CAN CATS (AND DOGS) MAKE US HAPPIER?
Of course they can, if happier means staggering along under the weight of feeding them and paying their vet bills.
From the flush of warm feelings to cold economics, the act of giving, unless or until the loss is replenished, sinks the giver and buoys the receiver. In a monetary economy, currency is the only life raft that keeps us afloat. It’s the root of all good, if survival is good and worry-free comfort is even better, and if – two ifs – it can be gotten without causing harm, and enough is left over to help sustain ecological balance, human and animal welfare.
There are always two ways of seeing things, and usually hundreds.
Germaine Greer believed that educated women could find lasting marital happiness with men who’d never opened a book, and didn’t intend to.
Bertrand Russell saw the gulf between the learned and the unlearned as yawning as that between man and beast. Except for a few simple words and acts, a meeting of minds was an unrealistic expectation.
Dante and Petrarch idealized their immortal beloveds, Beatrice and Laura, and Liszt transmuted Petrarch’s rapture into tone poems so meltingly pensive and filled with longing, concertgoers wept.
From adoration to blunt discussion to bone-crunching raunch, Lucretius Carus and Tom Robbins – two among many such writers worth reading who zoomed in like sharks on the nitty-gritties – liked to slam women under the guise of telling-it-like-it-is (Titus), and ‘Hey, little ladies, roll with the punches! We guys are just havin’ a little ol’ fun here!’ (Tom).
Women ‘d’un certain âge’ who rescue cats are stock comic figures to those with grander ambitions. Their compulsion is seen as crepuscular, a manifestation of later life expressing itself in a Little Old Lady Land ‘need to nurture.’
The opposite camp takes the position that morally sensitive people, whatever their age, have been known to rescue animals, that ‘aging’ is a gratuitous barb often reserved for and flung at women when everything ages – male and female featherless bipeds, mental constructs, the Rock of Gibraltar, the galaxies – when humanity’s chronic turmoil drives home that compassion falls so short of the need, people motivated by pity are flowers in the global weed patch, a stunning leap in evolution beyond the ‘me first, last and in-betweeners.’
In laying out what’s what for his readers, Desmond Morris saw an overweening affection for animals as a displacement, a symptom of fleeting or nonexistent love relations with other human beings.
For all her lethal wit in dismantling his ‘Tarzan’ approach to anthropology, Elaine Morgan agrees with him in this – surprisingly so – since many people with high-octane love lives, fulfilling families and philanthropic involvements find time to care about animals.
Our four-footed friends may bring us a greater degree of pleasure – and even happiness – if we’ve reached the level of culture espoused by John Cowper Powys, who wrote that everyday sense impressions can produce joy in their contemplation, a heightened response familiar to those who’ve trained themselves to forget the ephemeral clutter, ‘the trivial, the repulsive, the loathsome’ that ‘besiege us.’ He wrote that ‘the mind can purify itself of the troublesome pressure of litter and debris’…and achieve ‘detachment from that slavish submission to the chance-tossed accidents of our environment, which untrained minds find so hypnotic and so deadly.’
For certain it is that chance-tossed accidents bludgeon us when we think of the horrors inflicted on animals, when we’re benumbed by equally mindless spectacles – by jubilant crowds capering, yelling and waving flags because another life is snuffed out, crowds dead to Sontag’s unsparing perspective on 9/11, to Michael Scheur’s writings, to the boringly bloodless response of the pacifist Michael Berg, who forgave his son’s killer and regretted his death – for ‘death is no cause for rejoicing,’ he said. Was he a milksop? He was to mobs frenzied by violence, though he’d earned the right to his conviction as surely as the survivors and the bereft earned theirs to spurn the idea of ever forgiving, of ever stooping to understand anything beyond their own pain.
In of the carnage, anyone who cares about animals takes some small comfort in seeing the modest counterbalance to what we’ve done to them from the beginning – both to them and to our own kind, not only the sociopaths in our midst, but some of our finest intellects and exemplary parents who took their families to the arenas in ancient times, as we’d take our own to a Saturday matinee. A flicker of solace shines through the murk when our kindness reaches out, now and then, not only to our fellow men, but to animals. One of the most endearing proofs of how they’re entwined in our hearts was their parents’ refusal, in the aftermath of Katrina, to climb off the roofs and into the boats if it meant leaving behind their furred and feathered kids – an impassioned refusal that slowed the rescue to a crawl.
So there’s more to being happy than budgetary stretch-marks.
Among their many attributes, critters are fun. Are cats more companionable than dogs? Although they prefer familiar surroundings, some enjoy a stroll on a leash, and can even learn to enjoy a spin. Not only dogs, but cats, hens and parrots gently introduced to motoring develop a liking for the sway and the speed – for the landscape whizzing by. While his parent is shopping, a cockatoo, beaming with pride, will sit uncaged in a top-down convertible. And every one of them – dogs, cats, cockatoos, hens – bark, meow and squawk to pull into a drive-in for goodies. Cats delight in tooling down freeways and country roads with Mom and Dad, and a walk in the park, or in the woods, or on the beach if they’re used to a leash, and if their parent is Janus-eyed. An RV’ing cat can follow the sun year after year if his parents take care he has adequate cooling and ventilation, and a chance to stretch his legs outdoors – again, with the utmost caution and vigilance.
Equally fun, dogs adore hats. A guy-dog glories in flaunting a hat. The wider the brim – he’s proud as punch in a scaled-down sombrero or ten-gallon hat – the wider his grin. And lady dogs love monster chapeaux, gauzy confections of organdy and pink cabbage roses. So does a duck. Vita Quackville West, a mallard who lived in Seattle, was thrilled – overcome – by the kisses and cuddles lavished on her when she waddled around in her neckerchief and bonnet. A cat looks Man-About-Town debonair in a Scottish gentleman’s plaid cap and matching tie, but no matter how he enjoys the limelight, he won’t submit for long to this sartorial nonsense.
As to how a parent talks to a cat when no one sane is around to overhear, Jonathan Swift’s baby-prattle to Stella would pale by comparison. It’s one thing to bend down and whisper in a feathery ear…
‘Does Momma’s M’telle wan’ some swimp ‘n’ sawdeeny fih-ways fo’ bwunts, o’ maybe uh nice dwoosy tsikin dwumstik? Pwaps a dithel mincy-wee dizzud? Would zoo like a dibby-dabby o’ twoona? Some Fwiskee’s whitefiss? A squambled hen-fwoot wid a spwass o’ kweem? A dablet of wivuhwust, jus’ fo’ a tweet? Nunnadabuv? Momma gvivup!’ (‘Does Ethel want some shrimp and sardine filets for brunch, or maybe a nice juicy chicken drumstick? Perhaps a little minced gizzard? Would you like a dab of tuna? Some Friskie’s whitefish?’ A scrambled egg with a splash of cream? A dab of liverwurst, just for a treat? None of the above? Momma gives up!’)
…but the men in white would whisk her away if they heard her eerie vocalizations – the low, husky, kitty-wee raspings, the Yma Sumac trebles, the squeaky, whispery billings and cooings.
Fine, so far as it goes. But what is a cat good for? Dogs pull milk carts, heavy sleds and light plows, guard and round up flocks and herds, babysit babies, chase fugitives through swamps, rescue avalanche victims, sniff out dead bodies, bombs, drugs and disease, guide the blind, dial telephone numbers, open fridge doors and fetch a can of beer for their immobilized parents, scare off the prowlers, hike with their parents, tree raccoons, hunt and retrieve game, give up their life for their mom and dad.
Even if cats could be trained like guard dogs to lunge at a leg and sink in their fangs – eight or nine cats could finish off a burglar – they wouldn’t survive the encounter. But like frogs who stop singing when spooked by a sound that doesn’t belong in their neighborhood – pioneers depended on frogs to warn them of marauders – cats let you know with terrified looks and a dive for cover when there’s something or someone skulking around in the dark. Barn cats discourage rats from taking over. And if a mouse sneaks in the house, cats will give her a run for the money, and give their mother the screaming-meemies as she leaps into action to rescue the poor mite.
Dogs and cats are superb family members, a lesson in civilization for children watched like a hawk, and guided by parents willing to teach them what it means to be humane.
As perfectly as they fit into a family, dogs and cats can also be restful companions for the remaining 43 percent of the population in the U.S., 15 percent of whom are widowed, 24 percent divorced, and 61 percent never married. These singles range the gamut of personality types, if unique individuals fall into ‘types.’
Many have jobs or careers rounded out by social events and a wide array of volunteer activities. Many others share this routine, but welcome leave-takings as much as they do their time with friends. In one passage of his book, Proust lamented the lost hours and days he spent with his patrician companions, time he might have devoted to more enriching activities.
People who share this temperament feel burdened by more than a few enjoyable social engagements and obligations. Dickens’s morning and afternoon were curdled by his awareness that he had dress to the nines and be at a party that evening. Edward Fitzgerald, of Rubaiyat fame, found distant affinities more rewarding than tangible friends milling about, disturbing his repose. So did Tchaikovsky and his patroness, Madame von Meck, who enjoyed a years-long sympathetic exchange of letters. In more modern times, one of the Powys brothers wrote a book titled The Joys of Solitude. Not every artist – many or most were gregarious – thrived on ‘gossamer substance’ [Ellen Glasgow], but some did.
However concordant, unrelieved togetherness is, to likeminded people, unthinkable as a shouting match. What is known as the ‘dating scene’ is equally uncongenial to them, and current statistics describing the 50 to 75 percent rate of compromised wellness in women who find it congenial, many with indiscernible symptoms, dissuade the stodgy from hurtling themselves into the carnival atmosphere, the ‘fine, free passion’ Bertrand Russell thought lacking in value compared to pragmatic, creative or altruistic endeavor, including the rigors of learning. (He shone in all five.)
When they can afford it, solo cat parents may donate their money, less often their time, to a worthy cause. Which makes them off-putting, woefully so to movers and shakers stunned by the lack of commitment revealed by anyone capable of trading zeal for tranquil dispassion. ‘I can no more.’ [Edward Arlington Robinson] The neutralists know what that means. For all their flaws, they’re steeped in well-being derived from what to many are insignificant pleasures – a mug of hot chocolate by the fire, a satellite radio, a book worth reading. And a cat in their lap. For a cat is a jolly traveling companion on their shared journey, an affectionate comrade with whom they cover many a mile – never to part until the end.
Can cats make us happier? For all their exacting, annoying demands – and cats can be ‘tarsome’ (‘Georgie’ from Benson’s Lucia novels) – they’re good at nudging us in that direction.