Logical or not, pets become important parts of our lives

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 5, 2003

Our attachment to pets defies all logic, doesn’t it?

Think about it. We bring animals into our homes, let them have the run of the place, feed them, play with them, watch them grow up. We often think of them as members of our families. They manage to bring us so much happiness while they’re around. And sadness when they’re gone.

It doesn’t make sense. They’re just animals, right? Animals, over whom we’ve, as a species, asserted our dominance since the start of time. People eat animals. They hunt them for sport. They use them to do work. When PETA starts talking about &uot;animal rights,&uot; many people scoff. Animals? Rights? Hey, they’re just animals!

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People do all that, yet our cats, dogs and other pets own a special place in our hearts. We even can think of them as our &uot;best friends.&uot;

It defies logic, but then again, when did logic ever play a part in human habits, human emotions, human grief?

It would be easier if we could look at these pets as &uot;just&uot; animals. But they become much more than that. They become companions, playmates, even guardians. It would be easier if people saw the cat rubbing up against their leg or the dog running around playfully and chalked it up to a bundle of instincts. Cats like to rub and be petted because they instinctively groom each other or mark their territory. The dog plays because that’s how dogs learn to hunt and fight. It’s not personal, right? That cat, that dog, doesn’t really have feelings for you, not the way we understand feelings &045; does it?

Maybe. Maybe not. But our perception is that these animals have the same genuine affection for us that we have for them. We think it’s true, and perception means much more than reality. What we perceive to be true is our reality.

Millions of Americans have pets. Census data shows that thirty-two percent of Americans own dogs

and 27 percent have at least one cat. I bet the numbers are even higher in a rural area like ours.

Why do so many people have pets? I think it’s because a good pet embodies the qualities we wish we saw more often in other humans: They’re loyal. They’re unconditionally loving. They’re cute. Even if people have trouble relating to other people sometimes, they can relate to the dog who curls up at their feet or the cat who plants itself on their lap. It is basic, simple interaction.

Even those who don’t own pets may have as a child, and they are an important way to learn. Kids learn to be gentle with animals, learn to take care of another living thing and learn about the life cycle. One of my first experiences with death was the day I got home from school and my mom told me that our family dog, Samson, had to be put to sleep. I remember sitting at the top of the basement stairs with the dog by my side, petting him and saying good-bye. I must have been around 10, and I had never even had a relative who died. I was touched by death for the first time.

My wife and I got our first cat six years ago. She was an adorable little white-and-black kitten we named Trixie. It was before we had our son, and we treated her like our baby. She loved to jump and play. Her favorite game was batting plastic bottle caps across the kitchen linoleum. When we moved the refrigerator to clean under it one day, we found about 25 bottle caps she’d knocked under there.

She seems like she’s still young. She doesn’t have that kitten playfulness she once did, but she’s always been feisty and friendly, although she’s wary of strangers. She loves to sit on our shoulders when we’re standing up or jump on our lap when we’re sitting at the computer. She’ll always let us pick her up and pet her, unlike our other cat, who will often run away. She even tolerates our young son, who hasn’t always understood the need to be gentle.

We didn’t know what to think when we noticed she seemed to be getting fatter around the middle a couple weeks ago. At first, we just thought she may be putting on weight. But while her belly ballooned outward, her neck and back were getting skinnier. We finally took her to the vet, and he knew the minute he touched her. The bulge is a massive tumor. She doesn’t have much time left.

I know she’s not a person, but it will be like losing a member of the family. Logically, it doesn’t make sense, but what does logic have to do with it?

Dylan Belden is the Tribune’s managing editor. His column appears Sundays. E-mail him at dylan.belden@albertleatribune.com.