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Friday, August 22, 2014

Olives and Rocks

The cat has been seen to be consorting with the neighbor's dogs. She was away for a while, after killing a giant cream-colored rat and leaving the corpse under my tulip tree. After that, she disappeared for a while, only to reappear when I was giving guests a tour of the orchard. She emerged from the neighbor's field, and with her came the neighbors' dog, Cowboy, and the two seem to be on very good terms. I think when she is not over on our front porch, the cat is hanging out with the neighbor's dogs. This gives me hope that maybe she is actually owned by the neighbors, and they are the ones who are feeding her and seeing to her medical needs.

Ownership of animals can be a very fluid concept out here in the country, in that a cat may feel that it owns more than one family. Coming from the city, we expect a kind of pet "monogamy", where every pet is owned by exactly one household, and every household is the sole owner of every pet. But we had a similar situation once with our dog Teyman. Before I had my eight foot fence built for the backyard, Teyman was free to come and go. We thought she was our dog, and we had her vaccinated and put a collar on her and fed her and played with her,  but she often went over to the neighbors' house and begged for food, got admitted inside, and sat on the couch with them watching TV and being petted and fondled. They even had a name for her: they called her Tiny!

At the time, because I had some pretty rigid notions about pet ownership, this upset me a little. Whose dog was she, really? Mine or theirs? But I had both Israeli and Taiwanese people here who chided me for my seeming jealousy. One of them said: "Can't you just be happy that the neighbors are so kind to your dog? They are feeding her treats and showing her affection. Don't you want her to be happy?"

I asked: "Well, if your husband were going over to the neighbor lady's house, and she was feeding him and meeting all his other needs, would you be happy that the neighbor lady was helping to keep your husband satisfied?"

To this I got a really weird response. "Dogs aren't husbands. That is completely different!" But it really isn't. The question is, in both cases, can you own another living being? And if you can, then does your ownership come before the desires of the being you own?

My friend from Taiwan told me that where she comes from, you do not own your cats and dogs. You share them with the entire community. You love them, but you let them come and go as they please.

Now, Teyman continued to visit the neighbors. and to hunt in the fields for rabbits, and to bring home parts of cows that she had gotten from goodness knows where, until the day our eight foot fence in the backyard was complete. And after that, her roaming days were over.

And you know what? I did feel a little guilty about that. But she never came home all scratched up from a fight anymore, and she had more security. So there are two sides to every coin.

That's what I meant when I talked about the cat having its freedom. Someone I know was upset because I implied that owned cats had less freedom. But it's true. More security means less freedom, whether you are a dog or a cat or a human.

Animal rights activists, like human rights activists, have strong opinions about all of this, and they tend to censure individuals for the restriction of the freedom of an animal and for providing less than a perfect environment. Here is what they have been saying recently about some of my colleagues:

If you own an animal, and you take full responsibility for every moment of its day, then your resources and their limitations will dictate the situation under which the animal lives. If you don't own an animal, and it is free to roam, then nobody can be responsible for what ultimately happens to it. The same is true of all animals, even humans. We should spend less time criticizing each other for not having the perfect, infinite environment for those we are responsible for and not giving them the perfect diet, whatever that may be. The irony is that the same criticism and worse could be leveled at sanctuaries and zoos, but for some reason, they are not.

When my guests were over, I shared some Israeli olives with them, that my mother had brought from her trip. And later I shared the olives with my daughter, and then with Bow.

Olives are a high fat food. Bow does not get them often, but he is familiar with them, because he has been having olives all his life, whenever we had them. Each chimpanzee owner has his own nutritional theories of what is good for a chimp to eat. I have noticed that some of the same weight issues that humans have are shared by their chimpanzee companions. If the humans are trim, their chimps seem to be, too. We tend to eat a wide variety of less processed food, and it works for us.

I once had volunteers who were eager for a more professional diet for Bow. "Monkey chow" sounded good to them. "What is in monkey chow?" I asked. They had no idea.

I have two dogs at present confined to my back yard. They have less freedom than the neighbor dogs who come onto my land sometimes. But they seem to find ways to keep themselves entertained. For Brownie, playing with rocks is very entertaining.

For Leo, it is his friendship with Brownie that adds the most meaning to his life.

Even  though Brownie is often fixated more on his rock than on his companion, Leo manages to engage him and bring out the playful. social side of the chocolate lab.

There is more than one way to conceptualize every possible relationship between living beings. Those of us who have been exposed to more than one culture understand that sometimes dogs and cats are owned and are happy being owned; and sometimes they are not owned, and are happy being free. There is more than one way to relate to a dog or a cat or a chimp. The problem with people who want to dictate to others is that their view is so normative, that often they can't see the possibilities.

It's not bad to own a dog or a cat or a chimp exclusively. But it is also not bad that under a different set of circumstances that dog or cat or chimp might actually be free and not owned at all. What is wrong is to institute rigid rules that have to apply to everyone in the same way. The circumstances dictate what relationship is best. I keep Bow to myself, because I recognize that at the moment, in our current society, he would not be safe if I allowed him to roam. But I still remember the story the breeders told me about the chimp they had who  broke into the neighbors' house and sat in their kitchen eating cherry pie filling, until the neighbors called his owners to come and get him. No police, no shooting, no violence.

The degree of freedom that is allowed depends on the norms of the society we live in. Right now, my daughter does not get to roam the streets in the same way I did at her age. It's sad, but it's a commentary on the times.  At least I know Bow is safe when I say good night each evening. He can't visit the neighbors and raid their pantry while I am asleep, but given the times we live in, he has a pretty good life.

Bow close to bedtime

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