I’ve been sleeping on the floor in the hallway outside the kitchen for the past week, on a pile of blankets that do not add up to a mattress. My almost-eight-year-old daughter, Scheherazade (whose nickname is pronounced “sheh-DAY”), joined me one night, and fared far better than me, which is a testament to the greater resilience of an almost-eight-year-old than an almost-fifty-two-year-old (our birthdays are a day apart, or, more precisely, one day less than 44 years apart).
The reason for this unenthusiastic return to something similar to the childhood wonders of camping out under blanket tents held up by encyclopedias (from the days when encyclopedias were big fat books rather than skinny little disks) was not nostalgia, nor a fight with my wife, but rather a new puppy named Buttercup. Buttercup is a rescue puppy from Texas, apparently brought up to Colorado in a great puppy drive, perhaps with puppyboys on stick horses rounding them up as they made the treacherous trek northward to their new ranches…. Or maybe they were transported in some modern vehicle that imposes less of a burden on the puppies themselves. Probably something more like the latter.
The puppy loves us, and we love her. She loves us so much that she can’t stand to be parted from us for the night, and we can’t stand to let her roam free in the more comfortable portions of the house where I would prefer to sleep but we’d all prefer for her not to…, you know, do what puppies do. My wife is even more adamant than Schede or me that Buttercup not be allowed to turn our house into a puppified den of odors and stains, though I think her love of the puppy is softening her fear of the inevitable gradual contamination of our indoor (and backyard) environment.
And, being the chivalrous lover of puppies and children that I am, I am the family member elected by unanimous mutual spontaneous consensus among the other two human-language-speaking members (as I seem always to be in such circumstances), and possibly by the one non-human-language-speaking member as well, to sleep on a pile of blankets in a narrow hallway outside the toddler gates containing our lonely little puppy in her linoleum tiled kitchen.
It’s a happy duty to perform, uncomfortable sleep and morning aches not withstanding. There’s something about a furry little critter wanting and needing your attention that more than off-sets the minor inconveniences involved. And I firmly believe that every child should have a pet, preferably a dog (and certainly something more than a goldfish or a gerbil). It’s a chance to learn to love, and to care about others, in ways that children aren’t likely to learn in their relationship with parents they know are there to protect and nurture them. In other words, nothing is more humanizing than having someone who depends on you, and whom you love enough to ensure that they always can.
I’ve always been a bit intrigued by the human-pet relationship (because, of course, I’m a little bit intrigued by most everything). In some ways, it resembles slavery, with the animal being the property of the “owner,” and the owner lording it over the animal (“NO! SIT! COME!”). There was a time in my youth when I tended to consider it immoral for this reason.
But I have since come to see the world in a more nuanced light, and recognize that this is a type of relationship that has evolved over millenia, like many other symbiotic relationships in nature, and offers many mutual advantages to the species and creatures involved. Those animals, even wild ones confined to zoos, arguably have a pretty good deal, at least if the zoo is a particularly good one. It’s nice to be able to bask in the sun without worrying about predators, and to enjoy a meal that you can rely on. Of course, as to wild animals in captivity, a strong counterargument can be made as well, that their lives have simply been reduced in quality for our benefit, that they live most fully in the wild, predators and all.
But domestic and domesticated animals fall into a different category altogether: Their existence as species, as we currently know them, is a function of their having been domesticated. Dogs, in fact (according to what I believe is the most well-respected modern theory), domesticated themselves, by hanging around pre-historic human garbage dumps. In a sense, then, they made the overture, that humans accepted, to form an interspecies partnership, one which both sides seem to enjoy and benefit from.
I know that I’m benefiting from this one. Buttercup is a sweet and lovable little bundle of warm puppydom, a bouncing, slipping and sliding, shoelace pouncing, tail-wagging, hand-chewing source of joy and laughter. And I know that by adopting her into our family I owe her a happy and healthy life, to the fullest extent of my ability to provide it. It’s a small price to pay for such a rich source of the one thing there’s just never enough of.