This post by Sonia struck a chord; she’s said many of the things I frequently think about. For starters, this depressingly familiar business of people getting pets because it’s fashionable (or because their idiot kids bawl “Papa papa, puppy chahiye”), only to discover that it isn’t the same thing as having a stuffed toy lying about the house, and that there are serious responsibilities attached. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard about pets being abandoned because their owners couldn’t invest the time and attention (let alone love) that they needed. In our colony there’s a young Labrador with a very glossy black coat who is let out of the house gate, unattended, for an hour or so each evening, because no one can be bothered to walk him: he bounds about near the park looking perplexed, his size belying the fact that he’s a puppy, trying to make friends with the local strays who naturally snarl at him. There’s always the danger that he’ll be hit by a passing car, and one gets the sense that his humans don’t care much either way if he doesn’t return someday.
Anyone who really cares for animals (as opposed to feeling a vague affection for the pets they happen to have about the house as a form of interior decoration) will know that dogs who are well looked after and well-loved come to acquire a very particular set of characteristics – there’s a softness in the eyes that suggests a sense of security, a feeling that nothing really bad can happen in their little world; it’s understood that frenetic tail-wagging is the correct response to the sight of any new human. At the other extreme, there’s the perpetual wariness, the suggestion of fear hardened into aggression, on the face of the stray dog who knows that he’s liable to be kicked or have a stone thrown at him any second. And somewhere in between, in some ways worst of all, is the confused, cagey expression of the pet who lives in a house where people give him food and water and look after him in a detached sort of way, but where affection is in very short supply: a dog who isn’t allowed anywhere near the beds or sofas, who spends most of the day tied up on a short leash and who was quite possibly smacked hard the first time he chewed on a chair leg. One of my most cringe-inducing memories is visiting a former colleague’s house and seeing a Pomeranian that looked nervous, even frightened, when I put out a hand to pet him, as if he had no experience of that sort of thing. There was no softness in those eyes.
My sensitivity to these things has heightened since Foxie happened. I’ve never been this close to a dog before, though my mom has had many over the years (and has always accorded them higher status than the human beings around her). Cats were a different matter, of course; when Sandy disappeared 15 years ago I decided that I’d be careful not to get too close to a pet again, but you can’t plan these things beyond a point. Foxie wormed her way into our lives and though the initial days were more about the strong sense of responsibility we felt towards her than a deep attachment, this changed as she gradually developed a very special personality of her own. Today, she’s no different from a daughter for us. And now, whenever I see a scruffy, uncared-for, snarling mongrel on the road, it occurs to me that but for a tiny quirk of fate Foxie could have been that dog. And then she wouldn’t be the sweet, gentle, good-natured and trusting pup we know but something entirely different. Knowing how many strays there are on the roads – all of whom could, if their circumstances had been otherwise, made wonderful, loving pets – makes me feel ill-disposed towards people who pay large sums of money for “breeds”. And who, as Sonia points out, don’t even bother to do the basic groundwork.
P.S. And what about this habit that some pious people have of feeding a black dog once or thrice a week – on specified days, I think it is – because their resident goddess/astrologer has told them it’s good for their punya or karma or some such thing? Another addition to the long list of admirable traits in the religious and the superstitious.