Saturday, July 26, 2008

Pets can be better than babies

There was a point in our lives when we had hoped to introduced various animals into our household. Among the animals discussed were a dog, a cat and especially chickens, which sadly do not blend well into urban apartment living. There's plenty of evidence to suggest that pets are therapeutic, and then some: Just the other day, a rabbit in Australia fussed and fretted until his worried owners did a check - and discovered a blazing fire. The bunny had saved their lives!

With Sonny's arrival, however, our pet plans have been put on the back burner. In a way, he can substitute for a pet: He may not be furry or feathery, but he can be petted and coddled, fed and watered and otherwise looked after in the way pets are. At the moment, too, it's not as though he's much more interactive than a goldfish of average intelligence, and is considerably more trouble overall. In fact, here's a quick report card on five ways he falls short of pets:

1) Communication. A cocker spaniel, by all accounts, can bark or thump his tail to tell you when he's hungry or needs to be let out to use the outdoor facilities. Cats can scratch at the door to indicate that it's time to go a-roaming. Sonny issues only a more or less general-purpose howling. It can be mystifying, is considerably louder than a dog's yelping or cat's meowing, can go on for much longer and be harder to silence.

2) While we're on the subject of facilities, it is apparently the case that animals will not soil their own nest - something that Sonny has no compunction about. Happily diapered, he relieves himself whenever the mood takes him.

3) Pets can be trained to perform for your amusement (animal rights advocates who think this is cruel should please exit, stage left). Parrots mimic, hamsters run on a wheel, even white mice will negotiate a maze. Sonny can sort of look cute without doing anything, but in no other way does he earn his keep (as pointed out in 'A song of happy uselessness', a half-trained terrier would be more useful, and could at least be trained to bring in the morning papers).

4) Animals are either clean or do not require endless cleaning, by and large. Cats lick themselves. Dogs get by with a bath every week or so. A dusting of pest powder is all a bird occasionally needs, while goldfish admittedly need their water changed every now and again. Sonny, however, needs to be thoroughly refreshed at least twice a day. If bathed in the morning, he'll have contrived to cry himself smelly by lunchtime. We do not exaggerate: He puts his all into these exhibitions of petulance and perspires freely as well as fragrantly.

5) Dogs show loyalty and affection. Allegedly, man's best friend will even sacrifice himself for his owner, though few of us will own a Lassie during our lifetimes. Lower animals at least do not need to be cosseted: Chickens are fine if ignored for days on end (so long as they are fed). Sonny is now able to focus on people's faces, but he's still not showing any real sign of singling out his parents over utter strangers who visit. He needs stimulation but does not return the favour with any overt, sustained shows of friendship. When he feels like it, he will spurn our presence and stare at his reflection in the piano. We're just the hired help who clean up after him, feed him and are occasionally thrown a bone in the form of a few dimpled smiles.

With time, of course, Sonny will surpass his competitors in the animal world. He will be able to hold a conversation, play chess and help sweep up the yard. Meantime, maybe we should get ourselves a parakeet...