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     Volume 4 Issue 38 | March 18, 2005 |

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Food for Thought

Partial to Pets?

Farah Ghuznavi

A recent study claims that pets have personalities. Well, duh! Any self-respecting pet owner could have told you that without resorting to such scientific methods. Most of us are partial to our pooches or mad about our moggies, and can sometimes be inordinately fond of our furry, shaggy, finned or feathered companions. And with good reason! After all, they give us the unconditional love and unquestioning obedience - that is, unless you are unfortunate enough to be a cat lover! - that we may find lacking in our other relationships, i.e., those of the human persuasion…As an added bonus, pets are often quite entertaining (even cats).

Coming back to the issue of personalities, it seems that the intuitive idea that our pets have distinctive and "special" personalities is backed up by the proof provided in the study. However, the study takes this scientific discovery even further, outlining a series of tests that can be performed on the individual pet (dogs--clearly because of their superior qualities as pets!--being the preferred type to carry out these tests on). Thus, tests used included testing the animal's reaction to watching its owner play with, or even leave the room with another animal. And based on a series of such multiple tests, some pet shops and animal homes are said to be considering how to actively "match" pets with certain personality types to "compatible" owners. Clearly, nothing is simple any more…

As a long term pet owner, I am well aware of the temptation to treat your pet like a person. And despite my attempts to hide it, no doubt my strong preference for dogs has somehow seeped through...Although I have owned both cats and dogs in past years, the well-known selfishness of cats--and the fact that I am also allergic to them--has not helped their case, as far as I'm concerned. Nonetheless, I usually only make anti-cat remarks to provoke my inordinate number of cat-loving friends, so these should not be taken too seriously!

What is a more serious matter, I am afraid, is the number of pet-owners I have met, who don't believe in having any boundaries where their animals are concerned, e.g., sharing food with a pet. By that, I don't mean taking a bite out of your sandwich, and giving a morsel to your pet. I refer to the kind of person who takes a lick of his/her ice cream, and then lets their dog/cat take a lick! I know this is supposed to be a sign of love, but frankly I find it a bit repulsive. In the same category I place people who seem incapable of understanding that however much they may love their pet, there may be others who don't feel quite the same.

For example, even though I adore my dogs, I am forced to acknowledge that there are people who are genuinely frightened of them. Furthermore, experience has shown that this fear can rarely be dispelled by arguments or logic, e.g., that my dogs will not bite someone who has been welcomed into the house. I wouldn't dream of subjecting someone who is truly scared (like one person who actually screamed when a dog opened its mouth very wide in order to yawn), to the company of my dogs (who are then much to their aggravation! - ruthlessly removed to a different part of the house).

I regret to say that not all pet owners are so reasonable! I recently had the misfortune to be invited to dinner to the house of somebody who owned four, five or possibly six cats (after a while, it became difficult to tell them apart not least because I was too busy sneezing my head off, and had tears streaming down my face). The criminal cat-owner however, refused to even shift her pets to another room, presumably for fear of hurting their feelings! As this was a business dinner, rather than a social engagement, I had to grit my teeth and sit through dinner, but I have rarely been so profoundly grateful to leave someone's house…

I recently came across another example of the kind of person who tends to treat their pet like a human being. Dogs in the UK tend to be very well-trained (or naturally well-behaved, I can't decide which). So while you may see any number of dogs running free in the park, there are rarely any altercations over this. An exception was a case where a woman was in tears, and chastising her dog (who had apparently just taken a bite out of another dog), asking pathetically, "But why did you do that? Why did you do it?" I couldn't help wondering whether she actually expected him to answer…

Another issue puzzling animal behaviourists is the issue of an old bridge in the south of England. In the last six months, five dogs have apparently committed suicide by throwing themselves off the bridge. Since dogs are not known for committing suicide, there have been a number of hypotheses offered for this phenomenon, including that the canopy of trees by the bridge is mistaken for solid ground by the dogs, who then fall through the trees.

This is a bizarre exception, but the possibility of mishaps is far greater with more unusual pets. Some family friends, who are extremely tolerant parents, allowed their son to have a grass snake (Jake) as a pet. While it was not poisonous, his sister was less than impressed. Least of all, the night she came home late, to find a note from her brother left on the kitchen table, stating "Dear Fiona, don't be scared if you meet Jake on the stairs, as he seems to have escaped from his cage…"

Rather more alarming was the case of a British man who was heavily fined for keeping a 4.5 foot cayman (alligator-like reptile) in the bath of his 15th floor apartment. One can't help thinking that his neighbours may have been less than thrilled to find out about this! Bizarrely, he was only found out because he grew tired of sharing his bathroom with the creature, advertised it for sale on the Internet, and attempted to transport it to the prospective buyer in the boot of his car. The judge concluded that the level of ignorance he displayed regarding the dangers involved in keeping such a "pet" was truly criminal!

Finally, there are those who are fully aware and thrive on the idea of having a dangerous or frightening pet. Sometime ago, I looked out of the window in London (after hearing someone screaming), and saw several young women walking rapidly away from something. There was another young woman standing across the street, who appeared to be the source of the disturbance. As I watched, to my horror, a large man ran across the street to stop in front of her - he was bare-bodied, and had a large LIVE green snake wrapped around his neck. He was using the snake's head to terrorise her. The police arrived some minutes later, but I couldn't help hoping that he would one day find himself on the receiving end of the uproar he had created…

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