The not-so-mysterious allure of domestic animals

What’s always amazed me is how many people, even devoted pet owners, simply don’t “get” domestic animals at all.

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“Almost all dogs are better at reading humans than many of us are at understanding them,” writes Gene Lyons.

Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

Ever since journalists started working from home in large numbers, they’ve begun adopting pets and, inevitably, writing about them. No problem there. I’ve worked from home since the 1980s, and caring for domestic animals has long been among my ruling passions.

Over the years, I’ve written columns and magazine articles about every species and breed that has fallen under my care: beagles, golden retrievers, Labs, basset hounds, Great Pyrenees, Fleckvieh Simmental cows and a number of horses. Also cats, of course.

If you’ve got livestock, you’ve got cats. They come with the territory, for reasons we’ll come to presently.

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Indeed, I once began a memoir called “Animal Passion,” essentially a history of my marriage in pets. Just to give you some idea, there was the time years ago when Diane complained that eight beagles, a Lab and a golden retriever were too many dogs to keep in the city.

I agreed. So I told her to name four dogs to give away.

“You son of a ...,” she said. And that was the end of that.

My friend Randy the redneck veterinarian and I were breeding and training field trial dogs back then, accumulating ribbons and trophies. And what woman wouldn’t want a 3-foot-high beagle trophy displayed in her living room? Well, mine actually, but banishing furry family members was beyond her capacity.

Anyway, “Animal Passion” petered out after it appeared that at the rate I was going, the book would end up longer than “Don Quixote.” The opening chapter about our first dog, a charismatic collie/German shepherd mix, appeared in Oxford American magazine. I’m quite proud of it. When I get more than ordinarily disgusted with politics, I sometimes think about returning to the project.

What’s always amazed me is how many people — even devoted pet owners — simply don’t “get” domestic animals at all: They become fearful when another dog is inviting their dog to play; they complain that a napping cat is “arrogant,” etc. (Given my considerable blind spots regarding our own species, maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise. But it is.)

Then there are those like New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo, a first-time pet owner, who wonders if two 5-month-old kittens imagine that his magical ability to open a can of tuna fish makes him their god.

Simple answers to cosmic questions: no.

However, everything else being equal, it can make you their very good friend. Cats don’t go in much for abstract thinking. So are they, Manjoo asks, as the 17th-century French philosopher Rene Descartes posited, mere “automata, essentially mindless machines that lacked the subjective experience of a conscious self”?

It was humbug like that which induced a classmate and me to divert ourselves during Intro to Philosophy class by inventing a baseball lineup of great thinkers: stolid, heavy-hitting John Locke at first base, agile little Rennie Descartes playing second, etc.

“Compared with dogs, who have lived with humans for tens of thousands of years and have evolved to read human body language to induce our affection,” the columnist continues, “cats are almost alien in their unanthropomorphizable aloofness.”

Goodness. Look, in the first place, dogs didn’t “evolve” in the ordinary meaning of the word. Breeds of dog are among the oldest products of human genetic engineering, selectively bred for centuries to perform significant tasks, from tracking rabbits to detecting explosives.

But yes, almost all dogs are better at reading humans than many of us are at understanding them.

As for “unanthropomorphizable aloofness,” however, my cat Martin wakes me most mornings by wedging himself under my arm, inserting his head into my hand, and purring like an outboard motor. Actually, he waits until I awaken, and then goes into his routine. I think the rhythm of my breathing tips him off.

I’ve never had a more affectionate or demonstrative pet of any species. If Martin were any less aloof, there would be no living with him.

The dogs and I found Martin abandoned along a gravel road in the woods seven years ago. Somebody had clearly dumped him. No way had he gotten there on his own. We found his littermate Gigi in a tree a bit farther on.

Roughly the size of my fist, he came running to us — two Pyrenees and a German shepherd — and hollering loudly for help. As a young kitten, he used to climb Diane like a tree and lie on top of her head as long as she’d let him.

We persuaded a friend to adopt Gigi. She lives in a barn and sleeps on top of cows. That’s how it all got started, you know. When human beings started storing grain for large animals, rodent infestations began.

And here came the cats: efficient little killers, vermin control specialists who recognized a soft touch when they found one. It’s what biologists call a symbiotic relationship. Nothing particularly mysterious about it.

Gene Lyons is a columnist for the Arkansas Times.

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