we could approach the goats), the emu ate with the chickens, the turkeys strutted their stuff around the pig, and the cats respected the baby chicks yet kept the out buildings free of mice. It was a fine and smoothly working a community of creatures, big and small. They had complex relationships with each other--friendships, even. 

I'm not sure I can ever again welcome only one furry creature into our house. I have seen how they benefit from each other, how they really do need each other. When we are gone from home during the day, Willa dog and Annie cat hang out in the office together. Annie sleeps on top of the guinea pigs' cage, and Willa spreads herself out on the carpet. Annie is very attached to us, but when we are away for the weekend and return home again, Willa is the one who gets the purring meow from Annie. When our first cat Izzy died, Willa mourned her, despite the fact that Izzy didn't like her much at all. But after Izzy died, Willa would pace restlessly in the hallway by our room, not sure what to do with herself. Only after we put a bed there, by our door, was she able to sleep comfortably again and, I think, begin the healing process. When our rabbit Loopy died, Annie seemed confused about what to do in the office, where Loopy's cage had been. She rarely went in there once we removed the cage. But the first day we brought the guinea pigs home (from an animal rescue) she took up a perch on the top, where she loves to sit and watch them. They are her pigs, I think--she is very protective of them.

I think we have lost our understanding of how animals are community creatures; how they need each other the way we need our own communities. This is another piece that has been lost in our increasing view of animals as only commodities. We pick the ones we want to love and take care of; we try and banish all the others from our minds.