By trying to convert dogs and cats into next level spiritual beings and our intellectual equals (who conveniently can’t argue back), we miss out on appreciating their traits that we could all do with imbibing.
Last week rockstar Lady Gaga offered a reward of $500,000 (Rs 3.66 crore) for her dog-napped French terriers, Koji and Gustav. They were recovered unharmed after 48 hours, but as is the way of the world, the dogs received more international media attention than 317 children abducted in Nigeria around the same time. The Gaga story elicited sneering contempt among folks unfamiliar with owner-pet dynamics. (Oops, sorry, the politically correct terminology is guardian-pet.) Nowadays, it’s inappropriate to claim the superior position of “ownership” when it comes to domestic animals. Point to note, it’s not just someone with Lady Gaga’s means who will do anything for her beloved dogs. There has been an important transition in the status of pets, to peers and human equals, giving rise to the term “interspecies families”. It speaks volumes about modern society.
In the children’s hit movie Stuart Little, a mouse is an integral member of a human family. The idea of animals-as-people has been steadily gaining ground even in India as marriage rates erode, divorce rates increase, and people choose to remain single, longer. The pet care market is growing annually at 13.9 % here, among the fastest in the world. No doubt, it’s much easier to dote on pets who love us unconditionally, demanding only the same bowl of food every day. There are no school fees or homework. However, there are signs of widespread existential loneliness behind this cloying need for deeper human-animal connect. Jaded millennials don’t have the emotional wherewithal to deal with frustrating human relationships that, more often than not, cause more pain than joy. Pets become a convenient substitute, superficially fulfilling a nurturing instinct, with none of the conflict that human interactions invariably bring. Animals have no real power to hurt us. The worst they do is swipe food from tables or chew off a rug. Since we know they have no cognitive abilities, we forgive quickly (as opposed to seething rumination when a human misbehaves).
What does one make of this new definition of family? Look on indulgently, ooh and aah at friends’ pooches’ extensive wardrobes and gourmet chewies. And overlook the unflattering truth, that wide swathes of humanity think there’s no difference between having a pet and having a baby. I have owned dogs and cats and loved them in a measured way. I have wept when they died. I know I’m going to get a lot of hate mail for saying this but a mere 10 days later, it’s a struggle for me to remember what my pet of 13 years looked like. And therein lies the difference between animals and humans: animals are replaceable. Humans are not. Fine, call them part of the family but let’s not pretend that a canine companion is the equivalent stand-in for a real person, be it a friend, child, spouse or sibling. Among reasonable adults this would not be up for discussion but if we’re talking either/or, a human wins hands down, every time.
It’s a common lament among people that it’s only their pets who greet them enthusiastically when they reach home from work. But by trying to convert dogs and cats into next level spiritual beings and our intellectual equals (who conveniently can’t argue back), we miss out on appreciating their traits that we could all do with imbibing. Animals live focused on the present moment, neither the past or future matters. While we’re perpetually distracted by disjointed thoughts and need lessons in meditation to get out of our heads. We have all seen cars pass by with dogs sticking their heads out of the window, mouths open in a wide grin. There is something to think about, that no matter where they are going, they know, instinctively, to enjoy the ride.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 7, 2021 under the title ‘The truth about cats and dogs’. The writer is director, Hutkay Films.
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