“Pets,” most people call them, because they are, and no malice in the phrase: it means something good and kind, it speaks a perfectly valid love, if one irrelevant to what is happening with me and Gilgamesh, or what happened with Mandala, or Buddha, or Osiris, or Bear-Cat, or Thumbs, or Panther, or Hercules, or above all Shalom, with whom I was so entwined I almost died when someone killed him, or others I could name but for what? Those who know, know. Those who don’t, won’t, no matter whom I name, no matter what stories they blank out when I speak: the words are meaningless buzz coming from my mouth, and in that fathomless gap, intimacy drowns.
* * *
Life, for most people, is organized hierarchically. Humans exist at the top of some psychotic pyramid pointing inevitably to the self-evident global destruction well underway.
That is not an “environmentalist” view, or some other “agenda” dismissible in some hate-politic-privilege-speak of the moment implying unthinking adherence to someone else’s jargon or membership in some human social group.
I don’t care much for human social groups.
I do care that the self-evident global destruction we are currently enacting is the demonstrable, evidence-based, inevitable logical extremity of presumed human supremacy—and to me, that pyramid worldview is as empirically wrong as the ridiculous food guide extolling false virtues of cash crop lobbyists. It is an absolute inversion of what we need for sustenance.
In this human-pinnacle pyramid, animals are something slightly and occasionally more interesting than furniture, or substitutes for something else onto which people can project stuff they have nowhere else to put, or things that have expensive problems better ignored or at least resented. They are things to be used to make oneself look good or things to be used to make oneself feel good when it’s convenient then ditched until the next time they are needed, things to be kicked out of the way and bitched about and mocked and reduced.
Such arrogant talk of forebrains from so many who lack the most basic ethical frameworks or capacities for kindness or straightforward loyalties to pack and pride or the willingness—or necessary courage—to love unequivocally.
Such moronic, un-empathic, and willfully obtuse talk of “anthropomorphizing” used to claim supremacy, to deny the rich, complex lives animals live—lives completely different from ours, but often entwined, and always perfectly visible to any willing to look.
Such pathologizing and patronizing of those people whose deepest connections in this world are to its non-human inhabitants: looked at empirically, these people are the sensible ones.
Sure, humans have moments of transcendent beauty.
Animals, trees, mountains: they live there.
* * *
When I say “I was raised by wolves,” it’s not precisely a joke. When I say “it was sort of like how Catwoman happened,” I’m not exactly kidding.
A pride of half-feral cats—as many as 27 at one time, thanks to students who abandoned them in dorms every May where cleaning crews eventually let them out half-starved and they found their way to my house for bags of Meow Mix dumped on the porch—raised me. They taught me resilience. Stamina. How to crawl into a hiding place when badly wounded, clean the wound, and come out, if you live through it, when you’re better. How to act casual and pretend nothing happened if you run into a wall or fall off something; how to pretend you didn’t see something like this in order to preserve the dignity of those you love. How to always see when something dangerous is happening. How to sense in darkness, how to always find the best sunny patch, how to trust the body with absolute perfection. How to be unabashed in risk, in love, in hunt, in towering rage: they are passionate creatures, cats, they do nothing half-assed. How to only draw blood if someone actually deserves it. How to forget being scratched or bitten because you deserved it, and how to never forget it if you didn’t. How to avoid those sick ones who hurt you when you don’t deserve it because they will die on their own anyway (or at least, they told me this again and again, and I understood what they said: I didn’t ‘learn’ it exactly, until much later, if I have learned it yet—sometimes I think I will never learn this one, that if there is a species-specific cross to bear, at least until we get sick of carrying that shit, that failed-lesson is mine).
They taught me you will never be harmed in any way by a healthy animal if you do not deserve it: and you will not deserve it if you are respectful, and speak their language, and touch when invited, and have appropriate reticence, and have inappropriate hedonism, and have sharp wit and fierce bloodlust and always share your kill and respect and care for the kittens and take the gifts of dead things with appropriate gratitude for their cultural meaning and really, just be polite and ferocious and don’t lie.
A wolf-hybrid, with the oversight of a Cairn Terrier who ran the universe, raised me. He taught me how to make yourself very small even if you are very large in order to sneak into someone’s lap; that if you do it one giant paw at a time and look away ostentatiously with each shift of weight, the target-lap will not notice until it is too late, or they will at least be laughing so hard you will be ensconced before they think to argue, a tight ball of wolf in your beloved’s embrace. He taught me it is actually possible to fly, horizontal to the ground, by attaching a 50 pound child to a leash behind a much larger wolf who then sees a porcupine (and he taught me to be deeply chagrinned when you realize you’ve crashed her into a hundred trees and she’s bleeding all over even though she’s laughing her head off and pleading with you to run again, again). He taught me maybe wearing a crash helmet is a good idea when attempting to leash a wolf in Vermont forest. Eventually he taught me he didn’t need the leash and I didn’t either, we needed nothing but perfect trust, expressed in the forest and each other, and I guess willingness and skill to remove inevitable quills, quickly and without flinching, before they can embed. He taught me to lifeguard, dragging me out of the ocean. He taught me obedience and loyalty and altruism and how those three things can be either integrated parts or wholly distinct from one another, depending on context. He taught me how to experience the world through my senses, to smell emotion and health, to be utterly of the moment of green and snow, to be courageous and noble and slapstick and lazy, to tell stupid jokes and laugh and roll and laugh again, to sleep in fur, nose to tail.
He taught me a wolf-dog is not a human any more than a cat is, and that while he would kill himself before he would hurt me, he would tear out someone else’s throat if they came at me with malice—and then he would be killed for doing that, even though in his culture, it is the only right thing to do. He taught me that what is right is not particularly valued in this world, and that it is the only thing that has value, and that it is terribly, horrifyingly risky because it is often punished. And then someone came through our yard in a way he found threatening—too near to me, moving oddly, too much swagger and claim—and he bit their leg, a scratch carefully inflicted so as to be clear but minor, a communication of intent to protect the child, the pack, the territory, a communication that if he wanted to kill he could, but he didn’t want to, so please respect the boundary—and the town killed him.
The humans: sometimes there. Sometimes transcendently beautiful. Often drunk and dangerous, violent, unconscious. Sometimes malicious. Often not. Always erratic. I relied on animals for consistency, kindness, predictability, love, warmth, trustworthiness. They gave me what I needed, always and totally. With unequivocal courage.
The adults were too deranged with their own concerns to take care of these animals who raised me: it’s with impotent shame that I remember now how deeply the humans failed them in veterinary care, in appropriate care of any kind. I was a kid who didn’t know differently or better or have a single tool or dollar or skill or car or capacity to do differently; I loved them well, I can say that, but could offer them little else—and they loved me well, better than any weird two-legged world-destroying creature deserves.
Now I know differently: I make amends for the horrible deficits in care of those animals to whom I owe everything by doing better. I teach myself daily how to do better, give more back. They’ve earned it from me as few humans have. It’s also just the only right thing to do.
The adults of that time are either dead or different now. The human story is also one of healing and amends, or death and an end to harm and suffering. Somehow or other, I came out of this wild-child scenario with more skills, rather than fewer, for navigating relationship with other humans than many people ever get: I also came out of it frequently not wanting to, and needing regular trips into the forest with my familiar to refill the well, to retreat into the cave and not come out until I’ve healed and can trust myself not to bite passers-by when they just have shitty social skills.
The animals of that time, of course, are all dead; some well, some not, some preventably, some not. There isn’t really a time I’m not conscious of them, of how they shaped and cared for me. Of what I owe them.
* * *
The people in my life now, the ones I keep close, the pack and pride, are the ones who get it: the witchy ones with familiars of their own, the inugami mochis, the theriomorphs, the ones whose lives have led them to more empathy rather than less even if it takes regular trips away from people to maintain it, the ones who at least recognize the poorly domesticated animal in me and themselves and admire it, value it, consider it a better trait than most human behaviors. I can turn to them when I’m hurt or sick, because they behave like animals: they do not bite you unless you deserve it. They understand that there is nothing in this world worse than losing the familiar: that it is losing a being with whom one is entwined cell by cell, breath by breath, one to whom everything is owed and through whom everything is made better. They neither resent nor mischaracterize the relationship: they make room for it as a given, an integral part.
Those who pathologize this, I notice, generally have no one—animal or otherwise—with whom they are capable of actual intimacy. They may have a lot of noise and posturing going on around them, but they lack courage.
* * *
When I achieve actual connection with fellow human beings, I consider it an animal success in our relationship. A stepping-outside-of normal human behavior, which is, generally, pretty narcissistic and shitty and shallow and weird and at best territorial and hierarchic and chest-beat-y in ways this cat-trained solitary person, this wolf-trained pack-loyalty person, finds deeply alienating and downright crazy.
In place of the word “intimacy”—which has too many therapeutic and New Agey associations with it to feel terribly useful to me—I usually think “animal.”
Excluding chimps, who are way too much like humans. And sheep, whose flock-stupidity is plain incomprehensible and annoying.
We had a real dog-connection, there, I’ll note in a time when trust makes uncomplicated and unselfconscious joy possible. Whoa, cat-brain, I’ll think, in a particularly intense moment of intellectual and emotional congruence.
Point of view, maybe. Language, maybe.
There is a real difference, though, in how I and the rare kindreds I find experience the world. We’re neither better nor worse, but it’s no particular stretch to note that we aren’t very like the rest, those of us who failed at that whole domestication thing.
* * *
Just now, while writing this, a cat I’ve never seen before and may never see again, or may, who knows, came into my house through the propped-open screen door, downstairs into my room and gazed at me around the corner, all white-faced and tabby-eared, green-gold feral eyes into mine for just a moment. Then: gone in perfect silence without even waking the dog, who is sleeping after his seizure yesterday, watched over by me who is grieving his aging, fearing his loss, checking on him from time to time and rubbing his chest, stroking his ears: we went outside, quietly, to look for the cat, but it was gone, leaving nothing but a faint trace of scent we followed to the place under the fence where it came and went with no particular message but acknowledgement.)
* * *
The last person I loved—with whom I sometimes had a beautifully doglike connection, but who regularly lashed out in undeserved cruelty and whose self-centeredness smelled of unhealth—said, with the last vitriolic round of bites and scratches in response to vulnerability, in response to me packing his stuff and showing him the door even though it was the last thing I wanted to do, because it was the only thing left to do: I hope you find what you’re looking for.
I do find it, with Gilgamesh my familiar, with mountains, with trees, with a feral cat’s green-gold gaze; I do find it, with my small pack and pride of friends who get it. I sometimes think I’ve found it with a new lover and am wrong; my track record with humans is that what I look for is as rare as it is apparently incomprehensible to the ones who don’t get it. I find it, but thus far, only in moments—and maybe that’s all there is anyway, even not having to avoid undeserved savagery.
I guess it’s not what I hoped, I say, when I know I cannot bring to someone what matters most of what I am, what is best about me.
When animal courage and vulnerability is incomprehensible, there is nothing but fathomless gap and drowning.
When someone repeatedly draws blood for no reason, the kindest interpretation is that they are sick.
* * *
My familiar is dying, in what I am hoping is the slow way of all of us: he’s still beefcake and strong, an athlete whose frame is failing but whose heart is not. He’s going blind, he tells stupid jokes, he loves with unequivocal courage and watches over me with the nobility of Anubis (my onyx Anubis, I call him, admiring his arched brow, fathomless guardianship, iridescent black fur), he has arthritis, he’s cranky when it hurts, he wants that perfect sunny patch, I’ll tear out anyone’s throat who tries to hurt him, he knows more than most people do about how to do relationship, he has grace and hilarity and wisdom and good cheer and presence in the moment and endless curiosity, when we are beside each other we are complete and when we are not we are not, and we have inexpressible joy in each other: and yesterday, out of the clear blue lake in which he was splashing, a seizure.
I know who is my pack and my pride by who I call when this happens, by those I trust to tell in the crushing terror of the moment, drowned in his mortality, by those I trust not to bite or scratch exposed belly of the most vulnerable possible kind: this is my familiar, and he is dying, not now, please not now.
* * *
I am a rationalist, an atheist, a skeptic who loves symbols and metaphors for the increase of language they allow.
It is the familiar spirit of the place;
It judges, presides, inspires Everything in its empire; It is perhaps a fairy or a god? When my eyes, drawn like a magnet
To this cat that I love…
I use “familiar” because “pet” is wildly wrong and the alternatives are painfully artificial and irritating. The professionalized monikers—“service dog,” “emotional support animal”—imply something completely other than the relationship I have with him or want or need or try to articulate, although Gilly certainly has helped me and I have certainly helped him. In the end—my migraines & spinal injury and his various infirmities born of a lifetime of crackheaded sports considered—he probably is really my service dog as surely as I am his service human: we have learned exactly how to help each other in all the ways we need help (except vacuuming and shoveling: I have not been able to persuade him to do those things).
People who resent his place in my life call him my boyfriend or accuse me of wanting him to replace a human baby (I have zero desire for a human baby, hello: I find them far louder, germier, and less interesting than any dog I have ever met – and people who sexualize the connection fill me with disgust and loathing).
Really, I use “familiar” because there is just no better way to say “creature who is of me as I am of him whose presence makes me more possible and whose presence I make more possible and we do this because it is the only right thing to do, and because we have no choice, it is what is, inevitable, that’s all, and it’s everything, it’s the given, it’s the ground, it’s the wellspring, this being comes in two bodies, deal with it.”
A familiar spirit (alter ego, doppelgänger, personal demon, personal totem, spirit companion) is the double, the alter-ego, of an individual. It does not look like the individual concerned. Even though it may have an independent life of its own, it remains closely linked to the individual. The familiar spirit can be an animal….
—Pierre A. Riffard
The history of the word, of course, includes all sorts of religious implications I don’t mean, but what those symbols refer to about the rare but possible human-animal relationship I certainly understand and experience.
An Inugami (lit. “dog god”) is a familiar spirit that looks like a dog and acts as a protective guardian. Inugami are extremely powerful and loyal, and they are known to carry out acts of revenge on behalf of their “owners.”
—Edo Period Monster Paintings by Sawaki Suushi
… It is believed that an inugami-mochi will be blessed with great fortune and success, and that favors granted by them will be returned with interest. However, in exchange the inugami-mochi are shunned by other people, and find it hard to get married; they must also be careful not to offend their inugami lest they receive its wrath, as…an inugami does not merely follow its master’s wishes, but also acts on its own impulses.
My familiar doesn’t spirit-travel into other worlds and gather me fairies or steal souls or otherwise woo about the place doing imaginary things.
The magic he and I make and experience in the world we inhabit together is entirely reality-based.
The Goldi [Nanai people in Siberia] clearly distinguish between the tutelary spirit (ayami), which chooses the shaman, and the helping [animal] spirits (syven), which are subordinate to it and are granted to the shaman by the ayami itself.
He travels with me, beside me and within me—whether in silence and solitary-but-still-close explorations or in boisterous and messy camaraderie—and I give him the same, and it makes us both larger, not smaller. And happier. More sustained. More ourselves.
This, as far as I am concerned, should be the definition of love.
Few humans can do it.
* * *
Gilgamesh turns eleven in two weeks.
Under interrogation as a youth, he promised me seventeen years.
Not long ago, his vet said he thinks twelve or fourteen years is perfectly feasible for such a healthy, active, strong and well-loved dog.
These are incomprehensible numbers, to me.
Too few, and too close.
* * *
Once I read “The Malleus Maleficarum.”
I do not recommend it.
The simplest way to destroy a witch, turns out, is to kill her familiar.
How’s that for a metaphor?
* * *
Never, in all the years of undomesticated courage and relentless beauty, of world-creating and making each other larger, did a single one of the furred bastards I have loved tell me how to let them go.