Kyoko Mori
 Pet Love

 

​A woman I met in Wisconsin had a pet turkey named “Christmas,” one of the two birds originally raised by her brother-in-law for the holiday table. After the brother-in-law butchered the first turkey—“Thanksgiving”—outside the birds’ pen, Christmas took to running around squawking and flapping his wings in distress every time this particular human approached the barn. “He goes nuts,” the man said when he brought the bird to his vegetarian sister-in-law’s house. “I can’t stand having him around.”

 

Christmas was confined to his pen at night to stay safe from foxes and coyotes, but my friend and her husband let him roam around the yard during the day. He followed them and ate corn out of their hands. When the husband fell off the ladder while painting the siding and broke his leg, Christmas stood over him squawking so loudly that my friend heard him from inside the house. “If that bird hadn’t alerted me,” she said, “my husband could have laid there for hours while I was going about my business, totally unaware.”

 

People generally assume that turkeys are dumb.  I’m not sure if Christmas was smart or stupid to trust other humans after one of them killed another turkey in front of him. Was he so stupid that he didn’t understand that my friend and her husband—the turkey murderer’s brother, no less—were also humans capable of the same act, or was he smart enough to realize that not all humans wanted to eat him? He did correctly deduce that my friend’s brother-in-law was planning to kill him and that her husband was hurt by his fall, though what does injury, life, or death mean to a bird? We would never know. What matters isn’t the turkey’s level of intelligence but the human’s.

 

The story of Christmas is the real-life version of the bedtime stories my mother used to read to me, folk tales from around the world about animals who came to the aid of the people who had helped them. The animals in these stories usually gave back a lot more than they received, saving the humans from major catastrophes or rewarding them with great wealth in return for a minor act of kindness, such as putting out a handful of seeds on a cold day, veering around an ant hill to avoid crushing its inhabitants, or releasing a rabbit from a hunter’s trap at no risk to themselves. Usually, the animals were smarter than the humans.

 

In “Puss in Boots,” one of my favorites, the miller’s youngest son was disappointed when his father died and left him nothing but a cat. He thought that the only useful thing you could do with a cat might be to eat it. The boy spared the cat’s life and agreed to look for the pair of boots and the sack that the cat asked for, but mostly because he had no idea what else to do.

 

Lucky for him that the cat turned out to be his faithful servant, life coach, and best friend rolled into one. I didn’t understand the moral of this story as a child. The right footwear can transform an ordinary barn cat into a magical being? It’s okay to exaggerate and even lie to help a friend? If a cat tells you to take off your clothes and jump into a river, just do it? But I do now, after decades of living with cats and hearing other people’s pet stories. Like my friend’s turkey story, “Puss in Boots” is about the wisdom of recognizing an animal as a companion rather than as a resource to be exploited. It’s shortsighted to eat the turkey or the cat. A smart person would befriend him.I spent the first two years of my life sleeping with my mother’s cat, who crawled into my crib every night. He disappeared—gone off to die, my mother assumed—before I was old enough to remember him, but the stories my mother told about him left an indelible imprint. I got my own cat when I moved out of a college dorm into an apartment. Dorian saw me through graduate school in Milwaukee, my first full-time teaching job in Green Bay, my marriage and divorce, and the publication of my first three books. When he died at almost eighteen, I knew an entire era of my life was over. I resigned from my job and moved to Boston with his successor, Oscar.

Another eighteen years later, I’m in Washington DC with Miles and Jackson. Our brownstone has fourteen cats distributed (not equally) among its twenty-seven apartments. I’ve started a campaign to change the “no dogs” rule the building has had since the 1980s when it became a co-op. Although I don’t plan to get a dog, I’d rather live among people who are devoted to their dogs than among those who fret about noise and dirt. My next-door neighbor fears that a dog walking up our terrazzo staircase on a hot summer day might leave a puddle of drool she could slip on and fall down the steps. She tolerates cats because they stay in their apartments and cause no trouble to anyone except their owners.
A pet is usually defined as an animal that is given a name, allowed to live in the house as a member of the family, and expected to perform no useful tasks. Actually, pets give us something no human could or should. Their whole existence is dedicated to being with us; we don’t have to hold back from loving them in order to foster self-reliance. We can have a dysfunctional codependent relationship with impunity. If I spend hours watching my cats sleeping—admiring the way Miles’ grey paws are tucked under his chin and Jackson’s powerful back legs are folded so delicately—or hurry home from my late night class knowing that both cats would be pacing the floor and meowing as I approach the door, I am hurting no one. I wouldn’t have wanted this level of closeness with my husband even when we were newly married. The unmitigated mutual regard of pet love would be creepy and wrong with a human.

My preoccupation with Miles and Jackson prevents me from sitting around imagining all the ways in which I could be maimed by the trivial and the unexpected,