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Why Do We Love Them So?

Despite embarrassment, indignity and mess, animals are our family

The animals in our lives can get us in trouble.

There’s a story circulating through the Bay Weekly office, and possible beyond, about Nipper’s appearance at a family picnic. It wasn’t Nipper’s family picnic.

Alerted at distance by the aromas of food, he broke away from his walk with his own family and made for the party. So fast did he run that no one had seen him before he bounded onto a picnic bench, stretched giraffe-like up to the table and stuck his nose into a bowl of beans and franks. Jack Russell that he is, he pulled out a hot dog and was off before the picnickers’ shock gave way to pursuit. On the way out, he stopped by the grill and lifted his leg on their half bag of charcoal.

Nipper was the only unembarrassed member of his party.

This story may not be entirely true. Then again, it may be.

Cats disdain dogs as inferior creatures, but they’re not above causing a little trouble of their own. Paw prints left on neighborhood cars, kitty piles in sandboxes and gardens and bird ambushes are the usual cat trouble. My own infamous Mr. Boy, about whom you read on the occasion of his death this January, at age 16 and a half, was guilty of home invasion. He’d call on his favorite neighbors, Cliff and Juanita Foust, let himself in through their cat door and eat their cats’ dinner before settling down for a nap.

Why, then, do we love them so?

Why does this annual Pet Tales issue rank so high among readers’ favorites?

Why can’t we look at your Pet Portraits in Bay Weekly’s Paws and Claws Pose-Off (page 8) without awwwwwe and adoration?

Writing about sporting dogs this week, Sporting Life columnist Dennis Doyle argues that humans and dogs are linked in symbiosis by mutual benefit borne of the campfire and the hunt.

“Though it no longer has the real survival tensions where the sustenance of a tribe, pack or people is at stake, the primal vibrations and trust are still there, and they resonate through both of our species, dog and human alike,” he writes, eloquently.

Pulitzer Prize-winning former Baltimore Sun reporter and dog-fancier Jon Franklin describes an even more intimate partnership. Bonding together to win survival in “an age of extinction,” Franklin argues that each species specialized in certain skills, sacrificing brainpower to interdependence.

Now it seems a sure bet that what functions were lost were taken up by the dogs, Franklin writes in The Wolf in the Parlor. People specialized in smarts, and dogs specialized in feeling, instincts, smells and the like. Those abilities are critical to psychological survival, but, in the human, they often interfered with the ability to focus intellectually. So losing those particular brain cells actually made people smarter.
Dogs, meanwhile, became emotional beasts of burden. They were the ones who were paranoid at night, who checked out suspicious noises and smells, and they were also the ones who added the soulful feelings that humans had largely lost.

Has Franklin hit the target? Not everyone thinks so. I’m not the one to flea-comb the line of research and assumption he followed over 12,000 years of evolution. But his conclusions, and Doyle’s, have the emotional weight to explain the fierce devotion — not to mention investments — we make in our animal companions.

Perhaps the terms of modern life — our sacrifice of lifelong ties of family, clan and community for mobility — make us just as dependent on our creatures’ fidelity as were our ancient ancestors on their strength and sensory acuity.

There’s got to be some reason I endure a host of indignities (shared fur not the least among them) and share my fortune, food and sometimes even my bed with creatures who cause me so much embarrassment as granddog Nipper.

Watch out! Put away the wine goblets and prepare to be shed upon. Here comes nearly perfect Moe.