Op/Ed

Clippings: Loss of pet is loss of strong bond

I have often thought that humans have an innate desire for communion and communication with other creatures. I suspect this is why we find so compelling those stories about people who swim with dolphins, are befriended by elephants, have trained eagles or tamed crows, or who live among wolves and bears. And it’s why stories of talking animals, or people who speak with animals in their own language, remain popular. It may explain also why people do some really foolish things like trying to pet bison in Yellowstone National Park, or feed wild bears by hand. (Although the social media frenzy for a good TikTok video or selfie for Facebook might also explain that last one.)

I suspect it also has a lot to do with why we keep pets, and name them, and talk with them.

I was thinking about this over the weekend because our family cat Zoe passed away last Friday. Although she appreciated the comforts of her bed — and also our bed, the dog’s bed, the guest bed, the sofa, the rocking chair, my lap, and any rug that happened to be in the sunshine — for the first dozen years of her life she was an outdoors-and-adventure-loving cat. When we went for walks in the woods, she would often follow us around even far out of sight of our house. She enjoyed going for canoe rides, too, and would stand with her paws on the gunnels enjoying the views as we paddled her around. She would even go on bike rides with our youngest son Peter, proudly saddled in the hood of his sweatshirt as he peddled around the block. If I left a suitcase or duffle bag open while packing for a trip, she would climb in, clearly hoping to join me on my adventures. I would say she was a great cat for an outdoors-loving person like me, but the truth is that her adventurous streak far exceeded mine, at least to the extent of her being willing to risk life and limb.

She certainly used up some of her nine lives on her adventures. One day she narrowly escaped a fisher, which chased her all the way onto our front deck. She dove under the cover of our grill to hide, and probably only survived because my wife opened the front door to see what all the noise was, and scared off the fisher. On another occasion, in her passion for warm, dark, secret places — or perhaps in order to catch one of the mice living there — she crawled underneath our car and up into the engine area beneath the hood. We only discovered her when we arrived at our destination seven miles away and heard her distressed meowing. One might think such an experience would have taught her a lesson. (Or perhaps that it would have taught her owners the lesson of looking under the hood before every trip.) But she pulled the same trick two more times in her life! 

Although we tried not to let her prowl about and hunt, there were a few times she spent the night camping outside (without tent or sleeping pad). On those occasions, our main thought was that she was the hunted, and not the hunter, miraculously avoiding the owls, foxes, fishers and coyotes that did prowl our woods. Her nickname for a time — especially when we were annoyed with her — was Coyote Bait, though truthfully we always hoped she would show up in the morning.

I said that Zoe was a family cat, and she was. Our sons all still lived at home when she joined our household. In one of three houses we lived in with her, she would sneak home in the wee hours after a night of carousing and climb up on the roof to claw at Peter’s screen so that he would let her in. But our sons are all grown up, married and out of the house now. So in the end, Zoe was just my wife’s and my cat. My wife’s first, because Zoe was her birthday present and she did most of the difficult caring chores, like cleaning the litterbox. And mine second, because Zoe (who was part Maine coon cat) grew too long for my wife’s lap and fully stretched out would only fit on mine. By the time of her death, Zoe had been with us for more than a quarter of our lives. She was the only cat I’ve ever had from kittenhood through her last breath. 

Her end came both sooner and more quickly than I expected — maybe because of how many lives she had used up. When her end came, she was only 15 years old, which is not ancient for a feline. We took her to the vet for what we thought was a routine concern and were told that her body was filling with fluid, that she didn’t have long to live, and that she was probably in considerable discomfort (even though it isn’t in the nature of cats to complain about pain). So we brought her home for three days of hospice care (with a three-day supply of cat painkiller) so we could say goodbye, and give our kids a chance to say goodbye. 

RIP Zoe

I was embarrassed by how emotional I was about her impending loss during those three days. I have several friends who have recently lost human family members, or who are watching their loved ones suffer terminal illnesses. And though I don’t know them personally, we could add to that the incalculable loss and suffering of people in Ukraine from the war, and in Turkey and Syria from the recent earthquake, and in — well, you name it. The list is very long. Losing a pet seems like a trivial think compared with any of those losses. And, indeed, it is. Even a pet that you’ve had for a quarter of your life.

Interestingly, over the weekend my wife showed me a timely article titled “On Pets, Moral Logic, and Love” by one of our favorite New York Times writers, Tish Harrison Warren. Warren has spent much of her life studying poverty and its causes. She describes how she was always appalled, given the worldwide poverty and hunger problems, how much money is spent on pets in the United States — and even the extent to which organizations will go to raise money for pet-related issues while people around the world are starving. Partly for that reason, she had never consented to owning a dog, despite the frequent pleas of husband and children. 

And then a rescue dog happened and changed her by coming into that life and into her family, teaching her something new about love and moral logic. It didn’t in any way diminish her concern for issues of poverty and hungry, or their social causes. Having a needy dog, and watching her children learn to care for it, seemed to expand Warren’s own capacity for love.

MATTHEW DICKERSON

I have no doubt that many priorities in our country and in the world are dramatically out of order. The amount of money spent on war — or even on spectator sports — while so many suffer from hunger seems like pretty strong evidence of this. But when it comes to pets, I think I agree with Warren. And when summer comes around, I will dedicate my first canoe ride and first night out in the woods to Zoe. Though I’m quite sure it will not involve any late night carousing or run-ins with fishers. 

Matthew Dickerson, computer science professor at Middlebury College, writes our outdoors column.

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