Recently I babysat a precious golden retriever puppy for three days so my son and his wife could give her to their sons on Christmas morning. During that time she developed some “digestive” issues and by Christmas day she was in obvious distress. Was it my fault? Had she eaten a poisonous plant in our yard or swallowed something she couldn’t pass? The thought that I might be responsible was agonizing and I wondered for the umpteenth time why we get so attached to animals and experience some of our greatest joys and deepest sorrows because of them.
Certainly mammals have body structures, nervous systems, organs, instinctual needs, and even DNA very similar to ours. So when they’re sick, wounded or in pain, we know how they feel. Moreover, although most animals can try to flee from danger, there are always forces—including humans and Nature herself—that are far more powerful. Knowing our own fears and vulnerability, we can relate to that aspect of animals too.
Then there’s the unconditional love some animals give us. It’s so comforting when your dog follows you around, your cat purrs contentedly in your lap, or your horse comes running at your approach. You feel known, appreciated, valued and of value. A happy, thriving pet reminds you that you can be loving, nurturing and morally responsible. We crave these good feelings and love the animals who elicit them, so it’s only natural that we get emotional when they suffer or die.
Repression and projection have something to do with this too. All of us deny some of our unwanted qualities and project them onto people and animals. For example, you might repress feelings of sadness, loneliness and self-pity and dislike people who are always feeling sorry for themselves, yet you can feel painfully sorry for sad-eyed animals who are lost, neglected or abused. And let’s face it: feeling sympathy for an animal is better than feeling nothing at all!
The bottom line is that we all need humanizing and healing, and for whatever reason, animals have an uncanny knack for helping; especially with emotions like love, pain, and grief. For instance, when my parents divorced I cried my heart out. But when my father died three months later I didn’t shed a tear. I was so traumatized that I shut down emotionally so I wouldn’t hurt any more. Denying pain became so important to me that I even refused novocaine when I went to the dentist! For years I couldn’t cry for myself, and my obsessive stoicism wasn’t always easy to be around, but I could practically use up a box of tissues watching an animal movie. I still can!
Over the years Miss Lottie, a sensuous siamese cat; Peri, a perky little chihuahua/terrier mix; Shadow, an elegant, high-strung thoroughbred gelding; and Bear, a handsome and gentle golden retriever, have been my teachers, therapists and healers. Training and caring for them taught me patience and respect for the ways of others. Their simple joy in being alive taught me greater awareness and appreciation for my body and the life in it. Their love and devotion to me helped me feel and express more tenderness and love to everyone, including myself. And the tears I shed at their deaths softened my heart and taught me more compassion.
By the way, Isabella, or Izzy as Matt’s family calls their new puppy, is fine! Apparently her problem was caused by the supposedly “safe” puppy chews I gave her to keep her from chewing on the furniture! So it was my fault. This is tough for me to take, but being the sweet little love sponge that she is, I know she wouldn’t want me to blame myself. I’m trying not to…
“Man, like the other animals, is originally simply the puppet of instinct, just as the infant is. Unless he is moved by instinct, he remains