Companionship is a basic human need. And as millions of pet owners the world over will testify, animals can make wonderful companions. They don’t judge, talk back, or criticise. They can offer unconditional affection, satisfy our hunger for touch, and be great sources of entertainment. They ease our loneliness, reduce our stress levels, and comfort us.
Living on my own I found the companionship of animals invaluable. My budgies offered noisy greetings when I arrived home – their cheerful chatter meant the house never felt empty.
Watching animals at close quarters is fascinating. I can see how Gerald Durrell became addicted as a young boy and ended up with his own zoo. I’m now convinced that if I watched tadpoles in a pond for long enough, even these plump little swimmers would exhibit individuality. Animals have distinct personalities, often to the point of stretching the credulity of us humancentric humans.
Having observed my guinea pig flock for several years, I’m still amazed by their unique differences in temperament, habits and tastes. Take Bramble, who arrived terrified and trembling at our household as a baby. His startle reflex has always been extreme, though is now somewhat muted. He shows classic bullying traits and keeps Little Spot meanly out of their bedroom. But like the typical bully, he runs a mile when confronted with someone larger. Like me. When caught, he screams piercingly before subsiding into endearing micro-squeaks and hiding in my armpit. We wonder if some horrible event frightened him into post-traumatic stress disorder as an infant – we’ve gradually coaxed him into coming into the open, but he still prefers to conceal himself under a load of hay.
Once one begins to recognise the behaviour patterns, interactions and moods of animals it becomes clear that they are sentient beings much like us. Fortunately science is finally acknowledging this fact. It’s no longer acceptable to experiment indiscriminately on rabbit, pigs and apes. We know they suffer when confined and feel pain. It seems bizarre that scientists even questioned such obvious truths.
I’m not sure at what point ‘sentient’ becomes ‘vegetable’ or ‘mineral’ but perhaps even insects have thought processes and feelings. Does an ant hurt when squashed? Does it know why it carries its eggs to safety before a storm?
An intriguing book I read recently was Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. Confined for months to bed, the author develops a relationship with a snail given her in a potted plant. It’s hard to imagine composing an entire book about a creature so small and apparently insignificant, but the elegance and dignity of the snail are finely and beautifully manifested in her writing. I looked at snails with new eyes after reading it.
How you benefit from your animal companion
If you already own an animal, you are probably benefiting from improved mood, more exercise, better heart health (pets reduce blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides), more play, and increased social interaction (people are more likely to greet you if you’re walking a dog).
Research shows that pets in the home can reduce childhood allergies by as much as a third – early exposure to animals strengthens the immune system. So it’s great for kids to have a creature about – even a gerbil.
No room at the inn?
1. Walk in the park and chat to a dog owner.
2. Watch dogs’ complete abandonment and joy as they play at the beach.
3. Moo at a cow in a field.
4. Put a bird bath in your garden.
5. Listen to the dawn chorus.
6. Catsit when your neighbour’s away.
7. Feed ducks in the creek.
8. Count sheep – real ones.
9. Hear crickets peeping.
10. And pay attention… even a snail is worthy!