“I want to take Baby’s temperature. Although I’m not sure what the normal temperature is for a pig.”
“I know a ham turns out nicely at 325.”
–Rose Nylund & Sophia Petrillo discussing their new porcine charge, The Golden Girls
One of my best friends grew up in Carroll County, Georgia. Only a short drive from Atlanta, it’s a world away. The dynamic is not unlike that of my childhood homes in and around Macon County, Tennessee. Geographical proximity to a city is no guarantee that you will experience anything resembling urbanity. Nashville was next door to me as a kid, but it wasn’t until I moved there that I knew what it was to live in a city.
My friend is upwardly mobile and loves city life, yet he dragged his heels in the dirt of his hometown when he moved to Atlanta. I, by contrast, floated in air to Nashville, and then to Atlanta, like a cartoon character transported by appetizing smells.
One way that you can tell the difference between my friend and me is when he comes over to visit me. The various animals of the house greet him, and he receives them with varying degree of pleasant disdain. Don’t misunderstand–he likes seeing them. Still, I’m reminded of a monarch deigning to meet his subjects.
Meantime, my partner and I are having full-on conversations with the same animals, paying attention to their reactions, apologizing and bargaining and validating them like we would human children.
Our animals are named (in no particular order): Julian, Nevaeh, Aries, Boris, Natasha, Evander, Ginger, Eva, and Zsa Zsa. If my friend were to inherit them, I’m certain they would be summarily renamed: Fido, Girl, Rex, Spot, Pretty, Fluffy, Big Girl, Pretty Bird, and Polly.
And they’d live in a barn.
My friend grew up on a farm, and to him animals are animals. There were no illusions about their place in the world (beneath) and what rights they had (none). You had your good times with them, and then they were gone, either from natural causes or because they were “farmed.”
My partner and I have succumbed to the spell of indoor animals who demand respect and a voice in how the household is run. It’s hard to argue with them. There’s no logic more compelling than the pitiful mew of a hungry cat.
The South by default is defined as rural, so the idea of relegating animals to an inferior status is associated with more stereotypical ideas of what Southerners are. Suffice it to say that Southern hospitality is not traditionally extended to its four-legged citizens.
This more traditional view, of course, is correct in a way that our faux-egalitarian household is not. We exert absolute control over the living conditions of Boris; his human-sounding name will not allow him to emancipate himself or sneak out and get a drivers license. We buy beef from the supermarket from a cow who could have worn an ear-tag with the name Queen Elizabeth, and her royal title would not have saved her.
But it makes us feel better to treat them that way. They are like smaller, less complicated versions of ourselves. They are kids who will never grow up. There’s even a school of thought that modern pet ownership, viewed in a broader historical context, is an abusive fad that forces animals into a juvenile dependence on humans.
This past year, I had to deal firsthand with the implications of this negative side of keeping pets. My cat Amir (the handsome one in the pic above) now lives in a condo that I bought as a second residence and workspace. We kept him and his siblings in our basement when their mom took refuge to birth them three winters ago. Once we had them fixed, they were released outside but stayed close by.
Amir was always especially attached to us. Taking up part-time residence on our porch, he cuddled and head-butted his way into our laps and our hearts. Unfortunately, there is a lot of risk in introducing a new animal into a crowded household, so we could not take him back in.
However, when the condo deal closed, I was confronted with a dilemma: do I protect this special kitty from the elements, the vehicles, and the mean animals of the neighborhood by cat-napping him and taking him to the condo, where he can have shelter, access to food, safety, and security? Or do I let him roam and be free, enjoying the endless activities of the outdoors?
It is impossible to make such a decision without self-interest. I decided I could not bear the day when he just didn’t show up. Given the life of an outdoor cat, this would almost surely happen within a couple of years. I needed more time with him, and I thought if he could understand, he would want more time.
It was awful watching him struggle to escape the cat carrier we forced him into last June. He was terrified. I did not take the decision lightly. And as much as I enjoy his company, I wonder if he’s happy. The past eight months with him have been magical for me, and I hope my high-minded, citified humanization of him did not inadvertently make him bored or miserable.
Usually, my habit is to close a post with a conclusion, a takeaway, or a lesson learned. Not so here. What is the correct perspective to keep on animals, even the ones we know and love personally? It is an open question for me.
I will also ask Amir after I read the post to him.