All Creatures Great and Small

My family and I spent the greater part of Christmas day today waiting at the emergency room for the doctor to see...our cat. Who hadn't pooped in over a week and hadn't peed properly in several days. I took her to our local vet on Wednesday, and he gave her some Catlax, but still by this morning, nothing. And she wasn't eating any more. Time to take more serious measures.

Who works at the animal hospital on Christmas? I'm not sure about the nurses and techs, but the doctor whom we saw mentioned that he was Jewish.* But we were hardly the only ones there bringing animals to be cared for. There were old dogs and puppies and several cats. Nor was our cat considered to be in the most desperate straits. Part of the reason that we had to wait so long (nearly three hours) before the vet could see her was that the other cases coming in were considered more immediately serious. But when she finally was called in, this is what the vet saw:

All the poop from the past week compacted in her intestines. And she also tested positive for a urinary infection.

I've written before about caring for a sick pet, back when our other cat Tom was dying of cancer. Is it silly for us to care so much about our pets? Some would say so. Pets are "just animals" after all. But--and who knew that I would be given such immediate cause to write about what I'd been reading?--as James Serpell has argued, this is all the more reason for us, human beings, to care about them. It is, after all, what "we humans" do: care.

I have some quarrel with the way in which Serpell blames the Middle Ages (sigh) and, even more so, Christianity (double sigh) for our Western, mechanized, "they're just animals, don't anthropomorphize them" attitude, but he is totally right about our schizophrenia, on the one hand, welcoming some animals (dogs, cats, guinea pigs, gerbils and so forth) into our homes as honorary family members; while on the other, industrially slaughtering others (pigs, cows, chickens, sheep) so that we can eat them. And yet, why do we feel simultaneously so guilty about the way in which we depend on other animals' deaths in order to live and so embarrassed about how we treat our pets? Precisely, Serpell argues, because we should. It is in our nature to sympathize with other creatures even as we kill them; it is in our nature to be able to see ourselves in other species.

In Serpell's words: "Of course, the idea that people have inhibitions about killing and eating animals, such as pets, which are close to them emotionally is not new. It has been pointed out repeatedly in the past by a number of eminent anthropologists. What has not been emphasized previously is the fact that close social bonds with animals are themselves emotionally fulfilling, and that they therefore constitute a benefit which frequently conflicts with economic demands. It is not so much that we avoid killing the animals with which we are friendly. It is more the other way around. Unconsciously or deliberately we either avoid befriending the animals we intend to harm, or we fabricate elaborate and often mythological justification for their suffering that absolves us of blame. The sad thing is that we have been practising this form of self-deception for so long that, by and large, we are scarcely aware that we are doing it any more. The myths have become reality, the fantasies, fact. Instead of questioning our supposedly objective, economic relations with other species, or the morality that governs our ruthless exploitation of animals and nature, we tend to ridicule or denigrate those who take the opposite view. People who display emotional concern for animal suffering, or the destruction of the environment, or the extinction of wild species are often themselves treated as misguided idealists. While those who allow themselves to become emotionally involved with companion animals are considered perverted, pathetic or wasteful. And all of them are damned with the accusation of sentimentality, as if having sentiments or feelings for other species were a sign of weakness, intellectual flabbiness or mental disturbance. Yet, for more than 90 per cent of their history, human beings lived as hunters and gatherers, and the majority of hunter-gatherers display similar sentiments. The truth is that it is normal and natural for people to empathize and identify with other life forms, and to feel guilt and remorse about harming them. It is the essence of our humanity. The sooner we come to terms with this novel idea the better, since our future on this planet may depend on it."**

So, yes, I think it was entirely appropriate to spend four hours at the vet taking care of our cat today of all days. And spending over $400 for her to be diagnosed and medicated so that she will get well. And yet, my family and I are about to eat a Christmas goose and we treated the dog with a cow muscle chew. No wonder it's so hard being human. Perhaps this is why medieval Christians always made sure to show the ox and ass with the baby Jesus in the manger. Because God (pace Serpell) knew it, too.***

*We were asking about restaurants in the neighborhood that might possibly be open. He said that "we Jews" tend to go out for Chinese on Christmas.
**In the Company of Animals: A Study of Human-Animal Relationships (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986, 1996), pp. 210-211.
***The University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center, MS 348.


  1. I do hope Ms. Kitty gets to feeling better in short order. As I sit here with The Hound of the Basketcase, I understand how much we worry. may the rest of your break go more gently.

  2. Thanks, Prof. Mondo! Ms. Kitty, a.k.a. the Sophisticat, is on her medication now, eating well, but still, alas, constipated. Which may mean another enema if something doesn't come out soon. Sigh. It's hard being a kitty!


Post a Comment

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my blog post. I look forward to hearing what you think!


Popular posts from this blog

Fake News

Abortion Games: The Lady Priest

Bears Abroad! Q&A with Madam Mayo

Confessions of a New World Sugar Eater

Spice Wars Study Guide