The Hardwired Bonds of Nurturing

I have a theory about pets and people without children.  This theory is born out of mere anecdotal observation of friends and family, and as such it’s not very scientific.  But I believe it anyway.

I have known a lot of people, couples and singles, who believe or know they are not going to have children.  Sometimes this is their personal choice; sometimes the dice of circumstances or nature just rolled that way.  Many of these people have pets, and when I was a younger man I could never understand their close relationship to them.  Maybe a friend couldn’t go out for a beer after work because they had to go home and feed the dogs and run them; maybe they waived off a weekend rafting trip because their cats would freak out if they were gone for more than twenty-four hours; maybe they were late to work because they were up all  night worried about some furball’s unexplained lethargy.    It all seemed ridiculous to me at the time. You’re dogs really can’t wait another hour for kibble? So what if you cat freaks out; it’s a cat.  I would roll my eyes, and promise myself I would never let myself be a slave to critters like those poor bastards.

Famous last words, eh?

Of course my wife and I did become slaves to critters – two of them in fact. We’re less slaves now that they’re teenagers than we were when they were toddlers, of course, but we’re slaves nonetheless. Willing, loving slaves.  Since becoming a father, I understand better my childless friends devotion to their pets, because I see it reflected in my own devotion to my boys.  Which brings me back to my completely unscientific theory:

I think that those parts of our brains that are hardwired to bond with our own children exist  in people who have no children with which to bond.  I think that many times nurturing a pet triggers these same neural pathways, and creates attachments to those pets that are the same as mine to my boys. I think when people joke that their dog or cat is their child, they are unwittingly acknowledging a very profound truth.

Over at Balloon Juice, John Cole is grieving over the death of his beloved cat, Tunch.  As even the most casual reader of BJ knows, Tunch was also the site’s unofficial mascot, beloved as much for his improbable girth as his cool demeanor.  As John describes his grief in post after post, I find my heart breaking for him.  I have cats of my own that I love  dearly, and I would be incredibly sad if they were to pass on.  But I suspect that what John is feeling right now is closer to what I would be feeling if one of my boys were taken from me.  I can’t imagine what that would feel like; I’m not brave enough to even try.

My deepest and most sincere sympathies to John, and to everyone else who has lost a critter of any type that they have spent their entire heart nurturing.

Rest in peace, Tunch.

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17 thoughts on “The Hardwired Bonds of Nurturing

  1. Oh that really sucks. I know people say we aren’t supposed to treat pets like our kids but dammit, they are. man has been building relationships with animals since prehistoric times. It’s completely natural IMO and I grieve for anyone going through this. Hope he gets through it okay.

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  2. I thought about turning the following story into a post, but this seems as good a place to share…

    To anyone who has been following me here, you’ll know I have two cats. You’ll also know I am incapable of feeling emotion, more or less. And you’ll surely know that I hate my two stupid cats.

    Recently, as the birth of our son has introduced a whole new set of responsibilities and chores, the cats have been getting short shrift. This has frustrated me, as their inevitable shedding makes my skin crawl. Zazzy and I have had several real conversations about whether or not we’d have to get rid of them, with her always making an emotional plea that she simply couldn’t bear the thought.

    The other day, as I was picking cat hair off my lunch plate, I thought about what it’d actually mean to get rid of them. We’d have to give them to someone we knew and trusted. I imagined what it’d be like to drop them off and say goodbye. And I imagined the smart one.. the one I picked out and named… looking at us from the window as we left, fully aware of what was happening, with a face that said, “I wish I could have made this work,”… and I felt something. A twinge. Sadness? Pain? Heartache? I dunno. But something. The fat one… the stupid one Zazzy picked out and named… probably wouldn’t even notice: if her new owners had a bowl of food out when she arrived, it’d be like we never existed. But Bustopher, my Bustopher… she’d know we’d given up on her. And she’d tell us… with her eyes. Her two stupid fucking little asshole cat eyes.

    And I knew we could never get rid of them. If I… Kazzy… the one with the emotional IQ of a zombie… could feel something about their dismissal… jeez, it’d just kill Zazzy.

    So now I’m stuck with them. Forever.

    Cats are such assholes.

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  3. You know, when the homepage opened and I saw that cat I thought “That’s Tunch! What’s Tod doing with Tunch’s photo?”

    I’m not sure I can envision John Cole without Tunch. Poor guy. Condolences.

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  4. How heartbreaking. It’s hard enough when you lose them through old age or disease, but at least you have time to say good-bye. To lose one in such a violent manner has to be unbearable.

    RIP Tunch. My sympathies to John.

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  5. The “my pet is my child” bond can be there with people who have children and pets at the same time, too. It is not just a bond that the childless have as a way of reacting to not having children.

    I accidentally killed one of my pets whom I loved like a child and I will never, ever recover.

    I have a lot to say about this tragic incident and vegetarianism and hunting and the claim that animal lives have intrinsic moral value, but I will leave it for another forum.

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    • The “my pet is my child” bond can be there with people who have children and pets at the same time, too.

      WE had to put a dog down a few years ago. All the family was there, in addition to the vet performing the injection. The crying started about two hours before the vet arrived. I don’t really want to go into details but suffice to say that that dog was part of the family. We all grieved.

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  6. Oh, I’m just heartbroken for John over what happened to Tunch. A nightmare – just horrible. I’d be inconsolable and it’s a testament to John that he’s been blogging throughout, and about, his grieving process.

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  7. Maribou and I refer to the cats, sometimes, as “the babies” (e.g., “did you feed the babies or are they lying to me?”). They headbutt us awake in the morning, they purr us to sleep at night. When one or the other of us is away, we ask about them when we call back home.

    Whenever one dies, it’s absolutely awful… and we’re blessed to have only lost elderly cats that have fought against long diseases, when we weren’t surprised, when the deaths were quiet and, we told ourselves, something we all agreed upon.

    I can’t imagine the shock the John is going through.

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  8. As both a proud parent, and a pet lover I feel his pain. I will be devastated when Soup (Llahsa Apso) Zwak (tiny Manx) or Monkey (behemoth cat) pass.

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  9. I’m so sorry for John. I haven’t been able to go over to Balloon Juice as it’s just too sad for me right now. My deepest sympathies. RIP Tunch.

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  10. I think you’re right about the hardwiring – although as Shazbot mentioned, I do know people with kids who seem to feel the same way about (some of) their pets.

    For me, I’d never wanted kids especially – felt like I’d put enough into raising my sibs due to our family situation, and my biological clock had heretofore only interfered with me by making me want my friends to have kids, which they obligingly kept doing right on schedule, every time I started wanting them to.

    Also, I’d always had grown-up cats, my whole life. And my god, I loved those cats. But when Chumky died, and we adopted those kittens from our backyard, I just happened to be in my early 30s. And I swear it was like my biological clock perked up and said “OH YAY WE MUST RAISE THEM UP GOOD! FINALLY SOMETHING FOR ALL THESE EMOTIONS THAT HAVE BEEN LYING FALLOW TO *DO* WITH OURSELVES!!!”

    Because I didn’t just *love* those kittens. By the time we’d had them for a month, I was hopelessly, madly *in love* with those kittens. We’d meant to give them all up for adoption, but I barely managed to give one up (he got a good family!! in a week!!!!), give one to a dear friend, and Tiger?

    You would’ve had to pry Tiger out of my cold dead hands.

    I love all our cats, but I really do feel differently about him, far more motherly, than any cat before or, most likely, since.

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  11. Having grown up farming, I have a sort of distance from pets most people don’t have. But something else, too, which I’m not sure what to call, perhaps respect?

    On a farm, very early on, you learn to let go. Young animals, if they’re male, don’t stay on the farm. Sick animals, old animals. Yet those that do, you do your best for. (Of course, I’m talking a family farm, not an industrial farm.) Those animals you do keep around, for the time they’re there? Life depends upon them. Their milk; perhaps their fleece, or eggs. Their very flesh.

    It is a sacred thing.

    Even their dung. I cannot begin to tell you how many hours I’ve spent mucking barns; cleaning up an endless supply of wood chips or straw matted with shit and urine. And that, too, is sacred. You compost it; letting the small microbes turn it into fuel for next year’s pastures and fields.

    Though we don’t eat them, horses, cats and dogs are an essential part of this. Without cats, rodents would overrun our food. (And grains, with rodents in attendance, develop all sorts of toxins, many of them hallucinogenic. See the dark ages.) Dogs guard us. And horses carried us. They dream. And they are each capable of returning the deep emotional bonds we give to them. They love.

    And we love them back, much as we love our children. It’s part of the hardwiring.

    A very wise man once told me that to be truly happy, a dog needs a job. Dogs without jobs sort of make jobs for themselves. I think we’re like that, too. We need to care. For our children, and for our animals, with whom our lives are so deeply tied, even if we’ve forgotten.

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  12. It is hard to loss any beloved pet; while not anywhere on the same level as a family member loss it is a terrible loss none-the-less and I understand John’s pain having both lost a pet in an identical manner as John and putting down sick ones. Tunch was a fixture at Balloon-Juice’s pages and I too will miss posts on that fat guy (Tunch, not John.)

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