Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Joy of Animals

Thank you, Pushkin and Lyuba (Pushkin’s the black one pictured to the right, Lyuba’s the multi-colored one in the photo above). These are the creatures sharing our home at the moment; the reigning deities in a long line of four-footed pleasure-givers.

There have been many cats before them, and many dogs. Not to mention a couple of horses, some rabbits, a pair of short-lived ducklings, hamsters, gerbils, an iguana, a pair of birds (two-footed, but I'm counting them anyway) and the orphaned baby woodchuck we bottle and hand-fed one summer until he was old enough to take care of himself and we set him free.

There have been cats who allowed themselves to be dressed in doll clothing, a cat who liked to swim, and a dog who saved my two-year old sister from being trampled by a herd of sheep. There was the cat who took off, leaving behind a litter of kittens, only to reappear months later looking sleek and happy. That same cat, together with a dog who had joined the household, went out for a walk one morning, stayed away for days, then returned within minutes of each other, offering no explanation of where they had gone or why.

There’s plenty of scientific data showing that the presence of animals in our lives is good for our mental and physical health. For example, when animals are brought to visit people in retirement homes, there’s evidence that petting them, even just watching them, results in a decrease in people’s blood pressure and marked improvement in alertness and mood, due at least in part to the release of endorphins. Ah, those lovely endorphins.

But even if the benefits can be explained as a chemical high, I like to think that what animals bring us as the gift of pure joy. Just that, the heart-lifting experience of joy. They offer it simply by being the creatures they are; frank about their needs, but asking nothing of us beyond food, shelter, and some affection.

We chose Lyuba and Pushkin a couple of years ago at a shelter, when she was a year old and he six-months. They had been discovered alone in a house, abandoned and starving. It took months before Lyuba would leave the hiding place she found, in the back of a closet, for anything but food and the litter box. I imagine she’d been old enough during the time of their mistreatment to have learned to associate humans with all things negative. Pushkin, on the other hand, seems to have been too young to have made that connection. I think he is also innately a blithe little soul. And, happily, Lyuba has gradually become a glutton for affection.

Now that Pushkin is an adult cat, and nearly twice Lyuba’s size, he’s a perfect example of biology as destiny. Pushkin rules, especially at feeding times when he will do whatever is necessary to stay between Lyuba and the human with the can of cat food. But I can’t hold this against him; I understand it’s in his genes. And in counterbalance to his “I am master of all I survey, especially food” attitude is his totally unselfconscious zaniness. As when he suddenly decides to hurtle from one end of the house to the other, sometimes giving out a savage little cry in mid-course. It’s inexplicable, and highly entertaining.

It’s also great fun when I inadvertently startle him and he levitates straight up, a couple of feet up, makes a 180 degree turn in mid-air and comes down acting as if nothing had happened. It’s better than Laurel and Hardy. No matter what’s on my mind, this antic behavior dissolves me. I can't help laughing out loud; the joy of it just bursts out of me.

Since Pushkin seems not to take offense, doesn’t seem to feel laughed at, as any self-respecting dog would, I must admit I occasionally startle him on purpose. It’s easiest when I catch him in a moment when he’s deeply absorbed in something, say crouched in hunting pose, watching a bug cross the kitchen floor inches from his nose. All I need to do is shuffle my foot abruptly and that unexpected sound is enough to send him skyward.

It’s crossed my mind that I could borrow a video camera and film one of these leaps then play it back in slow motion and learn exactly how he manages the mid-air reversal of direction. The scientist in me wants to understand it, but I have the sense that putting a camera between myself and the acrobatics would rob me of some of the pleasure.

I think I witnessed this same kind of pleasure in my three-year old grandson recently as he watched some workmen adding a second story to the house next door. He saw one of the men climb from a scaffold into the house through an open window and burst out laughing in exactly the same way I laugh at Pushkin's leaps; overflowing with the delight of seeing something so inexplicable and so unexpected.

So I'm grateful to Lyuba and Pushkin, and all the creatures who have come before them, for helping to keep some of that child's sense of amazement alive in me, for lightening some of the darker moments, and for allowing me to love them.

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