Talking About Our Relationship With Animals by Nigel Summerely and Rowena J Ronson

Dreamer by Rowena J Ronson

Dreamer by Rowena J Ronson

NS: In the past year I have lived in a number of different places, each with a resident cat. It has not been hard to leave the places – or the animals. But while I find I don’t miss the place, I do miss the cat. What is it about the human relationship with a familiar animal that is so important to us? It’s odd because – particularly with a cat – it’s all one-sided and illusory, isn’t it?

RJR: I understand what you mean in terms of how we project our own emotions on to an animal we are in relationship with but that does not mean to say that it is one-sided or illusory. I have developed connections with a variety of different animals in my lifetime, including a pelican, and even though I cannot imagine how he felt, I know that something was going on that touched my heart.

NS: Some people would say this sounds nonsensical – establishing some sort of relationship with a bird. But presumably it is possible to have some sort of interaction with any other creature that is more or less on the same scale as a human (ie it would be difficult with an ant). If you could say some more about the pelican, perhaps that would lead us into some understanding of what is happening – even though we can never know fully.

RJR: The pelican fell from the sky over the bay of Atsitsa, on the island of Skyros in Greece when he was about a month old and his flock were migrating from Africa to Russia. He lived with a family that I know for a couple of years and developed not only a very close and special relationship with them but also with me when I visited. I used to take him for walks, relax on the beach with him and go swimming. He would then walk back up the hill at my side until I returned him to his adopted mother, my friend. We would look into each other’s eyes but, of course, I have no idea what he was feeling, but I know how I felt…. very moved!!

NS: Is it possible that neither human nor animal really knows – or can know – what is going on in this kind of relationship? The fact is that there is something that brings human and animal together, and something that both get from walking side by side together. Perhaps there is an intelligence at work here that is not the intelligence of the human and not the intelligence of the animal? Would it be too much to call this love?

RJR: Universal love perhaps, although it is not the first thing that springs to my mind. I do agree that we don’t know what is going on in this relationship, and we don’t often know what is going on in relationships between human beings either! One thing is for sure, relationships with animals are less complicated. Although this is not always true as some animals bring with them a traumatised karma and however much we struggle, we cannot connect with them. I had that with my cat when I was growing up and my first when I bought my own flat. Both cats had issues! And in truth, we really did not form a relationship at all….

NS: I think it’s interesting, this sort of parallel with human relationships… Yes, we often don’t know what is going on in the mind of the other person… In fact, perhaps never… So then we rely on some sort of mutual instinct, some sort of mutual feeling that indicates when things are all right. In the human-animal relationship, things do seem generally less complicated. Does the animal supply something that the human needs? Or is it a substitute for a human relationship? And do animals come into our lives when we need them, and also when they need us? Interestingly, I started this dialogue by mentioning that I was missing cats in my life, and just after that a cat from several streets away started visiting my home every evening. I have no explanation why – as there was no food on offer! But she seemed to get something from her being there – and so did I. Can you say something more about what “issues” an animal may have?

RJR: My first cat was abandoned by his mother and left under my window. He could never trust anyone after that and would be sitting on someone’s lap and then just turn around and scratch you. We were all covered in deep scratches on our hands and up our arms throughout his ten year visit with us. Pablo was my own cat once I left home, as I mentioned. I had him from very young but I do not know if he was traumatised but he certainly behaved like it. He would hide behind a door and rush out and grab my ankles with his teeth and claws. As a cat lover, I wasn’t put off and I went on to have two gorgeous cats who were brother and sister and they couldn’t have been more affectionate and loving. What is interesting to me is how having an animal affects the dynamics in a relationship. A friend said today that her partner would not let her have a cat because he would be jealous of the attention she would give it. I have heard this before from patients of mine. Are you surprised?

NS: I also had a cat – a rescue cat – who seemed to have been traumatised. He spent the first few months hiding beneath things, and then, for a long while after that, craving affection – which he did by scratching your hand, as if to say: “Stroke me.” In the end he just settled down to being a fairly normal cat – although he always seemed troubled. The jealousy thing is not surprising. Since, the animal-human relationship can be consistently strong, it may well appear to be a challenge to a human-human relationship that may be inconsistent in its strength. Could we also be slightly envious of the way in which an animal can easily be part of a relationship and yet completely maintain its individuality at the same time?

RJR: Perhaps their feelings don’t go as deep as ours as their brains are less complex and developed. I guess resentment doesn’t get in the way of reconnection. But in saying that, I am sure I have experienced cats sulking! Maybe they have shorter memories though…. And I wonder if dogs maintain their individuality as much as cats. What do you think?

NS: On the whole, it seems that animals live much more in the present than we do – and this applies to cats and dogs and pelicans. But this seems to be a more intelligent way to live, so does brain size come into this? Perhaps, as you suggest, animals’ ‘feelings’ are less complex than those of humans. Short memories seem to be an important part of living in the present – with long-term memory being used for things that are really important to survival. Perhaps the more complex human brain allows us to hang on to too much in the long term – in fact almost everything almost for ever. The cliche is that dogs are less individual and egotisitic and more subservient and faithful, while cats are the opposite. This does seem to be the case. The cat that visited me every night for a week recently, and gave the impression that my home was her idea of paradise, has stopped visiting just as suddenly as she started – and has no doubt found somewhere else to grace with her presence. I will remember her – but I doubt she will we remember me.

RJR: I find it interesting that domestic cats have evolved to be in relationship with humans. Their purr has healing properties and sends out a vibration that knits our broken bones together. And I suspect the effect is not just on our bones. I would imagine we release oxytocin when we stroke a cat. So this makes me wonder whether we are ever truly in love with someone or something else or are they just triggers for our own chemical reaction, and that is what we love so much. I am also wondering if dogs are more suited to the extroverts among us. It seems like you have to be pretty sociable to want to engage with the whole dog walking experience. For some people I know, their interaction with others as they dog walk is a major factor in their doggy enjoyment and adds a whole different social dimension to their lives. So maybe it is not so much a dependence/independence issue but an extrovert/introvert one. What do you think?

NS: My inclination is not to reduce love to literal chemistry, but maybe everything in the end is energy and thus chemistry. The presence of, and contact with, cats, dogs and other animals have been shown to have healing benefits for humans; that healing may well be coming from within us, but the animal is the catalyst for this reaction. The introverts with cats and the extroverts with dogs? Well, perhaps that does make some sort of sense. But I think there are also some “loners” with dogs, and some pretty outgoing people with cats. Again, the presence of an animal, especially a dog, but also a cat or a pelican, seems to make human-to-human interaction easier. Does the presence of an animal draw out the self-centredness of the human?

RJR: Not sure what you mean about the presence of an animal making human interaction easier, but maybe superficially in the park as a talking point. I have a patient whose giant poodle sleeps in her bed each night between her and her husband. Tell me more about what you mean about human self-centredness?

NS: I think the presence of an animal obviously makes chatting with strangers more likely, eg walking the dog in the park. (Mind you, so does playing the drums or the guitar, or driving an unusual car.) But it can also be a focus of communication between the most intimate of friends or partners, eg two people might be sitting silently together on a sofa, but as soon as a cat sidles in between them, they are likely to start talking. Whether the giant poodle in the bed has the same effect, I’m not so sure. I think human self-centredness is exactly that – concern about and for what is most important to oneself. Love for another human being, eg a child or a partner, stops or dissolves that self-centred approach. Something similar happens with the feelings that can be engendered by the presence of an animal. When one truly loves someone, that love appears to be unaffected by whether the other person reciprocates with the same feeling. The same may be true with the feelings engendered by the presence of an animal; as we are aware, a cat certainly doesn’t seem to return a huge amount of love or loyalty (while a dog may at least appear to). What happens inside us is not affected. Do we draw the conclusion that it is good to have an animal companion? And what of those who have such a companion but abuse it?

RJR: I am still not quite sure how an animal might be drawing out our self-centeredness. I would have thought it is more the opposite. Without an animal to focus on, especially if we are not living with other human beings, we might well become more self-centered. And I wouldn’t say we can conclude it is either a good nor bad to have an animal companion. I guess I am more interested why someone chooses to have a pet and why they chose the met that they do. And what need it is that they are fulfilling. I always find it interesting seeing people out with their dogs and can’t help but wonder why they have chosen the particular one they have. Their choices I think must say something about them as individuals. Tell me more about what you mean by abuse as there are so many levels and forms of abuse. Locking a cat out in the rain at night could be considering abusive. And is it abusive to be too firm in one’s control of dogs and could the same be said if one is too lapse?

NS: I think all of those things could be seen as abuse. Broadly speaking, abuse would be any example of not treating an animal with respect. I think we do agree on the self-centredness aspect – we tend to be less self-centred when we have an animal companion, or even when we feed the birds or take care of an injured animal. That is what I was trying to say. Having an animal companion may be good for some of us, some of the time or all of the time. Why we choose the animal companions we do is a tricky one – but there does seem to be something in the old cliche of dog-owners choosing dogs that look like them. Perhaps it is only natural that we are drawn to relationships with animals – or people – with whom we have a fair amount in common. But then we can also be attracted by difference – and that may well come into play in our relationship with animals, since animals are very much the inscrutable ‘other’. We can never know them fully – and so perhaps we will never fully be able to explain what happens in our relationships with them. But those relationships can be deep, powerful and mutually beneficial.

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