Earlier this evening, we found out that one of our three cats (Sunshine) may not make it through the weekend. She’s 16 and has a slew of long-term conditions, with lymphoma (cancer) being the most extreme, but she may pass from the effects of kidney failure. We had to leave her overnight at the emergency vet; it’s a long shot.
I was thinking about the fact that pets make a special kind of friend because they become a much more substantial portion of the fabric of our lives. While some of our human friends may have been or be with us longer than pets, our pets are fixtures in our daily routines.
For instance, over the last few years, Sunshine has taken over the responsibility of being my alarm clock from Socks (our slightly older cat). Sunshine yells at the door every morning because she’s ready for fresh food, regardless of the fact that she never eats more than half of her overnight food. She’s been sick this week and confined to a room since she hurt her leg earlier this week, so it’s been awkward because I’m used to her morning yelling, and inconvenient as I’ve slept in later because I haven’t been cajoled awake for a few hours.
I can go back to every major point of my and Angela’s lives for the last 16 years and know where and how Sunshine fit in.
Where she slept in the dorm rooms we smuggled her into.
How she sat in the window when we got our first apartment.
Where she was when we saw the plane crash into the World Trade Center.
How crazy she was to see Angela when we returned from our European backpacking trip.
The many places in our unfinished basement in our first house where she scratched up the plastic covering the insulation.
Her yelling in the back seat when we drove for three days to get to Portland in our Xterra.
How she comforted Angela when her grandmother unexpectedly passed and when Angela was in pain and depressed.
The many places she’s claimed as her own in our current house in Portland.
The way she lies between my legs when I’m meditating and writing downstairs in the morning.
Unless other humans live with you, their ability to be a part of your life in that way is simply dwarfed by what your pets do. As I said above, pets are major part of the fabric of our lives and our unconscious routines.
When we returned from the vet’s to feed our other two cats, Angela pulled out three bowls and slid them in front of me (I was on cat-food-prep duty) because the habit of prepping three bowls is so hard-wired at this point. It was hard to tell her that we only needed two.
A while back, I read the fascinating book The Animal Connection: A New Perspective on What Makes Us Human by Pat Shipman. Shipman’s well-founded thesis is that the domestication of animals has driven our development as a species more than just about anything else. So my point about pets being a major part of our lives isn’t just true of us as individuals, but is true of us as a species.
While pets teach us about patience and being in the moment, one of the biggest things they help us learn is how to cope with the passing of beings and friends we care about. They come, they change us, and just when we’re really used to them, they go, reminding us that in the grand scheme of things, we all are here but a short time.
I’ll thus take Shipman’s thesis one step further and many steps smaller: it’s not just that pets have driven our evolution as humans, but that they’ve helped us cultivate our humanity. Just as it’s possible for some individuals to flourish without romantic partnerships, it seems that as a species, our flourishing is inextricably bound to our relationships with pets.