Walk down the street with a botanist and they will see trees. (Yes, I just used a plural pronoun with a singular antecedent. It’s politically correct, grammatically convenient, and Jane Austen did it, so I can too.) Walk down that same street with an engineer and they will see levers and fulcrums. Walk with me, and I will see animals. If it’s a dog, I will note breed, age, and apparent disposition, and I will speculate on the quality of their relationship with the human holding the leash. If it’s a cat, they had better be behind a window, not out on the street endangering their life and the life of pigeons. And as for pigeons, I always pay attention to them. I remember a walk along Chicago’s Magnificent Mile in early spring when the entire planet’s pigeon population seemed to have gathered there, neatly divided into couples as if they were entering Noah’s ark, each male fluffed out and swaggering behind an otherwise preoccupied female.
What’s with me and animals? I am not a zoologist or a vet. Other than the lame chick that my country grandmother sent to keep me company in bed while I recovered from measles, and the two live capons that she would send the week before Christmas and that I was allowed to feed before their mysterious disappearance on December 24th, my childhood in our Barcelona apartment was animal free. As an only child in a houseful of adults, I pined for the presence of a creature that would be cuddly and comforting but wouldn’t direct, judge, or instruct.
The summers at my grandparents’ farm were a different story. There were pigs in the pigsty, hens in the courtyard, donkeys and the cart horse in the stable, rabbits in the hutch, the Irish Setter that my uncle kept for hunting quail, and the cats forever scurrying into the hayloft to nurse litters of kittens that, like the Christmas capons, would eventually disappear. But these animals were mostly kept at a distance. When a sow farrowed, my grandfather would briefly let me hold one of the squeaky-clean piglets, but I was told that, if I entered the pigsty on my own, I might be eaten alive. The dog was kept chained in the courtyard, the horses locked in the stable, and the semi-feral cats wanted nothing to do with me. I longed to get close to these creatures, but a bevy of adults was forever at hand to keep me safe.
From our years in Ecuador, the toucans, ocelot, and macaw that lived briefly in our yard are more vivid in my memory than the erupting volcanoes, the tribes of half-naked, painted natives, and the endless jungle. Between them and my present dog and cat there stretches a long line of dogs—Irish Setters, German Shepherds, a Lhasa Apso, and a Shih-Poo. My first dog lived in the yard, but over the years her successors moved into the house, then the bedroom, and finally the bed. They shared the house with zebra finches in the kitchen and fan-tail goldfish in the sunroom. In the backyard there were chickens—Buff Orpingtons, Rhode Island Reds, Araucanas—and goats—Nubians and Nigerian Dwarfs.
And all along, while I fed and cleaned and milked and petted I wondered, what is wrong with me? Why do I, a grown woman, a supposedly serious person, feel this need to be surrounded by animals?
I don’t know the answer. Even today my dog and cat, Bisou and Telemann, fill my days and cheer my soul. The only way I can bear to watch the news is with my left hand on the dog, whose fur feels like silk, and my right on the cat, whose fur feels like velvet. Their peaceful breathing and their obvious contentment bring me back from despair about the fate of the world and anchor me in the here and now.
I suspect that our attachment to animals has to do with the same basic desires that attach them to us: the warmth and closeness of a living body, the pleasures of sharing food and companionship. The things that gathered our ancestors around the fire and enticed the more confident wolves to approach are the things that we 21st century humans still long for, and always will.