This point is inarguable: mankind is infatuated with domesticated animals. The greatest evidence of this assertion can be found in most of our own homes. From hamsters to Great Danes, we love the animals which we call our pets. And as pet owners we’re often guilty of taking that “love” to extreme degrees. We humanize our pets by giving them names like “Walter,” “Bill” or “McCarthy.” We afford them their own living space in the form of special crates, cages or rooms. We give them their own dishes –sometimes monogrammed with their names on them, so us humans, I suppose, won’t be confused into accidently eating out of poor “Pooky’s” private bowl. They go on vacations, and to doctor’s appointments where friendy nurses accord them the additional dignity of our family surnames (“the doctor will see Midnight Rogers now.” Midnight Rogers? Seriously?). They even have their own furniture – beds, couches and chairs customized to accommodate their particular sizes and lounging habits. And if they don’t have their own beds, couches and chairs, they confiscate the humans’ beds, couches and chairs, which we willingly seem to abdicate to them.
Okay, so by now you’re probably sensing a growing tone of resentment in my prose. Yes it’s true. I’m a reluctant pet owner who has begrudgingly conceded to the family’s acquisitions of multiple pets over the years. I was against taking on the very first gold fish, only to be over ruled on that and every subsequent purchase of reptile, rodent, feline and dog.
Now that’s not to say that I don’t love animals. On the contrary, I grew up with the same array of cats and dogs in our home as most people did. I can appreciate the companionship of a friendly dog or cat as much as the next human being. But it’s the three “P’s” of pet ownership that get me down: poop, pee and puke. The perpetual doodie duty just seems like a pretty high price to pay for some tail-wagging and a vibrant game of “fetch.” But obviously, millions continue to be undeterred by that downside.
Of course, the world’s infatuation with domesticated animals has never been limited to mere companionship. Dogs especially have stood out for their extraordinary civic contributions to society, serving the needs of the blind and the incapacitated, while contributing to search and rescues, and law enforcement needs. And how many times did Lassie bail young Timmy out of some awful peril between 1956 and 1973? Every single week, by my childhood recollections. Plus, let’s not forget their contribution to science. Rats, cats and dogs have carried the lion’s share of duties as test subjects for untold numbers of experiments. We’ve made them the guinea pigs in the search for answers to almost every meaningful question (much to the relief of guinea pigs, I might add).
The field of social sciences in particular owes these animals a great debt too. In the early 1900’s the study of how the brain works (i.e., psychology) began to merge with the study of how the body works (i.e., physiology) to create the field of Behaviorism. Scientists were trying to understand the mind-body connection – the cause and effect – of what makes us behave the way we do, both good and bad. Some of the most prominent research findings to this day came from breakthrough animal studies by the likes of Pavlov, whose dogs helped us discover “behavioral conditioning,” and by Thorndike, whose cats helped establish the “law of effect.” B.F. Skinner’s rat models helped prove the theory that “positive reinforcement” is superior to “punishment” when it comes to altering behavior. In the end, our friends from the animal kingdom helped prove that living beings learn better, respond better and are more motivated by positive treatment versus coercive or punitive treatment. And for that, employees, students, athletes and – really, all of us - have a lot to be thankful for.
As someone who’s trying to live up to the claim that nice guys finish first, I too have to thank the animal world. And so the least I could do was acquiesce to the repeated requests for a new pet. Of course, that posture quickly created a household inhabited by a lizard, a dog, two cats and two rats. That’s right, rats.
How it went that far, I’m not really sure. The answer lies somewhere between parental permissiveness and pure math; that is, being outnumbered four to one. Or more precisely, three kids and a wife to one.
But throughout the ups and downs of pet ownership I’ve consistently been fascinated by one startling question: how is it that our rats, cats and dogs somehow live in a perfectly harmonious coexistence in our home? I mean, these guys are supposed to be mortal enemies, aren’t they? Every bit of scientific knowledge I have about animals tells me that these species are natural adversaries of each other. C’mon, you read A Fly Went By. You know who was chasing who. And Tom and Jerry made each other’s life a living Hell, while Sylvester the cat was mercilessly hunted by the local junkyard bulldog. Facts are facts, man.
But not in our house. There’s a miracle of nature going on. Our pets are fully committed to their own form of détente, happy to live in peace with their arch enemies. Henry Kissinger would be proud. And there’s really only one possible explanation for this aberration of nature’s true course: our pets know how good they have it, and they’ve conspired to not screw it up by biting the head off of their housemates.
At this point I can tell you that Thorndike, Skinner and Pavlov would have had no use for these particular cats, rats and dog as test subjects since they have been spoiled beyond the hope of recovery. Our highly domesticated rats would have ruined Skinner’s experiments by refusing the allure of mere ordinary cheese, while they awaited the offering of their usual precisely cut vegetable cornucopia whose presentation would impress Martha Stewart. Our cats would have never gotten into Thorndike’s experimental box-maze, opting instead for the luxury of their multi-level, carpeted penthouse cage. And as for the family dog, Pudge, our precious Papillion, let’s just say that my wife has anointed her the queen of our home for all of eternity, at the expense of everyone and everything else. The modern world is extremely lucky that the manipulative and spoiled Pudge was not part of Dr. Pavlov’s experiments in the early 1900’s. Had it been so, I fear that the famous quote would not be “Pavlov’s Dogs,” but rather “Pudge’s Humans.” Fortunately, most scientists have been inclined to use normal laboratory animals for their experiments to control for consistency and avoid the scientific anomaly of a rat, cat or dog with a bad attitude.
Either way, I can’t really fight it. They did help prove that nice guys finish first. And after all, I’m only human.