I was allowed a parakeet in a cage; that’s all. No cats, no dogs. We babysat a cat once, my cousin John’s, for a week. It must have been traumatic for the cat: These days, we realize cats bond with their homes and prefer the babysitter to visit them, to fill their familiar food and water bowls in their accustomed places. But I don’t remember the circumstances—I was only six. I do remember being very, very excited. So excited that soon afterward I was inspired to write a book about it, my first. The storyline was simple: The cat came to settle on my stomach while I was sleeping. It started to purr, and I started to dream about a washing machine. As the cat purred louder, the washing machine in my dream went from “low” up to “medium.” As the cat purred even louder, the machine went up to “high.” Then I woke up. A simple little event to start a literary career with, don’t you think? But I was proud of my “book.” I must have been—I still have it.
What I learned that week was all I knew about cats for years afterwards. So I was bound to embarrass myself when I got into a discussion with John’s sister, Zoe, who was closer to me in age and something of a rival. And had cats.
The subject of the discussion was that most profound of questions: Do animals go to Heaven? I maintained they did not. They couldn’t possibly have souls, since they weren’t very intelligent and certainly didn’t have distinct personalities. My cousin and my aunt, who had been eavesdropping, both started to laugh. I was mortified and fell silent. What could I say in the face of their experience? They had no less than three household cats that had lived there as long as I could remember.
We now have three household cats, which roam both the house and the yard—Tull and Buckethead were originally Terry’s, and Lalo is mine. Physically, they’re as different as can be, and their personalities are completely distinct.
Buckethead, who still has a head that looks like it spent its formative years stuck in a bucket, is large and solid with short but dense orange fur that somehow begs for fingers to run through it—in both directions. Nothing fazes Buckethead—unless you go into a coughing fit; then he’ll turn his back and be on his way. He loves fans and a tightly made bed. He doesn’t say much.
His little “brother,” Tull (yes, as in Jethro), is gray with a jagged white scar in front of his right ear from a cat fight, which he did not initiate. That would have been out of character. He’s an empathy cat, sensitive to any sign of something being amiss, someone crying or yelling. But he’s not necessarily there to offer comfort; more often than not he’s the one needing to be reassured that everything’s okay. He accepts the obvious fact that he’s at the bottom of the feline pecking order. When my cat, Lalo, chooses (for whatever reason) to hiss at him, he quickly makes himself scarce.
Lalo, alias Squinky, is a big puddle of fur with ear tips sticking up through it. In the summer he loses a lot of that hair and becomes tiny. He’s a scaredy cat and takes about five minutes to cross the threshold into the house, looking both ways about fifty times. Because of his changing fur situation he can’t know whether he’s a big cat or a small one, so he’s not sure where he is on the hierarchy, and will periodically hiss at the other two. I thought he was independent and beyond needing affection, until I figured out that he just pretends to be eating when he really wants his tail-spot scratched, or to be picked up and squeezed tight for a couple minutes. Purr, purr, purr. Took me long enough to get that, but now I know. (“Never disturb an animal when they’re eating”—that’s what I always heard.)
We love our three cats. If I was dying of starvation, I think I’d go ahead and die before eating them.
It seems to me most Americans are like this about their pets. They’re almost people to us. They’re family, anyway. And they do have describable personalities. Behind their eyes we see a soul, of sorts. Maybe we even prefer their company to that of other family members at times.
I’ve been thinking it would be great if we could extend that same appreciation to the rest of the world’s animals. We’d miss the ones that went extinct. We’d know about the ones who were in trouble, and go to their rescue.
Of course there’s no way that would happen. Wild animals wouldn’t be wild anymore. And who would love the maggot, the eel, the cockroach, the scorpion, the vulture, the naked mole rat? These are creatures only a Mother Nature could love.
Actually, Nature doesn’t love individuals at all—or even an individual species. Nature is all about ecosystems, balance, cycles of life and death. And, critically, flora mesh with the fauna. Playfully, some botanists today have referred to plants as “slow animals.” Plants communicate, sense their environment, and respond to stimuli. Speeded up, they dance toward the sun. They can trap caterpillars with sticky sugar balls and smell a likely support-plant to wind themselves around. Some studies indicate they can even learn and remember.
I’m not sure how a vegetarian responds to this new understanding of plants—except to acknowledge that Nature has always had everybody eating everybody, including plants, with humans an integral part of that arrangement. My own vegetarianism has nothing to do with this, and didn’t arise from it; it’s about harms to animals and the environment: crowded feedlot conditions, with their increased virus potentials, hormone implants, nitrates from feces seeping into groundwater.
One thing I’ve always liked about gardens is that they allow you pick just one or two leaves off a plant so that it hardly notices or cares—it’s like they’re getting a haircut or a fingernail trim, someone said—instead of pulling up a whole plant as with some mechanical harvests on a farm.
In any case, the new information about plants isn’t gonna dampen my enjoyment of sauteed veg with herbs.
As slow animals, plants are, of course, less like me than my cat—thankfully, I guess, if I want to eat. I have to watch their surprising capabilities through a researcher who went in close, in some experimental way, and cranked up the speed of the film. But it does feel similar to my delight in one of the cats or some other animal when it demonstrates, with whatever trick or behavior, an aptitude closer to my own. Closer, but different. Always with a beautiful difference.
I also appreciate one aspect of technology in this study: its ability to transport me to faraway places, especially to other natural worlds—jungles, frozen zones, islands, mountain peaks, underwater communities. I love virtual travel. As well as going to other places, the nature documentary genre can zoom in for microscopic views or zoom out to look at galaxies; it can go back and forth in time; it can use animation or graphics to get points across. It deepens my emotional responses with music. And at times it can cause cuteness overload—a kind of public relations for whatever baby it’s featuring (as long as it doesn’t inspire mobs of tourists to trample its habitat and capture its kin for the pet trade). Will we allow the koala to go extinct, or will we rise up with our stuffed replicas held high and make the rescue happen?
I once had a debate with Barbara Kingsolver regarding how we should learn about natural environments. (She used to live here in Tucson and belonged to a reading group I was in.) She maintained it was important to actually visit the ecosystems (or human cultures) you wanted to know about. I maintained that while you could definitely better understand a place you actually went to and stayed at for awhile, it was better to avoid the new gear purchases, destructive fuels, and influences of civilization that a visit inevitably brings—the idea that we destroy what we touch. I advocated for “distance learning.” And still do.
I think this distance learning even extends to people who post their funny videos of more exotic pets—that is, if the animals are legal and treated well. I’ve seen a squirrel play with a ball as well as any dog. A baby goat that watches a girl run playfully into a brick wall, then copies her exactly, with obvious glee. A parrot kissing itself in the mirror, saying, “I love you.” A duck running back and forth on a seesaw in order to experience, you have to believe, the slow sensation of sinking to the ground from the high point. A goose that runs to the side of an apparently beloved human, then falls into step beside him like a dog told to “heel.” Farmyard odd couples: A member of one species intensely befriending a member of another—even if, in nature, one might gobble up the other.
At least some of these videos have to be real right? How ironic that we have the technology to film and share these creatures just as so many others are disappearing.
Can’t we let them open us up to a broader understanding, an appreciation, a gratefulness for life on planet Earth?
We have to see how consumption—shopping for new stuff—destroys animal habitat. If we’re impressed by animal intelligence, charm, and even emotions that seem to match our own, we’ll want to stop invading their home territories with bulldozers set in motion by our purchases. Their habitats—and now this includes not-quite-but-almost-sentient plants—belong to them, not to human whims.
To foul the farthest remaining corners of one’s nest . . . well, it’s not very funny. It’s not an animal video you’ll want to stream. And I’m afraid it demonstrates a rather low intelligence.