Altruism is characterized by selflessness and concern for the well-being of others. It is the unselfish concern for other people—doing things simply out of a desire to help, not because you feel obligated to out of duty, loyalty, or religious reasons.
Therein lies the evolutionary puzzle. We are not, as a species, hard-wired for altruism. Like any other animal, we have learned a degree of tolerance and cooperation, which is perhaps our version of tameness and domestication, because it maximally benefits the greatest number of us and only minimally impacts the individual—anyone commuting into a major city and taking a moment to watch the flow dynamics of the herds passing through a tube or subway station in rush hour can grasp that. Like any other animal, and for the same obvious reasons, we nurture our own kith and kin, and our own offspring in particular. Where does the creation of the pet, this nurturing of other species, fit into the evolutionarily “worth it” box?
Animal studies may be a relatively new field, but it is vast—already reaching into psychology, biology, ethics, anthropology, philosophy, art, and film, to name but some, and this article examines only one tiny aspect of it—the owner, which is all I am. Even so, there have been times, in looking at our long, long history of doing this, when I have been driven to wonder whether one reason we do it is simply that we are still trying to understand it ourselves.
Just look, for instance, at all the complex nuances in our alternate terms for “pet”; all the knotty linguistic tangles these have brought into being. There is “companion animal,” which is very pleasing but suggests an equality that, while it might be ideal, ignores the responsibilities in the relationship and whom they lie with and is a howling great contradiction in terms, too—what does it mean?
Acceptance of the animal in all its animalness, or the very opposite? Elevation to status more human than pet? One unit, made of two? It’s easy to mock—yet look how readily the term, once coined, was taken up.15 We want a name for this, and we’re still searching. “Fur baby” has its fans, although I can’t say I am wholeheartedly among them—my cats are not infants, nor do I wish to think of them as being human in that way; the challenge and the fascination in my relationship with them is that they are not the same as me, by so many measures. The word most commonly used in ancient Greece to refer to a pet, from the period when in the West the written record of our activities as owners can be said to have begun, was athurma—a plaything, a toy, a producer of joy and delight, while for the Romans it was deliciae, something that brings happiness or pleasure, but which can mean “beloved,” too. Nowadays we would probably have powerpoint training to push this along.
Isabella, Lady Wentworth, who was born in 1653, and who lived through the Protectorship and five subsequent monarchies, endured four decades of widowhood hugely enlivened by her dogs, her parrot, and her monkey, and in her engaging correspondence, deciphered from her family papers by Ingrid Tague, described these non-human members of her household as her “dumbs.” An eighteenth-century dog groomer in Paris referred to his charges as les cheris, or “the darlings.” Edith Wharton called her dogs “the little four-foots,” which is charming in its way but also to me takes something from their dignity.