Our young dog, Rosie, is timid, and it takes a long while for her to get used to “new” people. She is unlike dogs who have owned me in the past — usually very eager to interact with people, sometimes to the point of annoyance. Rosie is a medium sized white pup with a charming black and blown spot over one eye and ear. She has very soft, short fur that makes petting a comfort to both of the parties involved. Once she knows you, she’s hard to reject.
Our two cats are much more interested in accepting new people, particularly if you know how to handle felines properly. Betty, the older cat, is pretty aggressive about her needs, whether it be food, pets, snuggles or just a little scratching behind her right ear. Jane, the younger, likes to be social, but is a little aloof when it comes to actual touching — it has to be on her terms. Appropriately.
Before retirement, I had a work identity that spanned many individuals and organizations; my place in the world was largely defined and specified. Retirement brought some feelings of purposelessness — why am I here? Family is a constant, but almost becomes background to everyday life. I’ve done quite a bit of volunteer work, but it’s all been curtailed due to the pandemic.
In these times, with out-of-control politics and the pandemic, having pets is a major source of comfort to me. Having a dog greet you with wagging tail and toothy grin makes you feel wanted, worth something. Even a cats’ insistence on being petted gives me a sense of worth, helps to carve out a place for me in the universe.
Rosie, Jane and Betty clearly view us as part of their pack or pride or whatever they call the family. They sense our feelings, and seem to understand when we need their support. They help us when we’re sick or angry and celebrate when we are happy. When, over Christmas Eve dinner years ago, I asked Merrilyn to marry me, our yellow Labrador retriever came over, put her head in Merrilyn’s lap and graced her with the longest, most soulful stare from her big brown eyes. “Marry us?” How could she say no?
I know that I am not alone in these feelings. As anyone who visits Facebook or other social media knows, cute and baby animal photos and memes are posted and viewed rampantly. Baby otters, singing macaws, tumbling kittens, and a whole universe of other animals entertain us and keep us smiling, warm and cozy. It takes the edge off life’s harshness and brightens the dreariness of our mostly self-imposed quarantines.
Having pets around also allows a kind of socializing that we would have been otherwise deprived of during the COVID. Our face masks distance us from those around us (that’s what they are designed to do, after all), but most critters are not put off by them in the slightest. Knowing us by our scent, they like us anyway. Sure, we can spend time with other humans remotely through Zoom or FaceTime, but we certainly need the special, tactile feeling of a hug. There is absolutely no substitute for touch when you are afraid or depressed or just lonely.
So that’s where our fur babies come in. While I can’t hug my socially-distanced and masked family when we gather, I can cuddle the kittens or stroke the dog (and get a nose “boop” from her in return) any time we are both in the mood. Young Rosie gets perturbed when Merrilyn or I leave without the other (and her), and joyously greets us upon our return. She is never as happy as when all three of us get into the car and go someplace all together.
There is no question that we are an integral and essential part of our pets’ family — and they in ours. They see who we are and our place in the world, even if we sometimes lose sight of it. And they quickly remind us if we forget. “Boop!”