Thursday, July 26, 2007

With the Heart

I remember, growing up, hearing that elephants had small brains—that they were unintelligent. There were even jokes about elephants being afraid of mice! Over the years that's been disproved. Yet even today the myth prevails that animals (and children!) don't experience pain or discomfort. Or at least that they're not likely to remember it! I think that minimizes their experience.

Why, just the other day on the t.v. show Mythbusters, Adam and Jamie were testing the myth that goldfish only have a three second memory. People justify giving them such small fishbowls because, by the time they make it all the way around, the scenery will be brand new again!

Jamie first trained his fish to associate a certain color with food. I think it was orange. Once he had accomplished that, he set up a system of separators in the tank with orange holes in varying levels of the walls. This created a maze. At the end was their food. Now, they'd have to be motivated by their memory and conditioning long enough to make it through the maze—and they did! Well, this is not "hard" science, but from my observations, they hit on a truth: that goldfish are smarter than we give them credit for.

So what about our other house pets? What credit do we give them? Sure, having pets gives you a greater understanding of their intelligence and emotional capacity. But do we really consider their needs? Or are they just there for us? They are descendent from wild creatures and share some of their ancestors' characteristics. So let's look at dogs. They were descended from wolves. Wolves are pack creatures, and this is a degree of sociability. What about cats? Besides lions, most are solitary creatures. How does this translate in our pets?

I used to be an out-of-sight, out-of-mind pet owner. I'd make sure they had food and water when I left for work at 7:30 and gave them love when I returned at 5:30. What did they do all day? I wasn't there, but they slept, probably. All I knew was that they were healthy and happy when I got home. However, now I work at home, and that's changed my vantage point tremendously. Now, at 7:30, I can tell when people have left for work by the sounds of dogs' plaintive howling in the neighborhoods. I can see that my cats, through domestication, are much more social than I had thought. In fact, they follow me around the house all day and either "talk" to me when they want to be pet or sleep near me. And one cat, who used to be very antisocial and ill-tempered, has become affectionate!

So, I'm not advocating against pets. They are great teachers. Among other things, they teach us unconditional love and that the world is not homo-centric. However, I don't even work at an animal shelter, but I have crossed paths with numerous abandoned animals. It makes me both angry and sad. Just because animals descended from wild ancestors doesn't mean that they can return to the same life in our modern jungle. They have been domesticated and tamed. So, what I am advocating for is to think before you get a pet. It is a reciprocal relationship. Can you create the environment necessary to fulfill their needs? If they are social creatures, and you will be gone most of the day, can you get two? Do you have the patience and time to train them and socialize with them? If they become ill, can you care for them? Are you willing to be responsible for them for their life spans?

In The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery, the fox says it best when explaining to the little prince what taming something means….

"My life is very monotonous. I hunt chickens; men hunt me. All the chickens are just alike, and all the men are just alike. And, in consequence, I am a little bored. But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back to the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat….One only understands the things that one tames. Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends anymore….It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye….Men have forgotten this truth, but you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed."

Can you really respect and advocate for these creatures who do not speak our language? Our pets may be teaching us this universal language of the heart. Are we ready to listen?