May 18, 2007

Use and Uselessness

Posted in companion animals at 3:38 pm by nevavegan

Invisible Voices recently posted on our expectations from animals. This is a huge topic and it’s going to take me a little while to work through it all.

One thing that this topic brings up for me is my family’s attitude toward animals, and the kind of atmosphere I grew up in and accepted for a long time.

In this atmosphere animals had to have a purpose to justify their existence, while at the same time my parents did have their moments of softness and sentimentality toward animals. So it was a strange mix.

When I was quite young my father purchased a dog that I adored so much I still have dreams about him to this day. But he was not brought into our home to be a family pet, he was a hunting dog from a long line of excellent hunting dogs. He quickly proved his worth and our kitchen counters were yet again stacked up with the corpses of ducks and geese. This dog Beau, however, died very young in a tragic accident.

The replacement hunting dog proved himself less useful, and I recall my father’s not infrequent rants about spending a ton of money on a pedigreed hunting dog who turned out to be too gun-shy to go hunting. For those of you not familiar with hunting lingo, gun-shy means that this new dog Khaki, spooked at the sound of gun fire, much as he spooked at thunder. Going hunting terrified him and overpowered his carefully inbred retrieving instincts. So my father often called this new dog “useless,” “worthless,” and other such words to indicate that he was not earning his keep.

And so it went. We had an out of control rodent problem at one point, so my mother answered a free to a good home ad and got two kittens to become rodent-killing machines. That did not turn out as planned, and yet again the “useless” label got pulled out.

So, it is odd to turn this around in my adult life and try to find a way to live in which I am useful to animals regardless of the effort they put forth to earn it. But then I find that in fact all interactions with animals are useful to me, in the lessons that they bring and they way they inspire me and turn me back to compassion when I’m feeling that old empathy-fatigue. Still I can only appreciate these lessons when I let go of expectations.

Not every feral cat I help is going to like me. They don’t like interacting with people. Never mind that I got that horrible infection treated and they feel better now, they’re still going to hiss at me and run away. But the lesson isn’t about me, it’s about their resilience and the power of their survival instinct.

When we brought Torty in from the feral colony we had hopes that she was young enough to tame, but she proved thoroughly feral. After keeping her out of the colony so long, we didn’t feel we could put her back out, but we also didn’t feel like we could adopt her out to someone looking for an affectionate house cat. So she stayed with us. After a few months she warmed up to me, but it took her years to accept Sean. We would have felt keeping her in our apartment was too stressful for her, but she did love the other cats, and seemed comfortable there.

So she did not meet the expectations of a loving, easy to care for companion cat. But she brought other lessons with her. One thing that was kind of amazing to me was how she played with toys. While the other cats would go nuts chasing a string back and forth, Torty would seek out a covered place, like under the couch or under a table and wait for the string to come to her, then she’d reach out with one lightening fast paw and grab it. I had read this from some scientists who studied feral cats (they said that unlike tame cats who sometimes kill birds just in play, feral are very serious about hunting and don’t play with their prey and typically take easy prey such as sick or injured animals, thus making estimates about how many animals cats kill, which were all based on domestic tame cats, invalid to ferals). It was cool to observe first hand.

Another funny thing with Torty was that though she fears humans, she loves other furry creatures. Naturally she loved cats having lived in a feral cat colony, but she also immediately took to our bunnies, Sherman and Scooby. I’d often find her just sleeping right next to Scooby (a large New Zealand Red). When Scooby died, Torty went through the apartment for days just yowling and then she’d go back to Scooby’s area, and then yowl some more. Some people have told me that cats don’t mourn and she was probably more upset about change than about missing Scooby. But I’m pretty sure she was in grief over the loss of her friend.

Another time I’d brought in a rabbit I’d just rescued. Torty kept grooming him, which I thought was strange. Sadly he didn’t make it, as it turned out he had cancer. I’ve always wondered if Torty knew he was sick before we did and if she was trying to comfort him.

But of course, even if Torty never taught me anything, and had no “use” to me, I still was committed to her care.

I guess I always just think about the Alice Walker quote and how true it always rings:
“The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men.”

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