All I have to do is say “Old Yellar,” and everyone will know the feeling.Everyone of a certain age, I should add, who’s owned a canine.The love of dog.From where I pass my days I can see out the window into the neighbors’ back yards for four houses over.They all have dogs.Big dogs, mostly.They also have fenced in backyards.One of the things I haven’t seen too much in our neighborhood is dog walking.People let their dogs out to frolic, and do their, ahem, other outdoor activities in the yard.Once a day some member of the family, either with the basic plastic bag or with the specialized, long-handled brush and scooper, slowly surveys the yard to remove any offensive matter so the space may be used for human activities.It’s a level of care that most would shudder to provide for their own species.
Wolves were the earliest domesticated animals.In those hunter-gatherer days either they or humans—the jury’s out on which—realized the advantages of working together.Kind of like we were fated to be partners.Besides, unless the dog turns on us, there’s no question of who’s the master here, and everyone likes to be the boss.When I catch a glimpse of one of the neighborhood pets being scolded, or praised, it’s clear they share emotions with us.The bond is deep.I often wonder about this—they recognize the tone of voice, something that takes humans a while to learn.I grew up with dogs and I found out that even if you insult them in a friendly, encouraging tone of voice they’ll love you for it.Dogs are just that way.
Our first real dog—the one that ended up staying with us his whole life, was a beagle pup we got at a farm.Dogs like to be with others.Unlike humans, they don’t have to pretend.(Although they can do that too, as when they growl at you during a game of tug-o-war.)Then we leave home and go to our places of business, where capitalism reigns.We treat other humans coldly, clinically.“It’s only business,” we’ll parrot, especially if we feel bad about doing what the boss tells us.That’s the way we treat our own species when money’s involved.And we’ll sit at our desks, daydreaming of our dog at home that will be so glad to see us when we walk through that door.And we’ll gladly clean up after our pets what we find obscene even to write in human language. It kind of makes me wonder when I glance out the window while at work.
With the world about to end tomorrow, a friend pointed me to a story of a savvy entrepreneur. The idea is so obvious that I’m completely jealous I didn’t think of it myself. Among the Fundamentalist camp it is widely acknowledged that animals don’t have souls. They do, however, make wonderful companions nevertheless. When their good Christian owners are raptured to the skies, Rover is consigned to a cruel death by starvation if his soulless biological form is left inside. Poor soulless, sinless Rover! Reason (such as any theological thought can be called “reason”) and emotion clash. Bart Centre comes to the rescue. His company will break into the now abandoned private property that God had blessed you with, and rescue your pet. For a reasonable fee. As an atheist, Centre is pretty sure he won’t be going anywhere.
At notable—and even some rather forgettable—points in human history, people have guessed that it is all about to end. This is a strange belief when parsed apart from its original context. Ancient mythical thought tended to be holistic. We humans, with our own cycle of births and deaths, have trouble imagining anything that doesn’t follow the same pattern. All things must have beginnings and ends. Zoroastrianism began as a persecuted sect among the Old Persian religious realm. Persecuted sects tend to want an end to the suffering, and so it is no surprise that Zoroastrians gave us the end of the world. When Judaism was under the severe predation of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, it too looked for a radical change. Christianity under Nero and Domitian looked for a triumphant culmination of a universal purpose. And no end came. Instead, under Constantine Christianity gained a privileged position. With only periodic outbreaks, concern for the end of all things was pacified.
Today with the ease of lifestyle among most American Christians, it is surprising to see such antipathy toward the world. In the words of the Metatron, “Was Wisconsin really that bad?” Or maybe I have read it wrong. Perhaps this is the final culmination of the Prosperity Gospel: Christians have got it so good that the only way to better their lot is to end it all? Religions have always demonstrated their acquisitiveness either in terms of souls or currency. When you’re on top of that world, what direction is there to go but out? But you can’t take it with you, including your soulless friends. Perhaps that’s the real lesson in all of this: humans struggle to mix reason and emotion into one psyche, despite their diverse evolutionary paths to consciousness. We may readily accept the mythical but still wonder who will take Rover for his walk.
In the Bible there are no cats. This silence is odd since cats have been associated with humans for over 9,000 years. Large felines, of course, appear in the Bible; lions and leopards prowl sacred writ, but nary a housecat. In a world of subsistence farmers, the concept of a “pet” is also absent — an animal as part of the household is yet another mouth to feed. The closest we get to biblical pets is in Nathan’s parable to David about Bathsheba. Here the “pet” is a lamb — a potential source of wool and almost certainly a funeral involving roasting and possibly mint sauce.
The Israelite view on animals is difficult to assess fully. Clean and unclean classifications seem to relate to predatory behavior and “fitness” for an environment. As a notorious but useful predator, cats could have been somewhat of a religious embarrassment. Having tamed feral cats, I know that the key is to make repeated offerings to a cat (by the way, this is the advice of Old Deuteronomy in Cats). Being quite self-sufficient, cats can find what they need without human, or divine intervention, thank you. Perhaps feline behavior resembles that of the gods a little too much for people inclined towards henotheism?
In the beginning was the cat
The problem with predators is no one knows what they’ve been eating. Predation involves bloodshed and blood pollutes. Look at what the cat dragged in! Biblical cats are victims of argumentum ex silentio — we can never know why they don’t merit a mention. As carnivores they are necessarily unclean. By the Middle Ages, for reasons still unclear, the church and superstition rendered cats as the familiars of witches. Ironically the associated killing of cats likely helped to spread the Black Death because of the removal of the flea-bearing rodents natural predators. In most ancient cultures cats are credited with supernatural powers. Since the Bible strictly guards this privilege, perhaps cats stepped just a little too close to divine prerogatives to merit a mention in the Good Book.