Picture credit: Basak Gurbuz Derman/Getty
Artillery Row

The joy of pets

Pet ownership is one of life’s simple pleasures, but it also lifts the soul

I love my cat. He’s a ginger tom, who we named — with a striking burst of imagination — Gingy. He has lived with us in our tiny flat in central Norwich for the past six years. Although some might describe it as a home invasion, and others as settler-state colonialism, to us he has had a profound impact on our lives while supplying enough drama to give Hollyoaks a run for its money.

Cats are like vampires in that you must invite them into your home before they take over your life. He was a kitten when we first met him, when we lived in a flat a few streets away from where we now reside. An elderly woman would regularly feed the neighbourhood’s stray cats while standing on her doorstep. One morning, he chose to go with us, always stopping a few feet behind when we checked to see if he was following. After a few months, he worked up the courage to approach the door and flick the handle. The rest is history.

Most pet owners will tell you that while dogs accept you as the master, cats treat you like a slave. He wakes me up in the early hours every day. It begins with a soft tap and a gentle purring sound — lulling you into a false sense of security with the sense that you are being gently awakened. The tapping then becomes a swipe with a claw as the purr evolves into a loud miaow. In cat language, he is hungry, and I must feed him. 

In the dark, I fumble around for the light switch and a pouch of Whiskers, which I tip upside down, hoping that at least some of the coagulated brown slop will fall into the bowl. Gingy is content. Not me. It’s 4 a.m., and I am now wide awake. Unable to sleep, I sit with him curled up on my lap in my dressing gown, watching Cheers reruns and mildly cursing him. 

Everyone in the ‘hood knows Gingy. Locals often describe to me how he enters their home each morning for his second, third, and occasionally fourth breakfast. We frequently receive gifts from his fan club in the mail; one package simply said “to the lovely cat at number one.” 

Don’t get me wrong; he is also a massive pain in the arse. Due to his inquisitive and affectionate nature, Gingy has been bitten by a snake and frequently used as a tug of war by overly affectionate children. Last year, while chasing a pigeon off the ledge, he fell twenty feet off our balcony. My girlfriend was devastated because she believed he was dead for the five days he was missing. The subsequent vet bill that followed him limping home covered in scabs, scratches, and bruises forced us to cancel a long-planned weekend getaway. 

I fully acknowledge that animals are not people. I do not decorate my cat for Christmas with silly outfits or tinsel around his collar. Nor do I like the latest social media trend of people anthropomorphising their dogs. It’s only a cat, right? A small bundle of fur that stalks spiders, attacks invisible enemies and thunders up and down the stairs at midnight. Indeed, it might seem strange to talk about the joy of pet ownership in light of all that is happening in the world right now—earthquakes, famine, civil war. 

Yet I think pet ownership emphasises the primary ethical notion of care, and the moral virtues of kindness and compassion that go along with it. According to rational choice theory, our goals are driven by self-interest, and the majority of market decisions are purely transactional. This allows us to navigate through the world quickly and escape the monotony and routine of contemporary life. 

We also enter into relationships, though, that appear illogical at first. Consider love. The idea appears perversely counterintuitive to many people. We are prepared to risk a significant portion of our lives by devoting our energy, resources, and emotions on something that might not last. 

Similar issues arise when we adopt pets — why devote all of our time to something that will die soon? I was ready for what was going to happen when Gingy arrived at our door. He is the fourth ginger cat I have owned. The three previous moggies were all run over when I was a young child. I had the option to slam the door. It’s a trade-off. Grief is the price we pay for love.

A case in point is a recent conversation I had with an elderly neighbour. I used to see a man — I’ll call him Tony — every morning strolling through the park with his ageing Yorkshire terrier trailing behind. Without fail, I would see Tony at least three times per day. When he was alone, the octogenarian was highly opinionated and very irritable, personally warning me not to speak to him because of his controversial political views. Then, all of a sudden, he vanished. I spoke to a neighbour and was informed that his dog had passed away. He had not been seen for several months. The woman told me that Tony, who had lost his wife a few years earlier, no longer left the house. I was concerned that he would pass away alone — like so many elderly people,  he had no living relatives. I was afraid that the first I would learn of his passing would be from a neighbour over a casual conversation. 

Then, almost six months later, I bumped into him. This time, he walked with a spring in his step and a smile on his face. It turned out that the woman I had spoken to had asked local dog owners if they would allow him to walk their dogs. He now felt proud and full of purpose. The irascible native Italian found meaning in his life once more. Thank God for those little platoons, eh?

Owning a pet, despite what these misanthropic malthusians might claim, is one of the simple pleasures of life

A recent newspaper column poses the rhetorical question of whether it is time to give up pets in order to save the environment. We were asked, “Is it time to give up our cats and dogs?” Granted, the Guardian’s columnist did not answer with an unqualified “yes”. But while she made some good points — correctly highlighting how a careless and selfish attitude towards dog ownership during lockdown caused animal shelters to become overcrowded — I completely disagree with her extended problematisation of pet ownership. Why must we always wallow in the worst aspects of things?

Owning a pet, despite what these misanthropic malthusians might claim, is one of the simple pleasures of life. Teaching a child how to take care of a pet instils responsibility in them and fosters trust. Pets teach us the true meaning of companionship and the strength of love. They have the power to make us cry and laugh. What’s more, they show us what it means to be human. 

I know one day Gingy’s time will eventually come. I’m prepared for it. But the moments we’ve shared and the memories we’ve made will always be there. Yes, he’s just a cat, but I bloody love him.

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