This morning Wicked Thistle sent me a You Tube video of a cat “nurturing” some baby bunnies. In it, the cat’s owner piles a mess o’ barely legal bunnies onto a big ol’ fluffy cat’s belly and urges it to, “take care of your puppies.”
So my first reaction – beyond wondering why the owner called the bunnies puppies – was utter amazement over said feline's self control. Looking at it, you could tell, just tell, that what it really wanted to do was not nurture the bunnies, but bite their little heads off and nibble on their tiny feet. It is, after all, what cats do. Yes, there are many instances where cats who have recently lost litters redirect their nurturing instincts to orphans of an entirely different species. But most often, the basic instinct is to stomp and chomp.
Which got me to thinking about all the ways in which we humans move about the world, assigning with merry abandon a whole host of anthropomorphic tendencies to all and sundry. Including our very own house pets. While I think it’s a natural tendency and part of our own nurturing natures, I also think it can get us into trouble.
For instance, we make much ado about what we regard as the canine ability to give “unconditional” love. Many studies have been done about whether or not dogs feel love for us. I have read a lot of these studies and have come to the conclusion that they do not. At least not in the way we feel love, like that for a spouse, child, or parent.
What I do think dogs “feel” for us is high regard. Unless it has been severely abused, most dogs quickly come to realize two important things about humans: we are the givers of food and the givers of fun, and therein lies our value. If you doubt me, just watch any reasonably competent dog trainer at work.
Dogs are, after all, pack animals. It is through the pack, and their place in it, that they survive. And also experience something else besides. Because while I remain unconvinced that dogs love us like we want them to, I do believe they crave, like us, a purposeful and enjoyable life – and they crave it with humans. It’s why we’ve been able over the centuries to domesticate them, to redirect their wolfish instincts into serving us as hunters, retrievers, herders, pullers, and, most recently, ball players, Frisbee chasers, jogging companions, fly ballers, sofa surfers.
All this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t love our dogs. We should, as deeply and widely as we love anything. But also, please, with some temperate regard for their true natures. Recently, I have been taking some lessons from poet Mary Oliver, one of our keenest observers of the natural world. Give your dog – and cat! – on occasion a break from being your end all and be all and instead, just let it be:
The Dog Has Run Off Again
and I should start shouting his name
and clapping my hands,
but it has been raining all night
and the narrow creek has risen
is a tawny turbulence is rushing along
over the mossy stones
is surging forward
with a sweet loopy music
and therefore I don’t want to entangle it
with my own voice
my little dog to hurry back
look the sunlight and shadows are chasing each other
listen how the wind swirls and leaps and dives up and down
who am I to summon his hard and happy body
his four white feet that love to wheel and pedal
through the dark leaves
to come back to walk by my side, obedient.