Sitting at my desk this morning, I found myself pondering the strange, ambivalent relationship we humans have with our pets.
I’d better explain. We had a death, recently, you see; another death. Their lives are so short, these frail creatures that seem to live for little more than a day, then become part of our history. As they live, we alternately love or curse them, remonstrate or cajole, fawn or fondle, when really they give us little regard. But we must not be cruel, and so we hold them in our affection.
Like most children I went through a phase of small pets – you know the ones; the hamster with its eternal bloody wheel, the rapid gerbils, the Chinchillas who, in a few minutes, will explain the facts of life to you with the alacrity of cabin crew demonstrating emergency exits before takeoff.
I loved them all, I suppose. Guinea pigs were the last, because they succeeded in expressing their sorrow where all others had failed. Expressionless eyes, immobile faces, eating as bidden. No sign of their deep, captive distress, yet life companions with profound devotion to each other. I had (I won’t say ‘owned’) and fed a pair into old age; until one of them died. Within hours her companion had gone, too. Died, I can only assume, of a broken heart. That day I learned an important lesson: animals have feelings – love, compassion, grief, no less than our own. And to confine a free spirit in a tiny cage is no less a crime than to pen a fellow human. I would never do it again.
Yet I could not free myself of my need for pet companionship, and I came upon the solution in a curious way. A creature that needed no cage, that would sit beside me at my desk as I worked without complaint for as long as it was able. And now? Now I cannot live without one.
Why, I don’t know. They are not exactly easy to care for: they have needs that are sometimes complex, and if they are unwell, always expensive. Like most of us, when young they give little trouble, take their costly food without issue and behave themselves, broadly speaking. I believe, although they share a Guinea pig’s inscrutability, that they are capable of gratitude, but as they get old (and their lifespan is rarely more than a couple of years) they can suffer. This is something they rarely do quietly.
Should you decide to adopt one in later life, look out for these signs. Disobedience, selective hearing, sudden distressed noises for no accountable reason, fits of messy, frustrating projectile vomiting. All are the signs of old age you might expect, and as you would, I hope, for any creature in such straits, your kindest course is not to spend fortunes trying to give it a few more painful months of life, but to put it down mercifully. Then, if you feel the space in your life that is left by its parting, buy another in its place. New, youthful, and quite inexpensive, it will bring you joy for months to come.
So, I return to my sorry news. My good companion who was with me so briefly has passed away. But I must end on an optimistic note: its young replacement is already sitting here, and we are learning about each other a little more each day. Rest in peace, then, Kodak ESP C 310. Young Epson is panting and ready, and if it is in the right mood, it may even print something this afternoon!