I have long held to a theory about the inner lives of pets that challenges the testimony of none other than Herman Melville who, in his epic American novel Moby Dick, wrote – “As Ptolemy Philopater testified of the African elephant, I then testified of the whale, pronouncing him the most devout of all beings.”
In that context, I assume both Herman and Ptolemy were speaking more of the majesty of the whale and elephant, rather than to their particular devotions or beliefs. But taking them literally it is in that realm – belief – that I choose to confront them.
My theory is specific to dogs and cats, those two most domesticated of animals, because though you may have fish in the house, they aren’t pets in the same sense that pot-bellied pigs or even abandoned squirrels are pets. You can’t scratch your guppy’s ears or rub their little bellies (easily).
Anyway, it is my theory that while dogs are agnostics, at best – probably more like outright atheists – cats are true believers, a real faith-based species. Here’s how that tracks.
Put a bowl of food in front of a cat and they will come and eat, then drift away, then return at their leisure and eat more when it suits them. But they never think that the food is going to be gone if they leave. In that sense, they have faith. In what, I don’t know. But it’s faith of a kind. But dogs…
You can dump a 30-pound sack of kibble on the floor, and old Fido will scarf the whole thing up till he explodes. Why? Because he has no faith that if he doesn’t eat it right now that it will still be there when he comes back. Dogs are all about the here and now, true existentialists. And food is not the only clue.
Look how they interact with us.
You could leave for days at a time, and as long as there’s food, water, and clean litter, the cat couldn’t care less you’re not there. And if they want you to scratch their chins or want to rub on our leg, they will let you know.
But you just try to scratch behind their ear of your own volition and you will get a good quick swipe with their razor-like claws.
“Hey! Keep it to yourself, Pal! I say when I want some attention. Got it!?”
But you can rub a dog’s belly till you get that foot thumpin’ like a Disney cartoon character. And if you go outside to get the morning paper – if anyone ever does that anymore – you could be gone for all of 30 seconds and when you come back their tails are wagging like you were presumed missing with Amelia Earhart.
“Oh my God. You’re back! I am so, so frickin’ happy. I can’t believe that you’re here again. I know you were only gone for a minute, but I’m so overwhelmed with happiness, anyway. Thank you, dear Jesus (though I don’t actually believe in God because like he said, I have no faith).”
Well, that’s my theory. Nothing that will change the world and lead to a MacArthur Grant or Nobel Prize. But at least a vision of the animal kingdom that stacks up with observable behavior and a close reading of Moby Dick.