I was three or four years old when my favorite aunt invited me to peer into a box of squirming kittens. They were brand new, grey tabbies whose eyes were still shut tight. Their plaintive mews filled the air with a sense of sadness for me. How I longed to make them feel safe and loved. When my aunt told me I could take one of these little fur balls home, my heart leaped for joy. My very next thought was “oh no, will my mom and dad let me keep the kitten?” I turned my pleading eyes in the direction of my parents while my aunt went to work on them with assurances that it would be good for me to have a kitten. I did get to take the kitten home once it was old enough and now these many years later, I am still struck with the intensity of that first emotional connection with a non-human life form.
Animals play an important role in my adult life too. My current animal companion is a 50 pound rescue named Amelie. She is part terrier and part boxer and 100 per cent love. Her previous owners were unkind to her and she came to my home fearful and desperate to please. It took some time to rebuild her confidence. In the beginning she didn’t even know how to play with humans. If I tossed a ball in her direction she would not attempt to catch it. Instead she would cower and duck, convinced that I was trying to hit her with the ball. Today she is full of attitude and loves a rough game of tug of war.
In my professional life I teach anger management and communication skills to adults. When a client begins to retell that first pivotal relationship with an animal in their childhood, their entire demeanor is transformed. Otherwise emotionally reserved people will suddenly become less self-conscious and more animated as they retell the delight with which their particular furry friend filled their life. If the story is a sad one, I can count on tearful sobbing you might think would be reserved for the death of a parent or child. But with little exception, the deepest grief I have witnessed is reserved for that very first important relationship in the life of most children – that of their relationship with a pet.
A great deal of research supports the importance of animal companions to the lives of humans. Many studies confirm a predictive link between early childhood abuse of animals and violence towards humans in adult life. Programs which rehabilitate prison inmates by pairing them with horses or dogs who require rehabilitation too, have proven the power of the animal/human bond to reduce recidivism rates. Therapy dogs and cats regularly visit the elderly and infirm, spreading their unconditional love and creating measurable improvements in human health and recovery rates.
Pets are an economic priority in the United States as well, a multi-billion dollar industry which eclipses the sales of toys. More than a few immigrants to this country have marveled that supplies for dogs and cats warrant entire isles in supermarkets, not to mention huge stores like PETCO and PetSmart which are devoted to pets and pet needs entirely.
And yet, I believe we as a society are lacking a level of awareness pertaining to our pets. I don’t think we understand just how crucial our early animal connections are to shaping our adult lives and human relationships. Therapy routinely focuses on our families. We are asked about our relationships with our mother, father, siblings and human playmates. But most intake forms don’t have a section about pets. Most therapists do not ask their patients about their relationships with animals – whether in childhood or adulthood. Unfortunately, we are still stuck in a culture which relegates animal connections to the periphery of human psychology.
Deep ecologist, John Seed, argues that our current culture robs us of the emotional and visceral experience of the interconnectedness most of us shared with animals as small children. In fact the majority of us have been trained and shamed away from putting much importance on our connections to animals. While Americans love their pets, they still exhibit an awkwardness around expressing that love. Our laws classify pets as property and our conventions of speech relegate sentient beings to inanimate objects with pronouns like “it.”
Human chauvinism, known as anthropocentrism, asserts human supremacy over all other life forms. It lives in the sacred text of many religions which believe “man” is the “pinnacle of creation.” And it exists in scientific discourse which insists homo sapiens are superior to all other evolved life forms. No matter the political or spiritual orientation, people tend toward this self-serving world view.
But does it really serve us? Does minimizing and denying the heart connections, empathy, shared joys and love most of us felt for our pets when we were small children, help us to live better lives?
From the vantage point of my office, I would reply with a resounding “no.” My clients don’t come to me to talk about their childhood pets. They are there to work on repressed or acted out anger as well as sexual dissatisfaction of one sort or another. But in the process of uncovering those emotions and life events which often produce dysfunctional patterns and frustrated goals, a violation of innocence and a crushing of spirit very often reveals itself. While this may take the form of sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse and/or protracted illness, I have been astounded at the level of grief reserved for that first love – the love of a pet.
Humans have a long history of living in harmony with other life forms just as we have a long history of abusing anyone we designate as “other” be that another gender, another race or another species. If we are ever to tip the balance in favor of a more loving and positive culture, we must begin an open dialog about our true feelings surrounding our animal relationships. If we continue to silence the voice of our inner child and don the mask of adulthood which demands an almost robotic response our tender memories, then we continue to perpetuate a culture which is both mechanical and cruel.
I believe reconnecting to that first love – that first reciprocal relationship formed on trust and shared joy with another life form – is vital to our mental and emotional well-being as well as the capacity of the human species to survive and thrive. It could be that it even contains the solutions to violence for which we have long been searching.