118. A Meditation on Pets and Intimacy
What I miss most of all is physical intimacy. I am seventy years old and there can be no one to replace Ms Keogh, my cherished companion, who died several years ago. A dog could go partway to assuaging loneliness. Not a little dog. I donít like little dogs. It has to be a big dog, one that I could cuddle and not fear crushing. But then, it would not be fair to have a Saint Bernard sharing a one-bedroom apartment in the middle of the city. At this point, Iíd even settle for a cat because they know how to snuggle. Alas, this building does not allow for any pets. Iím not even permitted to feed birds from my balcony.
I was thinking this afternoon what excellent pets humans make. It is no wonder that so many species are willing to adopt us. With our free arms and hands, plus ToM (Theory of Mind), we are able to make many animals feel good in ways they cannot do for one another. With our palms flat, we can stroke vast swathes of hides, furs, or feathers. We can pet specific areas. With our fingers curled, we can scratch. With the sophisticated manipulations of our hands, we can massage and squeeze. These are all things other species love and cannot do for themselves as effectively.
I have seen animals as diverse as dogs, horses, whales, parrots, demonstrate they wanted to be stroked, scratched, or tickled. Despite the vast gap that has evolved between species, these other animals can make known to us what they like most and where it is best to apply our hands.
This is where theory of mind comes in. It allows us to recognize not just human thoughts, but what other species can enjoy. When we find the right manipulation for our hands and apply them to the right area of another species, many species will adopt us as pets. The targets of predation are prepared to lower their guard and the predators are willing to restrain their predatory instincts.
Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states in others. It is essential for smooth social interaction. From clues given by expressions, we can interpret what another is feeling. The cat squints when it is content and a dog will roll over on its back begging for more tummy rubs. Theory of mind is the acquired human skill to know what others are thinking. I believe our pets can read and predict us, much as we do with them.
An early clue as to what kind of person the narcissist Donald John Trump is was his disdain for pets, particularly his hatred for dogs. This was an indication that he was not able to understand others having passions and beliefs very different from his own. It explains his social ineptitude, his boorish manner with Brigitte Macron, Pope Francis, and Queen Elizabeth II. He can only project his limited and selfish motivations onto others, destroying many good people who he mistakenly believes have the same shallow greed and chauvinism he has.
It is bad enough that we are neither the center of the solar system, nor the galaxy, nor the universe. We are different from other species only by degrees, and not always superior in a given talent. Itís one more notch out of our vanity, our preciousness. Some people have to believe a God has created them semi-divine.
Scientists have demonstrated theory of mind being present in other apes. It is not unique to humans. Researchers such as Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey have demonstrated the capacity in chimps and gorillas. Yet, anyone who has owned a dog (or a cat, or a pig, or a mule...), knows that it is possible to have communication between species, most effectively when one of them is human. When I came into existence, the education I received growing up pressed me to believe there was a much greater gap between us humans and all the other animals. We were instructed not to associate human characteristics to our pets. This was labelled anthropomorphizing and highly unconscionable. Pet owners knew better. Yes, I know some pet owners have gone beyond reasonable belief; "Oh, but my little Coco loves bonbons and insists chocolate doesn't hurt her." Still, when you forget it's time to take Fido for a walk, you will know something is up when Fido brings the leash and drops it at your feet.
I am a lonely old man who will stop a stranger walking with a dog in order to greet the dog. Nor am I annoyed when a dog comes over to say hello. I know just where to scratch on a dogís croup to make them happy.