DO OUR PETS EX­PLOIT US?

The Week Middle East - - Front Page - by John Brad­shaw

Allen Lane 384pp £20

Why do we have pets? This “lit­tleasked question” lies at the heart of John Brad­shaw’s im­por­tant book, said James McCon­nachie in The Sun­day Times. Brad­shaw, one of the founders of “an­thro­zo­ol­ogy” (the sci­ence of hu­man-an­i­mal in­ter­ac­tions) and pre­vi­ously the au­thor of best­selling stud­ies of dog and cat be­hav­iour, has no time for some of the more fa­mil­iar ac­counts. He dis­putes, for ex­am­ple, the so-called “cuckoo the­ory”, which holds that pets are es­sen­tially “par­a­sites” who suc­cess­fully duped hu­mans into lav­ish­ing at­ten­tion and re­sources upon them. He is equally sceptical of the be­lief – in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar – that pets are some­how “good for us”. Pet own­ers, he in­sists, do not lead longer or hap­pier lives – or if they do, it’s not on ac­count of their pets but be­cause pet own­ers are, on av­er­age, bet­ter off than non-pet own­ers. Nor does he be­lieve that any of the grow­ing ar­ray of “an­i­mal ther­a­pies” – tak­ing an­i­mals into hos­pi­tals, say, or swim­ming with dol­phins – ac­tu­ally work.

As Brad­shaw sees it, the de­sire to own pets is an in­stinct hard­wired into us by evo­lu­tion, said Cas­par Hen­der­son in the FT. For our dis­tant an­ces­tors, co­op­er­at­ing with an­i­mals had many ad­van­tages. Be­tween 18,000 and 33,000 years ago, hu­mans and wolves be­gan hunt­ing in tan­dem, form­ing an “un­beat­able” part­ner­ship that elim­i­nated the “great ma­jor­ity of large land an­i­mals on all con­ti­nents ex­cept Africa”. And as hu­man com­mu­ni­ties be­came more set­tled, other forms of co­op­er­a­tion emerged: dogs guarded home­steads; cats pro­tected food stores. Such devel­op­ments turned a fond­ness for an­i­mals into an adap­tive trait. “Those of our an­ces­tors who un­der­stood an­i­mals,” Brad­shaw ar­gues, “would have pros­pered at the ex­pense of those who could not.”

Some peo­ple can’t fathom the fas­ci­na­tion with pets, said Carol Mid­g­ley in The Times. They’ll never un­der­stand, for in­stance, why af­ter Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina, many flood vic­tims re­fused to be res­cued be­cause the au­thor­i­ties wouldn’t let them take their pets. But even if it no longer ful­fils a prac­ti­cal need, “fill­ing our homes with an­i­mals”, as Brad­shaw main­tains, has be­come part of “what it means to be hu­man”. And he ends with the in­trigu­ing sug­ges­tion that our an­i­mal-loving in­stincts may prove once again to bring wider so­cial benefits. If Earth is to re­main hab­it­able, he ar­gues, we must re­verse our “ever-in­creas­ing de­tach­ment from it” – and pet own­ers are well placed to do just that. As var­i­ous stud­ies have shown, they have no­tably “pos­i­tive at­ti­tudes to wildlife as a whole”. In short, pets could “eas­ily” be part of the “so­lu­tion”.

Brad­shaw: is our need for pets an adap­tive trait?

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