Paw-ndering the role of pets

Human Nature

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I love my dog so stinking much.

Cassi is a 10-year-old border collie mix, and although her muzzle is now speckled with gray whiskers and her eyes have clouded over, I still remember the day my parents and I first picked her up as a puppy.

At the time, I was 11 years old. We drove for more than an hour to a sheep farm in Culver, Oregon, where the owners were adopting out their dog’s new litter of puppies. I remember the sheer ecstasy I felt entering the fenced-in puppy enclosure and immediately getting swallowed up into a jostling, yipping, nipping crowd of tiny wriggling bodies.

I was in heaven, crouching among the seven or so warm, fuzzy black-and-white puppies. There was puppy pee and poop everywhere around me, but it didn’t matter. That moment marked a highlight as well as a turning point in my life, and no amount of grime or goop could change that fact.

Before Cassi, I grew up caring for a betta fish named Saphire (yes, with one P) and, later, two sister gerbils named Mint and Cashew. Long after all three passed away, my parents decided that getting a dog made sense, and Cassi has been my best friend ever since.

In some ways, it felt like Cassi almost filled the role that a sibling would have when I was growing up as an only child, and she provided a constant source of companionship for much of my young adult life. She remains my buddy, and even though I know she’s getting old and it hurts to think about a future without her one day, I am happy and grateful to have her in my life right now.

That bond Cassi and I have is not particularly unusual, as it’s very common for people to harbor deep affection for their pets. That love often translates to us spending hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on our pets every year. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, people in the United States collectively spent nearly $100 billion on their pets in 2020 alone. We love our pets like family, treat them like family and mourn them like family.

This is all to say that it’s very easy to anthropomorphize the pets we live with. Reading into the characters of our furry friends can be an important part of the bonding process, bringing us closer to the critters that have the ability to boost our mental health and encourage us to take on healthier lifestyles. It may also help us to empathize and connect with other species in ways that are often inaccessible today when screens, walls and roofs often keep nature and other life forms at bay.

It can be hard to remember that our pets aren’t just humankind’s best friends. They don’t exist to just satisfy our emotional needs and entertain us with their antics. They are animals, too, and when they interact with the world around them — separate from the domestic sphere in which they usually live — they can seriously damage their surrounding ecosystems.

Even when Cassi runs away at night in the middle of our short “Cassi, go potty” walk and returns 30 minutes later reeking of skunk spray, tongue lolling and wanting to be let into the house, we give her a wash, forgive her and move on. But what happened to that skunk? What else did Cassi get into? What other organisms did she interact with?

Around the world, domestic dogs threaten about 200 species of animals because of the ways they directly kill other animals, disturb habitats and compete with other species. Domestic cats also pose threats to wildlife, killing about 2.4 billion birds every year in the United States and seriously impacting local ecosystems.

But even at a more personal level, there are real consequences and nuisances to look out for.

We’re all familiar with the sensation: You’re walking in a park, not looking down when suddenly your foot hits something thick yet slippery, your shoe sliding around as though stuck on a small mound of mud.

But, you quickly realize, it’s not mud. You glance down right as the smell hits your nose. Dog poop. It’s universal in its foulness, and you were lucky enough to step right on it.

Not only is dog poop a hazard for the unfortunate souls that ultimately trod in it, but it also poses real threats to the health and well-being of animals in the local community. It can pollute water sources, spread bacteria and support rat infestations. Even the air we breathe can include particulates and bacteria that originate in dog feces.

Whether it’s abandoned dog poop or rampant bird slayings, domestic animals bring a lot more to the world than their cute cuddly selves that we adore so much. Humans have played a major role in shaping the evolutionary trajectory of domesticated animals, and ultimately, we are also animals that live in nature, bringing other animals into our homes and claiming them as our own.

When our pets venture into their backyard ecosystems and habitats unknown, things can get very messy as they interfere with natural processes — and that is what happens when we humans interfere, too. Our pets are an interesting reflection of us, as they oscillate between domestic spaces and natural worlds with often unintended consequences.

Lia Keener writes the Thursday column on the relationship between humans and the natural world. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.