There’s an eyot in the Mississippi where prairie grasses come up in startled tufts. From a bridge, the island appears as a softly quilled rodent emerging from water. Victorian homes, built by lumber barons and land stealers, lurch up from the ground. Tall and narrow, aching with age, they appear shocked too: shocked by their own skeletons. They haunt themselves. Sometimes structure is a kind of imprisonment.
Often you see a cat bunch up inside a window, looking for a whiskerclutch of sun. The island is dewy, shaded. I walk through it struggling to conceptualize my belief that “pet-keeping” must become a temporary phase on the way to abolishment of the practice. I am thinking, at the same time, of heartbreaking ends, the sinus rhythm of a relationship that could flatline. This island, where two people looked at each other and chose love, is suspended in tension: tension between freedom and containment, and the mutuality that keeps the two in balance.
So I begin thinking of that mutuality, how it also holds in suspension companionship and the letting go of it. Begin with the anecdote: a woman, not unlike me, and the cats she loved. Begin with the specific case, how the woman and the cats had lived as particles in turmoil: separate, come together, separate, the woman and her partner, until he left for good, the flat was half-empty, and the cats startled at noise. The boy cat’s need had an adhesive quality; he pawed until you sat, then clutched your lap in sleep.
She did not mean for her companions to live that way. Nor did another friend, a man who is a more outspoken advocate of nonhuman animals. But he had adopted a dog from a shelter when he had neither the resources nor the temperament to care for a traumatized Bully. He would have excoriated another person for doing what she eventually did—rehome the dog—but he found himself without many choices. This is the dirty secret of nonhuman-animal rights activism: we aren’t infallible. Of the activists I’ve known, most of us have had shameful secrets about our failures in “pet-keeping” than not.
There isn’t much data on just how many nonhuman animal companions arrive at shelters already traumatized—nor, of course, is there consensus as to what constitutes traumatization. Behavior ratings, which shelters use to assess which lives are disposable and which are not, instrumentalize even grief and trauma: feeling becomes behavior, that behavior mapped according to human need and desire. Their pliancy is our true North.
James writes beautifully of farmed animals, “Our tendency to breed animals with the thought of the corpse backwards, so that life is but preservation for the animal's flesh, has made it so that there are some animals that are no longer born living, but born deading.” But he questions whether such a thing is true of companions we bring into the house, our pets; perhaps, James writes, they are still living.
But walking this eyot, grids and curves risen from earth by a kind of bureaucratic necromancy and pinned to our conception of things with street signs and addresses, I view “pets” as ghosts already, d[h]eading from leash to euthanasia table, living being to corpse: they are a simultaneity of here and not-here states. Maybe the possibilities of their lives end in a whiskerclutch of sun, maybe they end in terror. But the point, of course, is that the possibilities of their lives largely collapse into one end or the other because of choices humans make.
The HSUS reports that six to eight million nonhuman animals arrive in shelters each year; of those fifty percent, or three to four million, are killed. Welfarists anticipate a future in which the numbers flatline to zero. They divine a future in which the tension of human-animal companionship resolves into harmonious affiliation, and pets aren’t killed because they’re inconvenient. Pet euthanasia has, according to The HSUS, significantly dropped since the 1970s, from 25% of total dogs and cats to 2%. But perhaps I and other abolitionists ask more of our victories: to me, every murdered and discarded body is one too many; three to four million is a horror show of obliteration. Structurally, a genocide; structurally, a holocaust.
I stop outside the house that draws me nearest. This house, with its own small prairie and nearby railroad tracks, which have almost passed from their function as accomplices to machines of conquest into the quaintness of tableau, strikes me as uncanny. I experience the uncanny as a fullness that feels like love. So I approach the house and ache to be let in; I want to be held fully in the space of the mysterious. I once said to my lover, “I’m on all fours and pawing your feet.” He replied, “I get scared at the thought of a world without you.”
Mutuality holds in its suspension companionship and the letting go of it. But when we hold fast to domestication, willing to contain and hold captive individual lives rather than risk the end of “pet species,” our relationships with other beings cease to be mutual. The human decides; the companion animal must make do with those decisions. That’s not to say that domestication is a process consciously initiated. But if humans do not consciously initiate domestication of animals as pets, then animals who have become pets can hardly be said to have chosen domestication.
What did the first cat want when she scratched at our doors? What did my lover want when he came up to my city in that first season? Something takes shape without pre-determination: we choose love but cannot predict where it takes us. Need or expectation presses a relationship too hard, flattening possibility. The first cat perhaps wanted something less than to be locked in the treasure box of a house within which she would be worshipped. She wanted to be let out as well as in.
But no matter how long certain animals have lived with us in domestication, “petness” is far more elastic than its tendency to be affiliated with certain species: the fleet and furry dogs and cats who are the only animals counted in The HSUS’s survey of pet euthanasia rates. Petness doesn’t burst out of animal-DNA like milkweed; it is made and maintained with each being brought into—and largely shut inside—our homes. Even animals happy with a whiskerclutch of sun strain against human expectation, strain against harnesses, leashes, and invisible boundaries around counters and sofas.
It has become increasingly obvious that petlike behavior has the potential to emerge from members of most species. Recently a video made the rounds of an eel and a diver. In it, the eel peeks from a shelter of corral, recognizes the diver, and swims into her arms as though to seek embrace. The diver feeds the eel a smaller fish as reward; according to the narration, diver and eel have met before. Judging by comments about this video, viewers apprehend the eel with wonder and joy—but only once she becomes petlike. The tension waves of domestication move further and further outward, enfolding more types of animals within, rather than collapsing back. And I wonder: do we stop only when there are no animals left to tame?
Some animals may be particularly adept at expressing their needs or desires through behaviors preferable to humans. But that means neither that those animals cannot live without us nor that they are inevitably to live among us as pets. But if animals regarded as pet-able can live without us, we do not allow them to. Those pets who commit the offense of not acting petlike—or those animals identifiable as members of species that should act like pets, but instead behave as ferals—are often contained in more restrictive enclosures: cages in shelters rather than rooms in houses. Pets don’t get to grow up, leave the house, and develop self-determination. They don’t get to leave when relationships within houses go awry.
I realize now that it may sound as though I’d advocate turning pets out of houses, rather than the usual abolitionist phase-out plan: cease breeding of nonhuman animals we regard as pets, adopt all the ones remaining in shelters, carry out trap-neuter-return initiatives, then let the species die out. I am not. I cannot bear the thought of animals resembling the ones dear to me roaming winter streets. I am tempted to conclude, then, that pets have domesticated me. But such a conclusion would be a foolish conceptual inversion of a structural inequality: I will always be the one deciding for my cat the trajectory of her life more than she.
On the island, where two humans might form a helix holding hands, a relationship may form in which one person determines its course more than the other. That may satisfy. That might not. And when it doesn’t, one of those two humans might find herself one day revisiting those grasses, those railroad tracks, that house, unsure of what to do next—wanting in, wanting out, wanting in.