Animal Emotions

The creatures I met in the fields and woods around my house came to feel like a secret family, though I spent a lot of time chasing and catching them and not thinking much about how that made them feel.

~ Helen Macdonald

The loud noise came from across the alley, and I was curious to see what my neighbor was up to. Using inspection of my garden as an excuse, I wandered to the back of the yard. Various tools littered the open garage door, and a construction resembling a cross between a fish trap and a huge box kite lay across his sawhorses.

He looked up, “I bet you’re wondering what this is.” I nodded, “It’s a rabbit hutch.” He went on to explain how they had given two female rabbits to their boys at Easter, and inexplicably now had a litter of baby bunnies. We both laughed, but my humor was a little more genuine.

Then his wife came out holding one of the babies, and let me hold it. Small, tiny actually, it would have fit in my coffee cup. It was brown, and curled up softly in my palm. Precious, I dared not show it to my wife or hold it too long (though I wanted to), and returned it quickly. It was just so wonderful and hard to let go of.

Helen Macdonald notes, “Animals don’t exist in order to teach us things, but that is what they have always done, and most of what they teach us is what we know about ourselves.” Okay, so that bunny showed me I’m a big softie, but I’ve always suspected that.

We dote on ‘cute’ critters. Facebook and the interwebs are full of animal pictures and videos showing animals being cute and doing cute things. Otters, goats, dogs, cats, birds, dolphins, pigs, hamsters, calves, colts and legions of others are available to us daily. We connect with them and transpose our own personalities onto them. Attributing human traits to them is anthropomorphism, something that Disney has been rightly accused of forever. (There’s an eight minute section of Bambi that’s still hard for me to watch.) Seeing these animals connects to us in ways that we don’t often get to connect with other people.

Maybe the emotions are too raw when received from people. The standard fundraising tool of welfare organizations is a photo of the impoverished child, the ragged homeless man or the scarred and bloody woman. In order to cope with our feelings we send money and goods to others; then we can forget them for a while — knowing we did something to help.

We do the same with animals of course, but we can touch and feel animals in a way that we cannot with people. When we take in a cat, dog or something else cute and care for it, it actually gives something back to us. Scientists argue about ’emotions’ in animals, but any pet owner knows that they exist, just maybe not in human terms. ‘Cupboard love’ is often attributed to our pets and I’m sure they are affected by that. However, not all behavior can be explained by a desire for food. Our pets often just want to be close to us. Maybe they sleep on our bed (part of the pack?), or lie on our newspaper or desks when we try to read or work, or snuggle up nearby as we watch TV. It’s obvious that we are family to them, just like they are family to us.

People that have pets live longer. Cats and dogs introduced to senior homes ease the burden of age and loneliness for the residents. Early exposure to animals is thought to reduce the allergies in children. Some workplaces have the resident cat or dog that helps take a little stress off the workforce. Dentist offices routinely have fish tanks that sooth the nerves of their patients — and maybe the dentists.

A couple of weeks ago, we heard a lot of high-pitched quacking in our yard and found a female mallard trying to get to our cat who was hidden in a bush. When I approached, the duck flew off and the cat dropped something then scampered away. It was a small duckling, slightly slobbery, but apparently unhurt. We cleaned and warmed it up and were amazed at the softness and vitality of this little creature. It peeped and hopped and tried to run, so finally we wondered if the mother would come back for it.

Locking the cat in the house, we brought the duckling outside to where we found it — and set it down. Peeping madly, the duckling scampered off into the flower bed at a surprising rate of speed and began to circle the house. The mother flew above, quacking loudly. We gave them plenty of space and watched for other cats. The duckling went around our house, then around a neighbor’s house before scooting into the lawn in our backyard. The mother dropped down abruptly and there was much quacking and peeping at their reunion. (I’m tempted to imagine a conversation between them about the duckling’s adventures and the mother’s worry, but maybe that’s too much Disney-fication.) The mother herded the duckling across the alley and through several yards towards Clear Creek, where we lost sight of them.

It was hard to see the duckling go. It was cute, fuzzy and warm — probably would have made a good pet (If you don’t mind duck poo in the house!). But I rationalize it may not have been happy with us, missing its family and the free life. The wild is where it no doubt belonged.

And, after all, we still have our cat.

Additional reading:

A Bestiary of the Mind, What Animals Taught Me About How to be a Human, Helen Macdonald, New York Times Magazine, 5/21/17

Make Way for Ducklings, Robert McClosky

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