Twinkle twinkle, little star

By | 2013/01/19

One of the great truths that you see written, heard spoken, and occasionally see first hand, is the statement:

No parent should outlive the child.

I will never have children. A long time ago I pondered it and let it go, even before I understood that legally, my chances up until today would remain fairly negligible to adopt. Parents might argue that I’ll never understand just how powerful a statement that is. Yet, it’s not unbelievable that I can understand it – it’s emotionally charged enough that even a non-parent can grasp many, if not most, of the nuances and implications.

From a different perspective though, I understand it far better than many parents ever will.

Those of us who want pets in our lives, and who love and cherish them as they would a child, adopt pets into their families knowing that in all likelihood, they will outlive their pets. That there will, on some day, come that time when their lives go on, but the life of the pet does not.

It makes pet ownership a double-edged sword. There can be so much joy – companionship, unconditional love, support, friendship and closeness, but it’s always tempered with that lingering subconscious knowledge that it’s transient, and fleeting.

PetsThere are some who don’t understand pet ownership. I’ve seen their callous lack of comprehension in action a few times in my life, and I feel at some level they must be incomplete, broken. I’m not talking people who don’t own pets – I’m talking those people who callously disapprove. They’re the ones when someone says “I lost my dog today”, they reply “It’s just an animal, get over it”, or even go so far as to make a joke about it. It’s like they have a form of xenophobia aimed at other species instead – zoophobia. Or maybe it’s some form of cross-species autism – an inability to make an emotional bond with a living creature that isn’t of the same species.

Various scientists only a short while signed a proclamation that animals have consciousness. It’s something any pet owner could have told them years, or decades ago, but the evidence-based approach still has to be followed to make it more than just an emotional assertion from those with pets in their families.

I keep using the term ‘pet owner’, but that’s just a societal definition. At home, we call ourselves the tribe. There’s Darren and I, and our two cats, Stitch and Cino. From a legal perspective we own the cats, but from an emotional and living perspective, we’re a family – hence, tribe. All of our personalities, animal and human alike, interrelate differently.

So, when one of them is sick – as Cino currently is – pet ownership is a flagrantly inaccurate term. It implies “a possession is broken”, but in reality means “a family member is unwell”. And with that dip in health can come all the reminders about the transience of their lives, compared to ours.

Our cats are 9 and 10 years old this year. All going well, they’ll last around the same time still. For parents with children, that age will equate to them starting to move out into the world and having a higher degree of independence. Yet that never happens with pets – they remain dependent on us their entire lives. In fact, as they get older their dependence upon us increases, strengthening that emotional bond even more, and then one day they’re gone.

Our lives are enriched with pets around us – the emotions run deep in both directions. For all the knowing that Cino’s current condition is readily treatable, I spent much of yesterday before he went to the vet in a deep funk. I couldn’t even go with him to the vet; Darren had to be the brave parent there. Ten minutes before it was time to go and I was a complete mess.

People get compassionate leave when their children are sick; they get special consideration at work to adjust their hours to suit picking up their kids from school, or dropping them off to day care, and so on. All of that is understandable. What’s not understandable is that similar leeway isn’t granted to pet owners too. Again I think it may be the words involved, owner. People don’t take time off because their DVD player is broken, after all. In reality it’s a relationship of parent/child, not owner/object, and people who don’t understand pets don’t properly grasp that simple fact.

After years of being an owner-occupier, I’m back to renting again, and it’s acutely reminded me of how uncaring people can be towards those of us who want, or need pets in our lives. All because, I suspect, it’s thought of ownership rather than family.

If you’re one of those people who has been dismissive in the past towards pet owners, the next time someone tells you about their pet, you may want to pause to remind yourself that they’re not talking about a DVD player or a refrigerator. They’re talking about a family member.

Twinkle twinkle, little star.