My husband and I are child-free by choice and our pets are our kids. My home is filled with fur and my furniture is covered with cat scratches. And if you visit our home, my animals will jump on you and might want to eat the food you are eating. And we're okay with that.
For the past three years our dear, aging cat Wally had gone from the underweight cat that we rescued to extremely and dangerously underweight due to a severe case of Irritable Bowel Disorder (IBD), very common in cats and very common in elderly cats. There were more complications, too many to list, but he was a beautiful, gentle, fun cat to be around. Each night he would curl up on the sofa with us, often burying his fluffy Maine Coon head in the dog's belly and purr gently. He would sleep next to my head in our bed, or between our heads until he didn't have the energy to go up the stairs. All cats have personalities, Wally was one that never gave us a bit of trouble; he was easy. Caring for him was a privilege. I admit that I would get exasperated trying to feed him all day long -- his various conditions made him perpetually hungry but the protein never stuck to his bones. I looked forward to seeing him because I knew he needed me. During the day as I worked, I got used to him screaming for food every half hour or so, which sounded like "MOM, MOM, MOM" in a deep baritone at the top of his lungs, non-stop until I cracked that can. He would wait for me next to his bowl on the stove, away from the other cats, until I delivered the goods.
His organs started shutting down a week ago and he dropped another pound in less than a week, clear signs that he didn't have long. Last Friday, was particularly tough. My colleague who helps me run day-to-day operations in our company was understandably distracted caring for one of her sons who has been sick, in and out of the hospital with a mysterious illness. Thus, I had a bit more work to take on than my usual load but was entirely distracted with caring for Wally. Our vet, who is just wonderful, gently told us that he might have a few days but that was it, so we made the humane decision to take him out of his misery trying to fight each day for health and strength and let him finally rest.
When we rescued Wally from a kill shelter about six years ago, he was likely around five or six years old at the time. I made the decision to rescue him based on nothing but a photo that was sent to my Facebook page. He was a beautiful Maine Coon, but sickly when we got him as he had been badly malnourished and his organs never fully bounced back from the damage. As Wally declined, I became his nurse. Luckily, we own our own business and I can work from home much of the time so this made it easy for me to administer subcutaneous fluids and medications daily. With six other cats plus one dog at home, our weekly pet food bill is around $200. It will go down significantly; Wally needed special everything and everything special is more expensive.
I informed my friends and acquaintances here and there throughout the day with various emails or texts "one of our cats is dying" to "I had to put Wally down." One friend never even replied to my email mentioning this. A few others sent quick texts "I am so sorry, Paula... he's in a better place." And one of my friends saw me at the gym on Sunday and said "my sincere condolences," which is appropriate but also perfunctory. No one bothered to call me or even ask if I wanted to talk with the exception of one friend who is not as close to me as the friends who sent texts or the one who saw me in person and tossed out the Hallmark card phrase. My pain was more or less cursorily dismissed coldly and mechanically.
I always observe how people act around animals when they are in my house. There's the hard core animal lovers, you know them right away because they immediately engage and want to pet or pick up any one of the cats that step right in front of them. There's the group who may have a pet, but it's just a pet, and they totally ignore my animals until an hour or two into visiting when they make the requisite comment "your dog is really cute" because it just then occurred to them that the animals are really there and you like them so they should be nice. There's the group who either only like dogs or only like cats, likely they had a bad experience with one or the other as a kid, and it's understandable. Then there's the lot that say they like animals, but they don't have any and have a long list of reasons why, such as "the building won't allow it," and they only touch one of your animals if the animal throws themselves at them (I'm highly suspicious of this group because they won't come out and just say they don't like animals. That, or they don't know that they don't like animals). And finally, the group who just don't like animals, and they shouldn't come to my house.
I will never forget a press trip I was on about fifteen years ago. I was writing for a national newspaper and we stayed at a five star hotel, a converted mansion on Lake Lucerne. During the five-course candle-lit dinner on the water, a scrawny kitten slinked in through the open air columns and was mewing for food. Everyone saw the kitten, everyone ignored it. I quickly started slicing the filet mignon on my plate, transferred it to the butter plate and went straight to the kitten and put in on the floor. I stayed and watched her eat and then asked for more for her. The publicist was appalled, the management confused, and I wasn't moving until she had a full belly. Because I was a journalist writing about the property, no one was going to stop me and I knew it. So they made with a plate of meat and my Swiss kitty had a bowl full. My guess is that there were some animal lovers in that room. Maybe everyone in that room was, but no one in that room saw that animal the same way I did.
I am not confused on the fact that losing a pet is not the same as losing a child, spouse or parent, and I don't give my pets birthday parties or dress them up in silly costumes. However, my attachments to my animals are significant emotional attachments along the same lines as those with a child, relative, or very close friend. To many people who do not see pets as people, they'll just never understand. This is the concept I have to wrap my head around and it is often difficult.
There may be an assumption here that we do not like children, and you could not be more wrong. I enjoy children and my friends' kids in particular, and I feel that I have great gifts to give the children who are and will be in my life. But more importantly, what matters to my friends and loved ones matters to me.
I asked my husband why everyone disappointed me so much in my hour of pain and need. He made an interesting comment and observation, that all of my feelings were valid but that there is a larger issue with human detachment. We are less able to feel other people's pain and emotions because everything is downloaded, uploaded, tweeted or posted; the mask of technology removes the attachment. We are siloed with technology and have lost the emotional interaction, that sense of community, that real sense of family. You cannot feel someone's pain if you are emailing or texting, in fact you can outright avoid it.
Wally passed away last week, Friday, and for those of you who know me and care about me, I am not asking for you to love my family. I cannot expect that, but I am asking you to take a moment and think, and hopefully come to the realization that my kids have fur and four legs, and they matter to me like your loved ones matter to you.