I have always had a great fondness for animals, and until a few months ago, I had worked at a pet store for a full six years. Subsequently, I collected my fair share of pets during my tenure, and at one point I think I owned just about every major kingdom and phyla you could legally find for sale.
Sadly, as my schedule became busier and my resources scarcer, I had to give away a lot of my animals, or opt not to replace them when they died. That eventually suited me fine, since I could devote more time to my two favorite kinds of pets: my fish and my birds.
Maintaining my aquariums and bowls – I have two of the former and six of the latter – remains a soothing hobby, despite the time and expense. I love constructing ecosystems from scratch, and being able to watch little microcosms of nature remain self-contained within a glass frame. I always use natural rocks and plants to keep it as sustainable and conducive to life as possible.
I also love bird keeping, as I’ve long had ornithological leanings (a fancy term for the study of birds – I rarely get to use it, so pardon the pretentiousness of doing so). Birds are fascinating to me, with their beauty, variety, intelligence, and personality. Their behaviors and interactions are fun and relaxing to observe, and I used to wile away my spare time just watching them go about their day. I currently have two cockatiels and had had three parakeets (I’d definitely get more variety if I had the space and money).
Unfortunately, all my parakeets (also known as budgies) were killed over the weekend. I’ll avoid the messy details, but the poor things were slaughtered by, of all things, a bird of prey, probably a falcon. They’re not uncommon around where I live, but in all the years I’ve had these and other pets outdoors, I’ve never had one attacked by a wild animal. The find was shocking and heart-wrenching; especially since I could have saved the last one had I made it in time (the other two were killed long before).
Admittedly, I remain dejected by this. These birds were among my first pets when I started working at the pet store. I spoiled them with high quality food, a big sturdy cage, and at least a dozen toys. I enjoyed caring for them paternalistically, and had even planned on getting them a bigger cage in a couple of months. To see them mangled in such a horrible way, and feel them limp in my hand, and to see their now empty cage, is all thoroughly unpleasant, to say the least. Perhaps most upsetting was the fact that they were trapped – they were in a cage after all, and couldn’t break free, which ultimately killed them. Being intelligent animals, I could only imagine the terror they felt in such torturous encounter. Even discounting the human tendency to anthropomorphize – that is, to bestow human qualities to non-human things or animals – birds are still developed enough to feel something akin to fear or sadness. That fact made their deaths all the more upsetting to me.
I’m not sure I want to replace them. Aside from the cost, which I can’t afford just yet, I’m too afraid to take the chance (take note: I’ve already brought the cockatiels, which were unharmed, inside). What the hawk did was instinctual, but the unusualness of its targets suggests that they may be having a harder time finding natural prey, which isn’t surprising given the rapid level of development that has reduced their ecosystem. Even so, it was a terrible way to be reminded of the cost of environmental degradation. At this rate, I’m sure there will be future attacks now, until – morbidly – continued habitat loss wipes out birds of prey in the area (rest assured, by the way, that I am not advocating a vengeful hunt or wishing for that to happen, though I won’t deny the initial, anger-fueled temptation).
Its strange how much I feel for these animals, and how terribly I miss them. They were just birds after all, right? Humans die by the millions every year, yet I’m morning the loss of little animals. There are millions of these creatures being bred annually, and they’re practically expendable given their cheapness and numbers. Logically, it makes no sense to be so emotionally invested and distraught. My presumed inclination to be rational is in conflict with a seemingly childish attachment to something meaningless.
But such a cold calculation misses the point: we humans are social beings. We’re hardwired for empathy, kinship, and altruism; at the same time we have a great capacity for higher thinking, cognition, and abstract thought. I don’t want to delve too deeply into the science of all this, but the conclusions is that humans fundamentally yearn for and need something to love.
Notions of gods, spirits, talking animals, and other anthropomorphic manifestations of intelligence are merely projections of us. We’re alone as a sapient species (as far as we’ve ever known), so for as long as we’ve been human, there’s always been this universal tendency to attribute phenomenon to an intelligent agent, or to bestow human-like qualities to the elements of nature around us (commonly animals, but also trees, mountains, and the natural world itself).
I’ve often wondered why humans have pets, or why I myself did. A cynical suggestion would be that we simply enjoy exerting control or power over something else – the same reason slavery, territorial expansion, and warfare were nearly universal. It could be an extension of our paternal instincts: as social creatures, we’re inclined to care for other people, and perhaps this became extended to non-humans as we began to anthropomorphize the world around us. Maybe it’s just a bit of both.
Whatever the scientific details – which I’ll leave for another post – all I know is that I feel a great bond with other forms of life on this planet, and I know I am not alone in that. I love taking care of living things, including plants (of which I also maintain many). It brings me inexplicable joy to see an animal grow, thrive, or go about its existence with my assistance. Maybe it’s a projection of my paternal instincts or maybe deep-down it is a twisted form of authoritarianism. Whatever the case may be, and whatever your own personal take on it, all I know is that I miss my birds terribly, and find the suffering or death of a living thing unbearable to any degree, from human and below.
While I think it’s a beautiful thing for us to have such a bond with nature, I also find it terrifying – if I’m this distraught over the death of some pets, imagine the grief I’ll feel when I inevitable begin to lose the loved ones in my life. That’s a morbid and disquieting thought I’ll save for another post – assuming I dare to confront it.