Two weeks ago, I ran into a very nice man I know slightly and he shocked the stuffing out of me. How? He showed me a picture of his 13-month-old son, Declan.
Why was I shocked? For the first time in ages, I found myself looking at a picture of a cute little thing that had neither whiskers nor pointed ears.
That’s when I realized how completely pets have taken over my life. When you write mysteries with cats in them, certain things happen. One is that you get caught up in the pet world, a social milieu that like any other has its share of issues and infighting about which outsiders are unaware. I wrote “Cries and Whiskers,” in part, because I was hearing a lot about the conflict between animal welfare and animal rights, with animal welfare people calling animal rights people “anti-pet” and animal rights people saying animal welfare people were “anti-nature.”
This followed “Cattery Row,” which dealt with the pedigreed/show cat world, and “Mew is for Murder,” which touched on animal “hoarding” and pet overpopulation. You start hanging around animal folks and you hear these things. And while normal people – nonwriters – might go, “Oh, how interesting! I never realized that animal rights people might not favor pets,” as a mystery writer, I automatically think: “How interesting – and what a great motive for murder!”
The other thing, much more benign, that happens when you write books with silly animal puns in the titles is that people start sending you pictures of their pets. If I’d been smarter, I’d have saved these – I could have an entire section of my website devoted to readers’ companion animals. It would have been a hoot. As it is, I have some, and expect others to come out of wallets, bookbags, and cell phones every time I read or speak. Hey, I’ve got pictures of pets past (Cyrus) and present (Musetta) on my website, it’s only fair!
Looking at these photos, I’m struck by the variety of pets that we hold dear. I mean, I’m basically a cat person. But I’ve seen photos of rats, puggles, and even the occasional boa. And I wonder, how did we choose these animals? Or did they choose us?
Years ago, I tried a serious take on pet-choice. I wrote a series of articles talking to animal behaviorists and shrinks, breed rescuers, and the like. I read studies – yes, there are studies – and polls done by pet-food manufacturers. I interviewed folks who bought expensive pedigreed animals, and those who were adopted by strays. I talked to people who loved both the ordinary (house rabbits) and the extreme (a uromastyx lizard).
What I wanted was an answer to some basic questions: Why do we love our pets? Why are some of us cat people, and others feline-phobic? What makes one person love pugs, while another is dedicated to Dobies? In the process, I got to visit a gentleman who does reptile rescue. Seriously. He had turned one closet in his house into a terrarium for baby alligators, and he had another room full of rare amphibians, most of which had been smuggled into the country and confiscated by animal control officers. For companionship, though she’d passed on before my visit, he’d long had a four-foot long monitor lizard that would curl up with him on the couch.
Along the way, I learned some sad things about people. We’re a faddish lot, and we tend to adopt animals we’ve seen in the movies (particularly some dog breeds) without paying any attention to their temperaments – or ours. But along the way, I also learned some wonderful things about pet love. It’s as blind as human love. To the adoring heart, a budgie and a boa can be equally adorable, and the company of a cool, calm, and beautiful reptile can provide as much solace to a lizard lover as the kneading purr of my Musetta does for me. Ultimately, whether we choose our pets – or our pets choose us – the connection is as deep and real as any other emotional bond. Declan’s dad may disagree, but just wait till Declan gets his first puppy.
So I’ve got to ask: Do you have a pet? How did you end up with that particular animal? Or maybe the real question is, how did your pet end up with you?
* A version of this blog originally appeared on Writers Plot, but it's a topic near and dear to me, so I thought I'd repost here.