Reflections on the Death of My Pets

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.

Reflections On Another Sobering Tragedy

Yesterday, nearly 100 people in Norway – most of them teenagers – woke up to what they would’ve never known was their last day alive. A lone madman fueled by a toxic mix of ideology, and no doubt insanity, was all it took to end so many lives. No matter how many horrible events like this occur, we are always left asking how and why someone could do this (and we never reach a satisfying answer).

Events like this really get to me, especially given how many of them I had to study for my major; International Relations encompassed researching all sorts of conflicts, including terrorism and genocide. Couple all that with a tendency to over-saturate myself with news, and it’s no wonder I respond to all this intimately. While one would think such constant exposure and immersion would have the opposite effect – numbing me to the same extent that veterans become battle-hardened – I find that the opposite is true. Obviously, I’m more detached in a visceral sense: I don’t respond with shock, awe, and raw emotion. But my empathy remains unchanged, especially given my own anxieties about death (my own and others’) and my realization that I could easily be in any given victim’s position.

That is what really disturbs me the most. The perpetrator impersonated a police officer, and was thus able to lure these people to gather around him before indiscriminately opening fire (and in so doing, gaining the distinction of having committed the greatest act of violence on Norway’s soil since World War II). Were we there with the victims, what would have done? Who among us would’ve known there was something up? Speaking for myself, I most definitely would have been among those to cooperate, not knowing any better and not having any reason to fear for my life (after all, how often does a police officer turn out to be a mass murderer, especially in as peaceful and stable a place as Norway?) I could just as easily have been killed in such a deceptive and utterly unexpected matter. And such is often the nature of death.

That’s always what follows from my mind when I read of such things. It could be me. It could be someone I love and who be devastated to lose. You can minimize your chances by avoiding risky activities, substances, and circumstances, but that only gets you so far. There is never any full-proof way to avoid death, and there is absolutely no way our limited cognitive and sensory abilities could ever predict such things. To paraphrase a friend: death is all around us, and it’s amazing we get by without losing our lives. Indeed, events like this are yet another reminder of how frail our existence is. The fact that we need such constant reminders, assuming we even derive such a lesson in the first place, is proof of how detached most of us are from this grim possibility (not that I could blame anyone for not indulging in such morbid reflections).

However, that is the value of this macabre exercise. However much anxiety, paranoia, and sadness it may inflict on me, it allows me to appreciate every second I have on this Earth (all the more precious given that I am agnostic about any sort of after life, and thus live this one as my only).  It’s a big reason why I try to stay optimistic and see the beauty in things, and why I obsess about making the most of my life. An understanding of mortality, however grim and nerve- wracking, and be quite good at boosting your sense of appreciation and spurring you to making sure that your moments on this Earth as pleasurable and fulfilling as possible. I could only hope that the victims of this attack, many of them adolescents, had lead the best lives possible, however short.

A final comment before I conclude my reflections: it’s been noted that this incident has received tremendous – some say excessive – attention, to the extent that the media is being accused of sensationalism. I’m not quite sure how I feel about this claim, though I could understand the contention, and could very well be clouded by my own sympathy.  Whatever the intent of the relevant news agencies, I think they’re just responding to human society’s innate fascination with these sorts of brutal acts. The fact that it was Norway, a country seen as “innocent,” peaceful, and friendly, may also contribute to the sense of shock and interest (after all, the media, in response to relative public apathy, rarely devotes much attention to the everyday tragedies that occur in the “usual” suspects we’ve come to get used to as blighted).  If something this horrible could happen in such a “nice” country, imagine how vulnerable the rest of us must feel? Perhaps most humans are as secretly concerned and fascinated by the prospect of  an untimely death as I am.

In any case, the issue of there being too much attention to this, in light of numerous other stories,  is difficult issue to address and requires a very delicate balance. If such incidents aren’t given attention, it may be perceived as cold, whereas too much attention appears – as we’re seeing – as sensationalist and narrow-minded. I feel strongly for the victims, but immersing ourselves in the grim details of their demise is ultimately inconsequential to them and their loved ones. We should extent are deepest sympathies, feel for their loss, and count our blessings. But there is little else anyone could do, as is the case with any attempt at consoling or trying to make sense of pointless death (and even natural death for that matter).

If I could ever derive any sort of silver limning for myself from such a horrific occurrence, it is how I am left with a strong sense of appreciation for my continued existence in this world. Nothing reaffirms our good fortune to be alive than the realization of our own mortality. It is sad that must take something like a fatal tragedy to do it, but such is the way of humans. That I can sit here and pontificate about the misfortune and death of others, rather than the other way around, is reason enough for me to be infinitely grateful.