Animal Rights (and Wrongs)

It's not an easy thing to admit but, after roughly two decades of living on my own, I am beginning to come to terms with the fact that I am an animal agnostic. I've long been intrigued by the prospect of pet ownership, but somehow have not been able to make the necessary commitment. After all, both dogs and cats have their respective pros and cons, and I find I can't quite decide between them.

In opting out of pet ownership, I have broken with family tradition. I come from good, dog-owning stock, and my parents and each of my three siblings have canine companions even today. Of course, they reside in Middle America, where most people live in a house with a fenced-in backyard.

I, on the other hand, reside in New York City, where dog ownership requires a level of commitment just a notch below that which accompanies parenthood. In an urban environment, Fido must be walked. Inclement weather does not relieve one of this responsibility; neither does an 8 o'clock curtain nor a coveted reservation at a culinary hotspot. Long nights on the town are now a thing of the past, unless one is willing to top off the evening not with a nightcap but with a floormop, for one is certain to find an unwelcome puddle, pile, or both upon returning home in the wee hours.

Still, it's not the walking I object to so much as the incumbent clean-up that accompanies it. It's really an objectionable system all the way around. Man's best friend dogs may well be, but there are certain favors I am simply unwilling to perform, even for my dearest companions. (Those who count themselves among my circle of friends would do well to bear this in mind in the future.)

What's more, I don't think dogs are all that crazy about the current set-up, either. If you doubt this, I urge you to take note the next time you see a leashed canine answering nature's call on a city street. I think you'll agree that most mutts look, well, a little embarrassed. And why not? Who, after all, doesn't appreciate a little privacy at such times? I find myself glancing quickly away when I come across such a scene, and I'm convinced that I've sensed a certain relieved gratitude on the part of those pooches.

Many cat lovers look down upon dogs and those who love them as shallow and needy. What dog lovers view as a relationship built on unconditional love and loyalty, cat fanciers dismiss as sheer slavishness, blind devotion based on nothing more than canine--and perhaps human--insecurity.

And they may have a point. Why else do so many dogs wax rhapsodic when their masters return home after only an hour or two away? Can they really be so insecure as to have feared that they were facing the rest of their lives alone? Such demonstrations would no doubt grow quite tiresome if one's significant other were to display similar ecstatic amazement every time you returned from running a couple of errands.

But the reverse side of that coin, of course, is that special brand of blasé that is the feline's specialty. Cat lovers claim to savor their pets' independence, but it's a thin line between self-sufficient and self-centered.

I can't help but wonder: Would the average cat lover be willing to abide the same behavior from their pals that they put up with from their pets? If your best friend reacted to your going away without her for the weekend by peeing on your new mattress, mightn't you consider that a troubled relationship? If your child hid in the deepest recesses of your closet every time you had guests in your home, refusing to come out until the interlopers had departed, isn't it likely you'd march him straight to a therapist? And if you witnessed those guests surreptitiously sniffing the air before they remarked, "Oh, I didn't know you had a husband," wouldn't you take that as a call to action?

But these behaviors, which would be viewed by most as serious faults in friends and family, are embraced by cat fanciers as charming kitty quirks. Most of us have been tempted at some point, when convinced that someone we care for is involved in an unhealthy relationship, to take that loved one aside and attempt to open their eyes to their mistreatment, to expose the selfish, ill-tempered, boorish behavior their lover has exhibited--to help them realize that they deserve better. But pity the poor cat fancier; their mistreatment goes unaddressed and unremedied. Theirs is a secret shame.

Finally, one must confront that true freak of nature: the hybrid pet lover. Is it possible to be both a dog lover and a cat fancier? Can one be both sadist and masochist? Republican and Democrat? Hatfield and McCoy? I somehow doubt it. I suspect those who claim such shared loyalty are simply too eager to please, but I do think that one can manage to admire certain qualities particular to one of the two species. In fact, I can't help feeling that scientists are wasting their time cloning sheep and bioengineering the food we eat. If they'd only find a way to cross-breed dogs and cats--with the end result possessing the more desirable qualities of each species--I think I might finally be willing to take the pet ownership plunge.

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