No, this isn’t about surviving your kids’ teenage years. Nor is it about coping with your mate’s irrational, disgusting, or just plain irritating habits. This is about some of my closest, personal friends. It’s not that I haven’t read plenty of books and articles about animal behavior. It’s just that observation serves me so much better. Not only do I read about animals, but I watch (and buy) documentaries about them.
This morning I looked into Charity Marie Doggy-Dog’s eyes and realized that she doesn’t know she’s a dog. Then I realized that our four cats don’t know they are cats. I don’t mean this in the sense of the animals’ conviction that they are people, or in the sense that they are treated like children — very spoiled, pampered, royal children.
The words “cat” and “dog” mean nothing to my housemates. Oh, sure, Charity reacts with a curly wave of her tale (she’s part Basenji) when anyone utters “the dog,” but in her mind that sound means we are paying attention to her. (Not that I know how her mind works — every day I look into her eyes and ask what she’s trying to tell me.) I am sure the word “dog” is just a sound we make.
I used to think I didn’t like dogs, but — more to the point — I didn’t like small dogs and was afraid of large dogs. I now believe that it’s impossible to dislike dogs or cats or any animal as a class, because those classes are comprised of individuals. This does not apply to fear or phobias. If you are afraid of an animal (such as bears or alligators), that fear is based on what you think (on some level) that animal can do to you. With a phobia, something freaks you out. If you have arachnophobia, the very thought of spiders may make you uncomfortable and you may be totally unaware of the root of that fear.
If a person who is afraid of dogs (because they are noisy and bite) has a friend with a dog who is extremely likable and affectionate, always happy to see someone, then that person can come to know the dog and feel comfortable around it. Translation: they may grow to like the dog. I think when people “don’t like dogs” they don’t like most dogs — the dogs they haven’t befriended. Or maybe they don’t like some of the things dogs do, like drool or tear apart furniture.
Before I left New Jersey, I was a volunteer at a county animal shelter. I volunteered to work with cats specifically, and did not plan to spend any time with dogs. After all, I didn’t like dogs. Things can be very hectic at a shelter, and sometimes when the public address system blares that a handler is needed to bring a dog from “recovery” to “reception” to be reunited with its owner, there are no dog handlers free (most volunteers handle any animal). I hated letting the dog and the owners wait, so I decided to be a big girl, put a leash on the dog (regardless of size), and take it for that long walk to reception. Okay, I learned, dogs are not that bad. When some dogs were actually excited (in a good way) to see me, I began to think that dogs were okay. Despite that, I was still a cat person and had no intention of ever getting a dog.
When I moved to Louisiana, one of my new husband Chip’s co-workers told me I was mean because I wouldn’t let Chip have a dog. I think the guy was trying to get rid of one. I explained that it wouldn’t work out, we had cats, I can’t train dogs, and so on. For five years we lead a dogless existence.
Our granddaughter Chloë spent every summer with us, and the summer of 2005 was remarkable for more than just Hurricane Katrina. About a month before Katrina hit, a dog was abandoned at our church. We arrived at 9 a.m. for Sunday School, and the dog trotted up to my car and licked my hand. She was still there after Sunday School, and when we left the church after the service to go to a dinner in the fellowship hall she again greeted us as though we were her best friends. Everyone saw the dog, and during the dinner Chloë, who is a vegetarian, was sneaking her some fried chicken and other treats. She wasn’t the only one doing it, either. No one wanted to leave the dog there. Having worked in a shelter, I didn’t particularly want to see her go to one. At the end of the dinner, there were several people who thought they might be able to take the dog. Phone calls were made, and one after another bowed out.
Chloë was nine years old and all heart. When the last possible adopter told us her mom said “no,” Chloë convinced me that I would be worse than Obama Bin Laden if I didn’t take the dog home with us (we were the last ones at the church — clean-up crew) and she would never get over it, no less forgive me. Now I was pretty sure that: a) with three cats at home, we didn’t need a dog; b) I didn’t want a dog; and c) Chip wouldn’t want the dog (lucky for the dog, Chip was working).
We agreed to take her home, take some pictures, and put up “lost dog” signs. We named her Charity because she was found at a church. When Charity came home with us, one of the cats (Fuzzy Lumpkins) didn’t particularly care for her, and didn’t mind showing it. Other than that, Chip was the only one who was unhappy about the dog. We assured him that we were putting signs up all over the neighborhood (I think he’s pretty convinced we put them in dark alleys and abandoned buildings), and that someone would claim the dog. No one did.
So Charity Marie Doggy-Dog became a member of our household. A pregnant member. A pregnant member who would deliver eight puppies. Soon after, Hurricane Katrina hit providing more drama than any sweet, little dog ever could. Chloë went back to New Jersey for school (so much for having someone to walk the dog) and Charity and I bonded. Since she really is sweet, she and Chip also bonded quickly.
Now Charity is about six years old. I know that she doesn’t know she’s a dog. As far as she’s concerned, she is a member of this “pack.” She never knew that she wasn’t supposed to like cats — after all, the cats shared their home with her — and everyone she’s met since joining our family has been kind to her. When a kitten joined our clan, he was her baby. Not knowing he was a cat, he wasn’t afraid of the dog. It seems that everyone living in this house (a man, a woman, four cats, one dog) considers him/herself to be an element of a relationship.The cats don’t think in feline terms; that’s something that people do.
All six of us seem to be most concerned with eating, sleeping, and affiliation. If we get enough food and sleep, and if someone combs or compliments us, we’re happy. Species has nothing to do with it. The one with the job pays for the food, and one with a car buys it. While the cats seem to believe they should be privileged, they accept that they are not. And everyone — cat, dog, human — respects the differences of the others.
If six individuals who are so different can peacefully, nay happily, co-exist in one small house, why can’t humans — one species — manage to get along better on one big planet? Maybe it’s because we concentrate on what we are, and what we think others are. Maybe it’s too difficult to look at all members of the human race as individuals; maybe it’s impossible. Or is it because we’ve grown past our needs, and can’t get past our wants?