Thursday, December 27, 2012

Lovely tales of loving animals

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, pets, memoirs

I nearly wrote in the title, "…of animal love," but realized that would not be accurate. What do we know of animal emotions? Does a young pet follow a boy because it likes him, or because it is imprinted? Does a cat—or raccoon—rub its chin on your leg out of affection, or to mark you as territory? We had one cat for 18 years, who seemed very affectionate. She liked to climb onto my chest in the bed at night, and fall asleep there. Fortunately, it was only after she died that I had to begin sleeping on my side to mitigate sleep apnea. But our present cat, obtained as a kitten ten years after the other one died, seems not to have the affection organ. She accepts petting a little bit, but steadfastly refuses to sit on a lap, and will only tolerate being picked up and held for about five seconds, before struggling and growling.

So maybe the first cat did feel some affection…unless it was simply that I was the warmest thing in the house on a winter's night! But there is no doubting the love that we feel. My wife is different with our cat than at any other time, talking to her and sitting beside her chosen bed cushion, where the regal cat permits herself to be petted for a time, before slowly rising and striding off, just a few steps. When she has "recovered" from the petting, she may settle back on the cushion for some more petting.

Lauren Slater came to a love of animals slowly, not out of her own nature, but from lack of opportunity. In the seven long stories in her book The $60,000 Dog: My Life With Animals she tells first of her childhood in a dysfunctional family in the Jewish neighborhood in Maine that was called a Golden Ghetto. The gift of a bicycle at age nine allowed her to explore over that summer, further and further from home. She learned to lure fox cubs from their den with nuts and candy, though she didn't get the chance to touch one. She brought home a fallen egg, uncracked, and with her parents' help tried to incubate it, but instead it mummified. Later, she spent a few weeks at a horse ranch "summer camp", learning more about people than about animals, but surprising herself with the intense bond young girls often have for horses, even as she knew inside she would outgrow it (and she did).

The dog of the title, Lila, is one of two she bought early in her marriage to Benjamin, who professed to love animals only in proportion to how good a stew they made. Ever the engineer, at one point he calculated that the dog had cost $60,000, including a factor for Lauren's time spent walking Lila and her brother Musashi. The breed is Shiba Inu (my wife says it is just "Shiba", because Inu is Japanese for "dog".) My doctor would count the time cost in the opposite way. He says, "If your dog is overweight, you need more exercise," and says we must count the extra years of life added by loving a dog, which at the very least can lower blood pressure by 20mm or more. Benjamin apparently knew nothing of this. Yet in time, he came to think of Lila as "our dog", not just "your dog".

Portions of the stories sound like synesthesia, and maybe they are. The author is trying to convey truths that are beyond words. Our animals open us up to different worlds than the one we know. We cannot inhabit that oh-so-different-yet-similar mind, but, somehow, we and they communicate. Pets learn to respond appropriately to quite a few of our words; we learn at least a few of theirs: the particular "Meow!" that means hunger rather than wanting the door opened, or a certain "play face" on a face deemed "unexpressive" by vaunted, yet ignorant, experts.

We all have animal stories, many of which we may marvel at, thinking or saying just how much like us the animal is. The reality is, we are so much like them.

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