According to Natalie Angier in The New York Times, there are 500 million living creatures in American homes in addition to the humans who live there. They are pets (mostly dogs and cats), and their presence is a pleasure. Animals ask for little, seldom complain and display a loyalty worthy of a saint. Whereas humans often act beastly, beasts are simply natural.
At our house, my wife and I enjoy the constant companionship of two cats and a Scottish terrier. For vacations, we exchange homes with other couples and are delighted to care their pets. (In England we have even enjoyed the companionship of foxes.)
In later life, your contentment may come to you on four paws or even on the wing. Animals are a joy, a comfort and only a modest responsibility. As a girl, my wife had a pet lamb, whereas my mother's final years were brightened by a canary's song. Mom named the bird "Happy," for it made her so. Pets can make all of us happy, too.
In Genesis, God introduced Adam to all the animals in Eden "to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof." God added that it is not good for man to be alone. Yet many of us can look forward to spending the last years of our lives without the comforting presence of spouse and children. The remedy for the absence of human companionship can be found at your nearest animal shelter. A veterinarian friend of ours provides pets to convicts behind bars -- a ministry that affords even hardened criminals the opportunity to love and cherish.
I often ponder how our own dog and cats manage to act out their natures so beautifully, when people find it such a trial to act human. Pets are the easiest antidote to human loneliness. By their dependence on us, they make us responsible for them and more responsible for ourselves. Perhaps your final faithful companion will possess a tail.
Angier notes that "our distinctly human capacity to infer the mental states of others" has so sensitized us to the emotions of animals that we are tempted to anthropomorphize them.
Harold Herzog, who teaches psychology at Western Carolina University, notes that Americans pets are pampered. Seventy percent of owners sometimes sleep with their pets, 65 percent buy Christmas gifts for them and 23 percent cook special meals for them. In his book, "Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat," Herzog writes that 40 percent of married women with pets say they get more emotional support from their pets than from their husbands.
Tragically, human affection for pets is fickle. The nation's animal shelters are bursting at the seams with stray cats and dogs. Angier notes with irony: "We love animals, yet we euthanize 5 million abandoned cats and dogs each year."
(David Yount is the author of 14 books, including "Celebrating the Rest of Your Life" (Augsburg). He answers readers at P.O. Box 2758, Woodbridge, VA 22195 and dyount31(at)verizon.net.)
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