DO OUR PETS EXPLOIT US?
by John Bradshaw Allen Lane 384pp £20 The Week Bookshop £17
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?