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Yetis, Perfection, and the American Pet

"My dog sheds too much."

I am a collector of urban legends. I heard them around the campfire at Girl Scouts, and later took much delight in recounting the one about the escaped murderer with a hook for a hand to an easily frightened college roommate. Have you heard about the alligators in the sewers? The Kentucky Fried Mouse? How about the one where the babysitter starts getting threatening phone calls, and when she asks the police to trace them, they call back to inform her that ... they’re coming from the room upstairs?

Most of these stories are designed to serve as cautionary tales. They deal with our fears—particularly women’s classic fears of rape, of murder, of accidentally eating an extremely fattening rodent. But there’s one urban legend unique to the sheltering field—and unique from most urban legends. In a genre dominated by stories that begin, “This happened to a friend of my brother’s girlfriend’s cousin,” this ghoul may have been sighted by eyewitnesses at your own shelter.

For a long time I thought this creature was fictional, an exaggeration borne of years of shelter folks’ frustration at the often trivial excuses presented by people surrendering animals. Then I talked to more and more people who claimed to have seen her firsthand. And then—finally—I saw her myself. I was visiting a municipal shelter in Virginia, waiting in the lobby to interview the officer who headed the agency, when a well-dressed woman entered carrying a cat cage. She placed the cat cage on the front desk and the girl at the desk opened the carrier door to let out a gorgeous tuxedo cat, a big nuzzler with liquid green eyes.

“I’m sorry to give him up,” the she-beast told the girl. “But we just redecorated the living room and he doesn’t match.” I had done it. I had seen the Yeti of the sheltering field! Having seen her, I could no longer doubt there were more of her species.

And after I saw her, I began to think that the dominant characteristic of the modern American human, the primary thing that separates us from other animals, is no longer our ability to reason or use tools or create language—or, as this woman seemed to believe, our ability to accessorize. What makes many of us unique is our ability to miss the point.

We can list all the reasons people first bonded with animals and brought them into our little fire-lit caves: protection from saber-toothed tigers, defense against thieves of food and clubbers of wives, warmth on freezing nights, help in hunting, companionship, loyalty.

But there’s another reason, one that may be as relevant today as it was in Neanderthal times: We invited animals into our homes to remind us who we are and where we came from. In the caveman days, there was less distinction between the decision to admit a smelly, dirty, hairy dog into the cave and the decision to admit a human of the same description; the boundaries between us and our four-footed friends were less clear, less fixed.

Animals are more or less the same as they were then, and so are we, though the accessories of our daily lives—cars, clothes, furniture, books—sometimes succeed in hiding this fact.

Animals remind us. In their utter attentiveness to the correct priorities—food, shelter, and companionship—the animals who live with us are more capable than most humans of reminding us when we’re missing the point. They transcend pettiness; they do not seek to one-up the Joneses. They eat, they sleep, they play, they feel pain, they die; their bodies behave as bodies rather than machines or clothes hangers or attractive furniture. They also help assuage our guilt over our inability to live up to our mothers’ models of housekeeping: I don’t feel guilty about my unmade bed or dirty dishes when I watch my dog snarfle enthusiastically in her private bits.

This is how the careless relinquishers still spotted in shelters miss the point, and we have yet to figure out how to help them get it. Many of the problems that drive animal homelessness and cruelty stem from educational and economic deprivation—dogfighting as a symbol of machismo, for example, the inability to pay for spay/neuter surgeries, traditions that dictate cats should live outside. Many shelters have found ways of combating these problems, by helping the underprivileged pay for sterilization surgeries, by developing campaigns that recast dogfighting as the abomination it is, and by making other imaginative leaps that help animal people speak the language of their constituencies.

But the people surrendering their pets for trivial reasons—because they have ceased to flatter the decor, because the owners don’t want to arrange for care during a vacation, because they simply can’t be bothered to track down animal-friendly housing options—are a different phenomenon altogether. They are often people suffering not from scarcity but from abundance—too much money and too much comfort creating the idea that anything messy or difficult should be abandoned quickly and replaced with something simpler.

They surrender animals for being brown, for scratching, for barking, for pooping—for doing the things that are in their very nature to do. This type of surrender indicates a fundamental disconnect, a detachment from real priorities that is almost unbelievable to those who would not only do anything for their own critters, but who sacrifice time, money, and comfort to help those homeless animals who have no other source of help. While it’s true that many seemingly trivial reasons for surrender are masks of deeper-rooted problems that an anguished human companion has already tried to solve, there is still a segment of the population that believes pets are as temporary as a piece of furniture—simply there to entertain and admire until they get in the way.

I have often tried to imagine the house of that woman in the Virginia shelter. I picture it as all creamy upholstery, gilded picture frames, a vase containing a perfectly arranged bouquet of cream-colored roses, silk throw pillows in a medley of pale greens and golds. I have seen houses like this. There are no stains on the rugs. There are no streaks of hair and oil along the baseboard of the sofa from a dog’s happy rubbing. There is no shredded carpeting where a cat has dug his nails in and created a new genre of Art.

There are some people who may be happy living there.

But for most animal people, the idea of such a room induces shudders—and there’s the difference. We need to acknowledge that animal people may be unique in our tolerance for mess and imperfection. When one of my friends at The HSUS tells me about how her dog goes into the yard, eats droppings left by her other dog, and then comes back inside to regurgitate, I believe that. When my husband and I wake up at 3 in the morning to comfort our epileptic dog as she seizes and expels every imaginable bodily fluid onto our bed, I believe that. We are not exceptional among animal people. But animal people may be exceptional in the world.

"My cat doesn't match the drapes."

The reduced intake of juvenile animals in certain areas of the country speaks of our success in getting some of our messages—like spay/neuter—out to the public. But our most fundamental message, the one that would most radically alter people’s treatment of their pets and of animals as a whole, is about the value of animals to us and in the world. It’s that message that still needs to be heard on a larger scale, especially by those trapped in addictions to convenience, speed and comfort. These addictions now affect every aspect of public life, an increasingly costly version of the American dream.

Even as shelters rightly focus energy on reshaping animal behavior so that it will fit better into people’s lives, we’d do well to simultaneously encourage the people we can reach to stop missing the point, to be more tolerant and forgiving of behaviors that are part and parcel of living with animals—and with people, for that matter.

We don’t need animals who don’t shed; we need more people willing to take their allergy medications and use the vacuum cleaner. We don’t need animals who are all perfectly behaved; we need more people willing to laugh, pick up the pieces of the chewed-up remote control, and find a good behavior class. We are at the hearts-and-minds stage of the battle against animal abuse and neglect. It is only by pushing through our cluttered, disconnected society with the message of animals’ inherent value, their non-disposability, that we will succeed in driving the careless Yetis still spotted in shelter lobbies into permanent extinction.

While evolution is a slow process for species, individual animals—human and non—are capable of great change. But the human animal’s capacity for reason gives us an advantage: We should be able to see when change is not needed or desirable—or when change is being asked of the wrong creature.

As with many lessons, animals can be the best role models for the patient and tolerant pet owners we’re trying to create. Slightly altered, part of the Lord’s Prayer speaks nicely for pets: Give us this day our daily kibble, and forgive us our trespasses—as we forgive those who trespass against us.


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