Only When I Laugh
by Elouise Bell

Peerless Pets

 [p.77]Dogs’ lives are too short,” Agnes Sligh Turnbull once said. “Their only fault, really.”

The theory used to be that people had pets as a hedge against loneliness. Well, that may be part of the truth, but only part. For one thing, most of the pet-owners I know personally are not the sort that spend lonely weekends playing Solitaire with Mitzi. They are more likely to be off on ski trips playing foolhardy with the buddies—but hauling in from the slopes every couple of hours to call and see if the nice man from next door is remembering that Mitzi doesn’t like her water dish left in the sun. The cat-and-dog fanciers that I know are not the kind that gather moss and ivy at home with Boots curled up genteelly at their feet. They are, instead, out there rolling with the rest of the stones and trying to sneak Boots into the Chic Chalet Motel ($75 per single) while good old hyperactive Boots is wildly wiggling both ends against somebody’s middle.

So why do we cherish pets? Here are some possibilities; see if they make sense to you:

1. Consistency. The problem with kids is that they don’t stay kids. You just get to the point of mastering some child-[p.78]rearing techniques, and suddenly you have no child left to rear. You finally learn how to play a really good game of Get-Your-Nose, one guaranteed to reduce any tyke to a puddle of giggles, and whammo—no tyke. One day you start to initiate the game with your favorite partner, and this person gives you a polite, slightly appalled look that makes you want to hide behind the old National Geographics in the basement. But animals! Animals will go on, year after year, responding with freshness and enthusiasm to the hoariest repertoire of antics. Why, I knew one old dog—and an uncommonly bright dog she was—who at seventeen was as thrilled with Get-Your-Nose as any diapered darling you can name. Now that’s consistency!

2. More Consistency. Have you noticed today how people are always re-negotiating their relationships? A parent may think she has the upper hand with little Melanie now, but look out! Tomorrow is indeed another day, and little Mel will be maneuvering for her share of the power faster than you can say “training bra.” Or take an opposite example: for years, Harry has been Numero Uno around the house—or at least everyone went along with that story. Now, suddenly in his own mid-life mix-up, Harry decides to emulate King Lear and give up the weighty duties of sovereignty, keeping only the rights thereunto appertaining. But you may not be ready for a new learner, having finally gotten the kids off your neck, back, hands and other segments of anatomy.

With animals, it’s much simpler. Early in the relationship, in the milk-teeth days, one of you stakes out Head Wolf boundaries. And ever after, that’s it. You won’t be startled some chilly winter night by a request from King to re-negotiate your arrangement. If he outlasted you in puppyhood and established the final say, he will keep it until you put him under the daisies. On the other hand, I have known huge dogs to be perfectly submissive to a tiny child who simply never gave an inch. Happily, animals seem to skip menopause, the climacteric, mid-life crises and other human pickles. It’s doubtful if they even have an adolescence—reason enough to love ’em.

3. Simplified Decision Making. Freedom of choice is a great boon of democracy and the free enterprise system, but, as you may have noticed, it can become a burden, for example during primary elections or while visiting Baskin-Robbins. What would Harry like for dinner tonight? For that matter, what would you [p.79]like? Decisions, decisions. Some of us are constantly replaying the classic scene from Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty: “Whadda you wanna do tonight, Marty?” “I dunno, Angie. Whadda you wanna do?” Animals make it so much simpler. It may take you a while to discover that Puss likes milk-coated, fish-flavored Super Supper in a red bowl, but once you find that out, it’s clear sailing, day after cloudless day. Clothes? Did you ever know a dog to set up a fuss because all the other dogs on the block had nylon collars and he still schlepped around in leather? As to “Where do you want to go tonight?”—for a dog there is only one “where”: OUT. I tell you, you can get hooked fast on such simplicity.

4. Unabashed Pride. It’s not considered terribly good manners to brag about your kids, at least in some circles. The fashion is to sigh, and blame MTV or the demise of the Great Books, or at the very least, the genes inherited from the Other Side. People who don’t have children usually don’t care to hear the details about Harry Junior’s winning first place in the Make It Yourself With Plywood Contest. And if you start boasting to people who do have children, you’re liable to discover that their kid carne in second in the contest, which rather leaves you biting your lip and coughing a lot.

But people who have animals love to compare notes and swap stories. And somehow, bragging about your mastiff or your Siamese is not gauche the way bragging about your own flesh and blood is. I mean, after all, whatever else Bonsai, your feline, may have, she definitely does not have your genes. That really leaves you free to kvell.

I recall one conference I attended. At first not a single soul admitted having children. There were seventy-five women there, but the subject of offspring never came up, day after day. By the first weekend, however, the cat lovers had found each other and were whipping out pictures and comparing diets. Then the dog fanciers got into the act with more pictures and cute stories. From there, they (we—let’s be honest) got into a great exchange of titles of books and calendars containing photographs of animals caught in the act of being adorable. Finally, by the end of the seminar, a few out-of-the-closet mothers elbowed their way in and defiantly slapped down photos of Tommy Jo or Heather, daring the rest of us to sneer, after all our carrying on.

Now, some of you may be thinking I’m ignoring one of the chief reasons people love and keep pets: because pets are so (80) “loyal,” and “they love you no matter what you do.” Well, I’m sorry; as far as I’m concerned, that’s just so much P.R. circulated by the Purina Company. Obviously I love animals, but let’s be truthful. The only thing that stops animals from kvetching at us is that they can’t talk. In fact, my mother swore that her dog Ginger “talked back” plenty of times. And don’t deny that you have gotten some withering looks from animals. I’m not sure progress will do us much good, either; the folks who are teaching the apes to use American Sign Language say that the lovable primates are masters of the put-down. Anyone with a cat could have told you as much.