I cannot be classified as a pet person. My only reasons to have ever shopped in a pet store were linked to a few goldfish and a series of Beta during my children’s younger years.
I never had a cat or a dog. I didn’t even have a hamster or gerbil. But I didn’t care, for I never really wanted a pet anyway.
Still I did spent time wondering about a pet’s capacity to feel emotion. Could Man’s Best Friend really be a man’s best friend? And could animals share feelings or merely act on instinct?
A few years ago, I saw something that led me to believe that animals could express feelings. When driving down our street toward home, I came upon two rabbits in the center of the road – one lying dead, the other using his nose to nudge the lifeless body of the other. I stopped my car, waiting for the live rabbit to hop to safety. Instead it turned its head to look my direction, and then looked back to begin nudging his furry counterpart some more. Finally the live rabbit hopped a few feet away before stopping to look back at the fallen rabbit as if to say, “Come on. Let’s go.” Then the rabbit again approached his immobile counterpart, making another attempt to rouse him.
This living being seemed to have little regard for my presence, yet I regarded him with awe. He knew I was there. He also knew his friend could no longer follow. However, he wouldn’t leave. So I began inching my car forward, hoping my advancement would hasten the live rabbit’s departure. Rolling slowly, I kept my eyes on the scene as it played out like a battlefield scene from a war movie.
The imagery pulled at my heart. I decided that animals must know when something is wrong. They may even be able to comprehend that death is final. Therefore, I reasoned, animals might even know when something is wrong with their offspring. Could it be?
I didn’t have to wait long to witness another scene that I believed provided an answer.
A few months after the rabbit incident, I looked out my living room window to watch a young couple leaving my next-door neighbor’s home with a newly weaned Golden Lab puppy on a leash. Mother Lab was standing in my neighbor’s doorway next to her owner who was holding her back by her collar. Mother Lab’s eyes were fixed on the puppy as it pulled back on its leash. The pup attempted to walk toward the house, but the woman held the leash fast. Frustrated, the puppy looked at the couple, then the mother dog, then the couple, then back to the mother dog. Finally the puppy sat on the sidewalk and seemed to whimper. In response, Mother Lab tried to move forward. This caused the woman to tug on the pup’s leash, while my neighbor pulled back on Mother Lab’s collar, using her legs to keep the agitated grown dog inside the house.
Meanwhile, the young woman walked to where the pup was sitting and picked her up. As she headed to her car, the pup crawled up the woman’s body to perch on her shoulder, trying to look back at Mother Lab. The pup was clearly whimpering now, loud enough to be heard through my double-pane windows.
I couldn’t watch anymore. Tears had splashed onto my eyeglasses, fogging any view of Mother Lab or her pup. Yet what I had seen was clear: The puppy didn’t want to leave the only home it had ever known, and the pup’s mother did not want her to go.
Perhaps it is good I have not become a pet person. The emotional demands would drain me. I have a difficult enough time with the emotional demands of human relationships.
Some believe we can learn a great deal from our animal counterparts. But I wonder how practical many of those lessons would be? For instance, what do animals do when their offspring are born malformed? Or how do they care for young that aren’t able to keep up with the rest of the litter or clutch?
I can imagine what they do, but I don’t really know. I don’t think I want to know.
I don’t even know what other human mothers do when those things happen with human babies. I only know what I have been inclined to do for nearly 20 years now. I protect when I need to, advocate when I need to, cajole when I need to, nurture even when I don’t need to, and love always.
Always, always love.
Unlike a family of eagles living atop a tree, Mark’s and my oldest offspring won’t be spreading his wings to take flight anytime soon. It just doesn’t work that way in our human world. In fact, our youngest offspring will likely leave our nest first.
And all that angst I believe I observed from Mother Lab as her pup left home – I worry that I may experience that one hundred fold when my oldest pup ultimately does leave home to live some version of supported independence. There might even be another person pulling him toward a new life while someone else is trying to keep me in place. I sure hope not. I sure hope we navigate that transition more humanely. For now, I can only envision angst and fear of the unknown even though I believe it doesn’t have to be that way.
Call it instinct. Call it emotion. Call it whatever you want. I don’t care.
I call it love. Always have. Always will.