The relationship between humans and the animals around us, pets in particular, has always puzzled me. What exactly is the social contract that binds us to these animals and makes us so devoted to their needs? Why do we put them up in our homes for 10 or 15 years when we seldom invite human guests to sleep overnight, let alone live off our generosity? Why do we worry after their shots, their heart murmurs, their sleeping habits?
As near as I can tell the whole pet thing started about 12,000 years ago when our predecessors discovered how useful baby wolves could be around the cave. They kept intruders away from our door, helped track down our prey, hauled our sleds for us, or did any number of useful things.
But in the last century or so, many of those jobs began to disappear. The only role left for a dog was as our companion. At that point one would have thought the household pet would have disappeared, but instead they have flourished.
The other day I decided to look for some answers at the Providence Animal Rescue League. Where else can you find people who are so closely connected to the world of pets? Every day, they answer the larger questions about pet life as dozens of animals are dropped off, adopted, rescued or destroyed.
Kris Powell, the PARL’s executive director, has spent nearly 20 years with the League. She says 7,000 animals a year of every ilk and cast — fish, birds, iguanas, turtles, you name it — are dropped off at the door, either for adoption or for euthanasia. About 40 percent of the animals eventually find homes through the staff’s work.
It takes a lot of work and money to keep a dog. But, through many centuries of careful breeding, we appear to have constructed the perfect pet – an animal who will do anything in its power to be at our side.
And for our part we appear ready to invest an equal measure of our own emotions in the relationship. We become attached to these animals to the point where they are often considered a part of the family.
I think of this connection as I walk past the PARL kennels. The dogs perk up and jump to the front of the cage, hoping to catch a stroke of the hand, a tender glance or an affectionate look. These orphans, these waifs from the street, never lose hope that the next person down the hall could become their number one friend.
As I’m preparing to leave, I come to understand that we look to our dogs and our cats for companionship that we cannot find elsewhere in our lives, even with spouses, children and friends. In fact, today -with modern communication devices everywhere – we seem lonelier than ever, and the pet population is swelling to record numbers.
It’s an effect that I can well understand. For, after the kids grow up and leave home, and the night comes on, and the voices disappear, a strange quiet settles over the house. The free time that we spend our entire lives craving is finally here, but it does not bring the expected peace. Instead, it leaves us with much time to think. There is the nagging thought that – sure, without us, these animals could not survive.
But what about us? Without them, where would we be, as we enter a new millennium in which our society is becoming even more fragmented and the individual even more isolated?