Wednesday 17 June 2015

Not just a cat

Something a family member said, talking about Dexter's passing last month:

You tell yourself he's just a cat, but it still makes you sad.

She's lost pets herself, and knows how hard it is; but in fact, I don't tell myself that. There is no "just" about it. He was a cat, no more and no less.

Belle and Dexter in the garden.

I am a scientist, and I know it's a mistake to anthropomorphise animals. They are not little humans in furry suits. A cat is a solitary hunter without my ability to reason or use language. She sees the world and other living things very differently from how I do.

Love is an especially difficult concept; it's hard to say how a cat experiences it, except that it is not the same as what you or I would call love.

Here's something I do know: Cats have feelings. They know fear and pain; they also know happiness, trust and contentment. Over the years, a cat comes to trust you, to know you will be kind to her, and give her food and shelter.

Both our cats were adopted after a time in an animal shelter, and they were scared and disoriented when they first came to us. It was heartwarming to see them find their feet, and grow into happy and confident cats with a secure home. They went from hiding in dark corners, to being more than happy to sprawl across the middle of the floor, in our laps or on our bed, and enjoy being stroked or simply fall asleep.

Animals give us their trust and affection unconditionally. They do not care one whit about money, status, or any of the other clever things we humans have created to worry about. They do not judge you on these matters. All they want to know is whether you are kind to them.

I didn't really understand the bond with a pet before I had one of my own. My wife missed having pets terribly; I didn't understand that either, but I do now. A cat or a dog is a living thing, a friend and companion, and part of the family. It is right to be sad when we have to say goodbye to one.

Saying goodbye doesn't only include death. Today I was talking to a work colleague who had adopted a kitten. She, her husband and young children fell in love with him at once, but two of them developed severe allergies, and with the greatest reluctance they had to give him up. Happily, the kitten has now found a new home with a loving family.

This is the responsibility you take on when you bring a pet into your home: That of one day having to say goodbye. Many animals are abandoned by people who, for one reason or another, couldn't care for them any more.

This makes me very angry. Abandoning a pet is one of the most cowardly and despicable things a human being can do. It is hard to say goodbye. Very hard. But if the time comes, you must have the courage to find a new home for your pet, as my colleague did; or else to bring him to an animal shelter.

The same goes for euthanasia, if a pet is badly ill and will not recover. In a way, we were lucky that Dexter slipped away in the night; we were preparing ourselves to have him put to sleep the next day. It would have been terribly sad, but I believe we would have gone through with it. He was in pain, he could not eat and was barely able to move, and it would have been the last, best thing we could do for him.

The responsibility of saying goodbye is a terrible thing; but it comes with warmth and joy unlike anything else in this world. I am willing to make that exchange. Not too far in the future, we will adopt another cat to keep Belle company; and there will be other animals in our lives. Now that I know what it's like to have a pet, I'm not going back if I can possibly help it.

Dexter is sadly gone, but Belle is sleeping peacefully next to me as I write this. I am thankful for every single day with our cats, and I always will be.

Writing with Belle.

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