I’ve found myself thinking quite a bit lately about my beloved dog, Bella, and other late pets whom I miss dearly. My pets were always so much more to me than merely animals that I cared for; they were my family, beings with whom I shared my best and worst days. I think this sentiment is echoed by a vast majority of pet owners, and the more I recount my days with my own pets, the more I realize what an important role pets play in the stories we tell about our lives and families.
A newlywed couple may take a photo of themselves holding their new kitten and send it to family and friends with a caption that says, “Meet our new addition!” as though it were a baby announcement. Parents may buy their young children goldfish as a first step toward learning the responsibility of caring for others. Dogs often end up in family holiday photos resistantly dressed as Santa or an elf, and are sometimes even entrusted with ringbearer duties at weddings. Whether they are the central focus of an important life event, or they are simply present when their owners come home at the end of a long day, our pets become the axis of joy on which our worlds turn.
The exploits of our pets are recounted in a myriad of ways with the people around us. Stories of the family dog sneakily consuming a pound of butter (wrappers and all) right off the counter send dinner guests into fits of laughter. Videos of cats squeezing themselves into impossibly small containers or opening doors without assistance circulate in group texts among friends, or end up posted to social media. Some people even have entirely separate social media accounts for their pets, allowing audiences to stay caught up on their pets’ daily escapades. When first becoming acquainted, new co-workers will often name their pets immediately after their spouses or children, because their pets occupy the space in their minds reserved for their most treasured relationships.
With fellow pet-owners, we share our frustrations when our pets have eaten another pair of shoes or have destroyed a brand new piece of furniture. We exchange recommendations for the best vets and groomers, and even suggest favorite clothing items for outdoor animals. When going out of town, we entrust the care of our pets only to our most loving and attentive family members or friends, who will then form their own memories with our pets. We relish and share the joy of those who are entering first-time pet-parenthood, and we deeply empathize and grieve with those experiencing the loss of a beloved pet.
Considering all of this, I often wonder if telling stories about our pets is a way of opening a window into our own inner lives? For example, the question, “Are you a dog person or a cat person?” is truly used as a means of gaining insight into a person’s temperament, rather than determining that person’s simple preference in animals. When ascribing emotions and aspirations in our narratives about a favorite dog or cat, are we actually striving to build connections with others? I think so. The tradition of storytelling itself has evolved into an instinctual, reflexive mechanism for forming, maintaining, and strengthening bonds between people; what better way to create connections than to share stories about those we love most, including our pets?
Share some of your own stories about the pets you’ve loved, and the central role they have played within your family.
© Tyra Manning 2019