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Gimme Shelter: Animals as the Soul of Home

Animals are such agreeable friends—they ask no questions; they pass no criticisms.”

–George Eliot

A growing body of research shows that we depend on animals for our general health and wellbeing. As people began to shelter in place, earlier this year, we’ve realized how much they depend on us as well.

“It’s fair to say animals miss people as much as people miss animals,” says Dan Ashe, president of the American Zoological Association.  “In zoos, humans offer a form of sensory stimulus to other species. Without them, the penguins, pandas, elephants, chimpanzees, and even camels and meerkats seem a little bored. “The variety of smells that come through the zoo every day are enrichment for them. Their day is less interesting or varied without us.”

When deprived of human company, some species—particularly elephants and great apes—get a little needy, demanding extra attention from their caregivers. In May, handlers at Kansas City Zoo came up with a novel solution — they took three penguins to the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum for a cultural infusion.  “We’re always looking for ways to enrich their lives and stimulate their days,” Randy Wisthoff, the zoo director, said.  “The penguins absolutely loved it.” The museum’s executive director, Julián Zugazagoitia, noted that the three Humboldt penguins “seemed to react much better to Caravaggio than to Monet.”

Who knew that penguins would be such culture vultures? These three little guys are clearly in the privileged one percent.  Since the first months of the coronavirus,  many other zoos have been struggling with food shortages and extreme budget cuts. The outlook, overall,  is much sunnier for household pets. When we got the order to shelter in place, we turned to cats, dogs, and parrots for comfort and companionship.  And as we hunkered down at home, we realized that everyone needs a support animal—and the daily gift of pure, unconditional love. Last week, I talked about our long-term partnership with pets with Bob Vetere, one of the founders of the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI), former CEO of the American Pet Products Association, and author of Wags to Riches: How Dogs Help Us to Succeed in Business and in Life.

In your book, you note some surprising things you’ve learned from your study of dogs, and your fondness for golden retrievers.

Well, anyone who’s tossed a ball to a retriever learns a good deal about single-mindedness and perseverance.  But I got to thinking about what dogs are like when they’re on their own.  My study of how they evolved has also taught me a lot about creativity and teamwork.  For one thing, there is no alpha dog. In the wild, dogs change places according to the task at hand. Leadership shifts as needed.  There is much more emphasis on collaboration than on dominance.  And we humans would do well to take note of that. Today’s CEOs tend to act less like lead dogs and more like lone wolves. By definition, a lone wolf is a creature that’s cut off from the larger kinship group.  That animal’s behavior is dangerous and unpredictable.  Rogue CEOs are similar and their predatory behavior has seriously damaged the American business climate in recent years. Then there’s the issue of personal authenticity. There’s something wonderfully transparent about dogs—you always know what they want and what they are thinking.   As Diogenes said, back in the fourth century BC, “We would do well to emulate the dog for he is unfailingly honest and always does his business out in the open.”

You say that dogs also anchor us at home and help us make the transition from the work world back to private life.  What do you mean by that?

Dogs offer us a constancy that few relationships can match, patiently waiting for us to come back from all our far-flung journeys.  No matter how much time has passed, they are still there, holding onto something they have always seen in us. Our souls, maybe. As a CEO, I’ve spent a good deal of time on the road.  If you total up the travel over the course of my career, it would come to 20 years, the same length of time that Odysseus was gone from Ithaca.  My routine was more predictable and prosaic.  No Sirens or Harpies, just the fatigue that follows endless meetings, bad weather, delayed flights, and the challenges of airport security. Yet my dogs were always there by the door, waiting to greet me, no matter how late I rolled in. My two golden retrievers sat at my feet and, under their care, I was transformed from a weathered traveler into a family man.  Made fit, somehow, for human consumption.  Or at least soothed enough to be fully present for the ones I love. Through the years, my dogs have grounded me and accepted me wholeheartedly.  Often I’d sit there in the dark, talking to them, sharing all the details of a grueling week, and then head upstairs refreshed, to be with my children and my wife. I suppose you could say we love dogs because they make us feel more relaxed, more human. More at home in our own skin.

Is that why we’ve seen a rise in pet adoptions since people started sheltering in place? Are we depending more than ever on animals to lift our spirits?

Yes, especially as we realize that this pandemic may be around for a couple of years in one form or another.  People who are living alone or in a relationship that’s less than ideal, have found that pets are good companions and provide a steady, calming influence.  Research shows that many millennials have been using pets as a substitute for children as they continue to pursue their careers.  Now many say they are reluctant to start families while there is so much uncertainty in the world.  A lot of them are “renting” a pet because of the pandemic—that gives them the flexibility to return the animal, too.

What do you mean by “renting a pet”?

We also refer to it as fostering.  A person takes on a homeless pet on a temporary basis until a permanent owner can be found.  Some shelters now allow you to take a pet short term if you’re temporarily out of work or otherwise homebound. We see a big increase in people fostering older dogs as well.  That’s a bit different than adopting puppies.  In most cases, older dogs present less of a challenge and adapt more easily to your home life.  They are already acclimated to people and will need less care as their owners resume a normal lifestyle (whatever that will be). It’s easy to keep these pets happy and they provide wonderful companionship.

Do you see a rise in first-time pet owners, too?

People living alone or in unhappy home situations who may have never thought of having a pet before are fostering or adopting in recent months, to counteract the effects of social distancing. Before the Covid-19  health crisis people had the outside world as an escape from loneliness or stress. Since the total return to interactions with others is at best delayed for the time being, we expect this trend of pet adoption to continue. A friend has been fostering cats for a local shelter.  She has become something of a local celebrity here.  Now that the shelter has run out of adoptable cats and dogs,  folks are approaching her offering to take her cats.  Or, failing that, they are offering to care for them. Some buy food and gifts so they can visit the cats. People just need to be near animals right now because they bring us back to basics.  Love. Touch. Emotional connection.

Do some people prefer their pets to their housemates?  As shelter-in-place continued under COVID guidelines, we started hearing of increased preference for the pets! One of the sorry results of isolation has been the increase in domestic abuse charges and the impetus for divorce.  While having a pet can help with the stress, there are those who will abuse anything — a spouse, a child, an animal — as their frustration builds. So that’s the negative fall-out.

What about pet care?  Has this been more difficult of late?

During the lockdown, folks learned about the hazards of do-it-yourself grooming.  There are countless pictures on social media sites showing pets with horrible buzz cuts and shocking pink toenails.  This is what happens when people spend too much time at home. But as the country begins to reopen, things have gotten easier. Most people treat their pets like family members so there are many concierge services providing pet walking, pet sitting, grooming at home.  One company will even come to scoop the poop off of your lawn if you are elderly or disabled—or just plain don’t want to do it. One of the things that I believe will keep people from returning their animals when they go back to work is the availability of these services.  It almost like sending your young child to daycare while you resume something approaching “normal life.”

Are we buying more toys to keep our critters occupied so we can do our work at the dining room table?

Thanks to the internet, toys began to trend even before the pandemic.  And right now we want to reward our pets a little more for all of the comfort they’ve been giving us. Some of us are overfeeding them. Others are giving them the opportunity to get high.  My all-time favorite pet treat surfaced two years ago and has caught on like wildfire.  It is called Meowijuana, a concoction based on catnip. If that’s the case, pet treadmills may be the answer.  Some even let you walk the dog without spending too much effort while the dog’s part of the track keeps moving briskly.  Great if you’re disabled, or not in as good shape as your dog.  And perfect for the couch potato who just plain hates to get up and go.

Valerie Andrews
Valerie Andrewshttps://reinventinghome.org/
VALERIE is the Chief Storyteller for Reinventing Home, an online magazine exploring how home shapes our culture, creativity, and character. Isabel Allende calls this publication Brain Pickings for the Home—a thinking person’s guide to the well-lived life. Our contributors explore home as a personal sanctuary and interactive hive, and how home contributes to our health, happiness, and productivity. Valerie calls her own features “a mindful approach to home with a Jungian twist” and considers everything from the secret lives of our possessions to how the dust underneath your bed is related to the creation of the cosmos. Reinventing Home is nonprofit journalism at its best—a virtual living room for an enlightened conversation about the way we feel about our nests and the bigger issues that are shaping home today, from technology to climate change. Read more at www.reinventinghome.org

1 COMMENT

  1. Hi Valerie. Thank you for writing/sharing this. This gives me hope. As a longtime rescuer of dogs, I so appreciate all the stories about the ways we need animals and animals need us. LOVE the penguins at the zoo. Love knowing that more people are reaching out and sheltering animals in their home. Do you know Temple Hayes​, the author of Life Rights? She also writes for 360 Nation.

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