Grieving for Animals: Is it Less Real?

CatM. Scott Peck argues, inThe Road Less Traveled, that because the true meaning of love is deep caring about the spiritual growth of another person, we can’t actually love animals, because animals do not grow spiritually. He has a word for what we do to animals, instead of loving them: we “cathect” them, in other words we invest emotional energy in them, which implies that it is more or less a one-way street.

It is possible to cathect a person, but in that situation the person probably doesn’t cathect in return; even if the person does, what is at stake in not the spiritual growth of either the subject or the object of the cathecting. It is also possible to cathect an object or idea, which would bring that object or idea, an inanimate thing, to life for us. Presumably, then, when our animals, or specifically our pets die, we don’t grieve in the same way we would over the loss of a beloved human being.

There is a let-down when something we have invested emotional energy in is no longer available — not much more than that. I have instinctively disagreed with M. Scott Peck for decades, now I will attempt to argue that a) we do love our pets, and that b) our grieving for them, while it may be in most cases quantitatively different from our grieving for the human animals we have lost, is not qualitatively different.

It will be difficult to show that dogs and cats experience spiritual growth in the same way that humans do, especially if spirituality is defined as some kind of awareness of a higher power. Or? Does not the affection and attention which dogs lavish on their closest humans (and sometimes on strangers) seem akin to worship? When humans reciprocate, and treat dogs with respect and kindness while training them to respond to commands (and I’ve read that there is at least one Border Collie with a vocabulary of more than 1000 human words), do dogs not appear to flourish, to be happy, even blissful at times? Is it not arrogant on the part of humans, who do not comprehend dog language very well, to write this behavior off as instinctive, and refuse to compare it to the flourishing that humans do when they are on a positive spiritual path?

Cats? A cartoon shows a dog who says “My owner feeds me, plays with me, pets me, takes care of my every need; he must be a god,” while in the next frame a cat says the same thing but concludes: “I must be a god.” It’s a cliche that cats are more independent than dogs; does that make them any less spiritual? What about the way they respond when they are stroked, when they purr and purr, and then, if their owner is very friendly and strokes them often, they may begin to purr even just at the sight of their owner. Who is to say that a cat does not, in cat’s terms, achieve a higher consciousness when it is well and lovingly cared for? And that a human, in administering this type of care, is not caring for the cat’s spiritual development?

Some of us avoid the trouble of caring for a pet, some of us have one or two, and some of us apparently don’t like to walk into a room and not find it dotted with furry beings; we have several cats and/or dogs in the house. When a human has only one pet, the pain of loss is arguably greater, or when a human has been bonding with a particular pet for well more than a decade.

I’ve heard it argued by somewhat religious folk that God gave pets shorter lives because they’re not quite as important, heard it argued by other religious folk that pets (and animals in general) don’t have souls; another religious argument would be that God made pets to humanize us, to exercise our capacity to care for another living thing — to have enough compassion to do so even when that living thing is not our own child. And while we may not always grieve an individual pet as hard as we would grieve a mother or father, husband or wife, or child, sometimes we do grieve that hard. Sometimes we find charisma and empathy enough in our dog or cat — whether we’re living alone with that animal or in a human family—that its loss completely breaks our hearts.

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