Thursday, 4 September 2008

And staying on the animal theme… Never say never

I was once like Juno – ‘born without the animal gene’, as my equally non-animal-loving friend Mandy puts it.

Then, a few years ago, a cat – a large orange creature with as little regard for humans as I had for its species – moved into my house and, despite being roundly ignored and sometimes even forcibly ejected from the premises, refused to budge. It made itself comfortable on beds, clawed at my hands while I was trying to cut up chicken for dinner, sharpened its nails on the furniture and left large tufts of titian fur on everything. It drove me completely nuts.

But it also did something else – it woke up my dormant ‘animal gene’. Within a year I was cooing at people’s pets (whereas before it wasn’t beneath me to surreptitiously kick them, particularly if they were a dog nosing my crotch or a cat kneading my thighs) and being moved to tears by news reports of abused animals.

Nowadays my home, once the exclusive habitat of humans, is more or less run by creatures – four cats and a dog, all rescues; and, at last count, four mommy hens and their total clutch of 16 babies.

Interestingly, recently a message came up on an e-newsgroup I belong to, from a journalist who was suffering heartbreak. What, he asked, did one do to get over a romance gone sour? Although the advice ranged fairly widely from taking sweet revenge to moving swiftly along (‘The way to get over someone is to get under someone else,’ advised one female reporter), a surprising number of people advised getting a pet.

Perhaps it seems obvious that transferring the companionship and affection denied you by a human to an animal will help fill an emotional hole, but according to a recent report in Newsweek (www.newsweek.com/id/91445), having a pet can actually improve your health. Research has shown that pets can help reduce stress and blood pressure in owners, increase longevity in heart attack survivors, and even relax and improve the appetites of Alzheimer’s patients. More to the point for the obesity-ridden western world, pets also get owners ‘off the couch’ – ‘They need exercise, so it propels people out the door,’ says veterinarian Scott Line.

As for ameliorating loneliness, nearly half the respondents in a study considered their pets to be companions; only about 2% considered them to be property – and 97% of people admitted talking to their pets (‘The other 3% lied,’ was the opinion of the survey manager – clearly a pet lover himself).

This does, however, have a down side. A friend of mine, considering if the woman he’s been dating for several years is The One, told me in a recent conversation that he’d propose marriage to her ‘if only she’d stop talking to her cats like that’.

And, of course, there’s the bed imperative – I still have to work out how to sleep with four cats draped around and over me and not wake up in the morning with backache from having been squinched into bizarre positions all night.

Above: I stroked a cheetah (salmagundi, September 2007).

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