Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Cats, Dogs and People

dog and catA year or so ago researchers at the University of California at San Diego announced the results of an important study, the culmination of months of research, that established that dogs get jealous. “How odd,” I then thought to myself, “those behavioral scientists must never have owned their own dogs.”

Ben and Hilda
An example of a dog and owner with similar personalities.

I say this because anyone who has ever owned a dog already knew the results of that inquiry, and certainly does not need a scientific study to prove it: dogs do indeed get jealous. Another study by Professor Coren of the University of British Columbia has suggested that people tend to choose dogs based on their own personality. In a piece of popular writing directed toward a general audience, Professor Coren touches on his own research and, even more valuably, summarizes an important Hungarian/Austrian report that suggests that dogs often seem to share personality traits with their owners. At this point, if you own a dog, you are likely to pause, and say, is that how I seem to the world? Further, at this point, I’m sorry to tell the answer just may be yes. (And, if you really want to know, ask your spouse or your closest confidant.)

I needn’t say it, but cats are different than dogs. Well, they are sometimes. Let’s start with a superbly interesting exception, Tara, Jeremy’s pet cat. The reporter in this interview interestingly and amusingly asks Erica, Jeremy’s mother, whether or not Tara has a “lion complex.” Yet “Tara the Lionhearted” cat, saving Jeremy the child from “Hannibal ‘Baby Nibbler’ Lecter” dog, is perhaps the exception to the rule.

The cats that I have known and have had—I here tip my hat to our dearly departed Italian cats Piazza and Lorenzo, and the French Simone—interesting personalities. Cats seem to lose interest in playing with you or in many cases even being petted, and certainly want to act as they wish, quite individually, and in any case not as you may want them to. They are funny in that way, and they seem to tolerate their owners or their owners’ family members, as if the family were intruding on their territory. And while both dogs and cats expect to be fed at some point, the cat is often the most clear and articulate when it comes to asking for his or her food. The dog will often wait, hoping for a table snack for an appetizer. Thus, the dog often seems to be humanlike, wants really to be a part of the family, while the cat regards the family as a necessary social construct, as you might consider the idea of attending your neighbor’s child’s Bar Mitzvah or first communion, finding the warm buckle of your airplane seatbelt only after your seatmate has been sitting on it for five minutes, or in extreme cases, the local sewage treatment plant. Add to this, of course, the matter of the euphemistically entitled kitty litter that the cat completely takes for granted that you will dutifully change, holding your breath, week in and week out.

I will not speak here about the personality differences between dog owners and cat owners. The same Dr. Coren has done so eloquently, again summarizing scholarly studies that would likely be dry reading without his popular-market intervention. I will, however speak about the third aspect of this blog, people. For whether we are pet owners or not, whether we prefer dogs, cats, or horses, or whether we simply long for the Platonic form of an animal and not the animal itself, we are so markedly different from them—even rather intelligent animals—that it is worth a moment or two to point out how it is that we are different, that though biologists may call us animals—and we are mammalian—we are not really animals. For better or worse, we are ourselves quite dissimilar. We control our wills in ways that animals simply do not.

wooly monkeyNow at this point anyone who has read the Curious Autobiography and knows the story of Betsy, my sister, who was a monkey, specifically a cross-dressing monkey, may say, “Your own book disproves this: Betsy clearly exercised her will, taking a bath, watching a soap opera, swinging on a ceiling fan. Well, yes, it certainly seemed at the time that my sister, as my childhood self referred to her (and as I sometimes still do), Betsy, had a will of her own. She was the “strong-willed” monkey, so strong-willed that Elaine Jakes, who by the way loved both cats and dogs, decided to deposit her at the Philadelphia Zoo. Yes, it was traumatic to wave good-bye to my sister in the parking lot of the Philadelphia Zoo, but I got over that when I learned what a good time she was having with the other monkeys. If you want to know of her escapades, you will have to read pages 91–98 in The Curious Autobiography.

But to return to people. We are different from animals in frightening ways. This week, we again, sadly and terribly, learned how. In Oregon, a young man who owned some fire arms singled out followers of a particular religious group on a college campus and executed them. He exercised his will in a way that appalled and shocked us all, startling even his own father. This past summer, we read over and over of people being executed in Iraq or Nigeria or elsewhere again, quite often those whose religious views were not acceptable to their slayers. All of these crimes against human beings cause the horrific destruction of the ancient relics of Palmyra in Syria to pale in comparison. The former evil acts seek to take away the human present, the latter the record of humanity in ages bygone ages. All are crimes specifically against human beings, whether living, dead, or yet to come. So, while we are capable of better, we often find ourselves doing the worst.

In a playful but telling moment in his text, the ancient poet Ovid writes, “I see better things, and I approve; I follow after worse things” (Metamorphoses 7.20f). Speaking of his outlook on life well after his famous trip toward Damascus, St. Paul puts it this way, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do; but what I hate to do, I do … although I want to do good, evil is right there with me” (Rom. 7:15, 21; 24). He offers a solution, a solution that has gotten people killed from Oregon to Adamawa to Damascus itself, just after he cries out, “What a wretched man I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” But the answer to this question is something that we must all discover on our own.

Narcissus looks at his reflection. Fresco from the House of Lucretius Fronto in Pompeii

Where does this leave us? Are animals better off because they have no religion? Well, they do have a religion of sorts. Your dog worships you. I’m sure that one of these days there will be an arguably unnecessary canine study to confirm as much. Cats, well, they don’t. I think they’re a bit narcissistic and there’s a chance that, like Narcissus they actually worship themselves, relegating their owner’s voice to that of a mere echo in a thicket. And like Echo’s affection for the object of her desire, for some of us, our love of cats may even cause us to worship them. But I leave that aside.

No, I don’t believe that we are better off without God. But we would do well not to fashion God in the form of a pit bull or a cat or, worse yet, ourselves. Rather, it would be best to start not with self-pity for our estate in a fallen world or with self-love, as if we were superior to those who wreak havoc in the world around us. My hope for myself is to participate in, even embrace, this world’s suffering, and so to learn to live sacrificially not just for my cat or my dog, but for people. This idea is not original with me. My views ultimately derive from a book by Dietrich Bonhoffer that I read when I was quite a young man; the central tenets of that book never left me. Thus, I commend to your thought and my own the example of others who have put into practice Bonhoeffer’s counsel, whose suffering and sacrifice have changed this sad world for the better. Though they are no longer with us, their actions and ideas, and perhaps our own, will continue to do so, making the world better for cats, dogs, and people.

The Pietá of Michaelangelo
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