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Why pets like Walnut make us better human beings simply for having them share our lives

We benefit most from the relationship, which is the reason goodbyes can be so traumatic, writes Gail Walker

Published 15/11/2016

Mark with Walnut
Mark with Walnut

It was like watching a pure idea made manifest, an infinitely gentle emotion given unlikely time and space ... True, cynics may sneer that it was just a bunch of sentimental dog lovers on a windswept beach in Newquay in Cornwall getting over-emotional about an 18-year-old whippet named Walnut as he was taken for his final walk before being put to sleep by the vet.

But only a person with a very small heart could have failed to have been moved by the sight of Mark Woods carrying Walnut across Porth beach - the dog's favourite walk in better times.

Mark had asked other dog owners and their pets to join him on Walnut's final outing. And on Saturday the beach was thronged as hundreds of people turned up with their dogs - alongside people who had no dogs, but just wanted to be there too to lend their support.

What a sad and extraordinary procession that made its faltering way towards the incoming tide, with Mark holding Walnut in his arms, taking him for one last paddle. Along the route, banners bearing Walnut's name and adorned with large hearts hung from the windows of nearby homes in a remarkable display of empathy, love and compassion.

And why not? As Mark pointed out, two marriages, three engagements and numerous girlfriends have come and gone, but Walnut was there through them all. "He's been with me through some very difficult times in my life and he's just got me through them, both physically and mentally," he said.

And that's the thing - in an uncertain and often unkind world, pets are an uncomplicated constant. Their friendship doesn't come with provisos, qualifications, or demands. They don't go on social media and bombard you with their poisonous opinions. They don't ask for anything, not really, aside from food and water and a bed.

They are always glad to see you. They are experts at pratfalls when you need cheering up. They instinctively know when you're sad and snuggle in close. They remind you of the joy of simple things - like just being able to get out of bed and run outside to greet a new day, or the joy of quiet companionship.

All they have to offer in exchange is themselves and we humans are never short-changed. They are scarily vulnerable and absurd egomanics at the same time - who could not smile at a vain tomcat lying on his back on a self-heating blanket stretching his paw in the air so that he can marvel at his own beauty?

No wonder even veteran journalists like Eamonn Holmes and Ruth Langsford were teary-eyed when they interviewed Mark on This Morning. No wonder Mark treated Walnut in his last days to his favourite treats - burgers and custard creams. It's what you do for a friend.

Because in an uncertain, unkind world, we know this: the relationships we have with our pets are real; they are not substitutes for human relationships, they are of their own nature, their own kind.

To look a beloved dog or cat in the eyes is to see innocence, truth, purity and love as well as trust and need. It is not the relationship of a god-like human being and a submissive lower form. On the contrary, it is a meeting of equals, a unity within contrast, a kind of complementary existence.

And saying goodbye to that relationship is difficult, traumatic.

Sometimes, the intensity of such a bond can creep up on us unawares. A friend remembers how when his partner's beloved shaggy mongrel was put to sleep, he wept openly at his workplace when the phone call finally came. Grief? Why not - a relationship that you were in some ways dependant upon (why deny the obvious?) has come to an end.

Of course, fools like to sneer that we anthropomorphise pets, attempting to imbue "dumb" animals with human qualities. But every pet owner knows that it is the direct opposite, that our pets in some sense anthropomorphise us - they imbue us with more human, more humane qualities. We are the ones who gain most from the relationship, not our pets - as Anatole France put it, "until one has loved an animal a part of one's soul remains unawakened".

Love. Soul. Those are big metaphysical concepts for what is - if we are to believe the rampant materialists - nothing but a self-interested bundle of muscle, sinew and appetites wrapped up in fur.

I've always had pets and couldn't imagine a world without them. If I'm being honest, I don't really understand people who "don't like animals".

When my old dog sidled up and looked me in the eye, he was looking for companionship, a relationship of equals, wordless certainly, but as real as most of our workaday conversations. And without the cliches, truisms, self-serving posturings and redundancies of most human exchanges. Call it love. Call it what you will.

That's why hundreds of sensible people turned up to say goodbye to Walnut. Because he - or rather their own pets - showed them not dead-eyed loyalty, or stupid devotion, but wonders and marvels.

Amid all the sentimentality of animal ownership, which can so often turn into bored neglect when the novelty has worn off, there is that thing called animal welfare - the rights of creatures to be treated with respect.

It's a mutual thing, really, and it demands a salute from all of us as humans when someone manages to behave with something like decency to creatures in his or her care, especially when there is so much harm inflicted on these most truly innocent beings.

It's also a template for how we might be expected to treat fellow humans. Certainly, some of the great monsters of human history have been crassly sentimental when it came to their pets. But is it not true that we still cast a sideways glance at characters we see abusing animals, or even just being rough, or careless? We still think to ourselves, "I'll be keeping my eye on you, fella" ...

Of course, we need to keep a sense of proportion in these matters. We need to remember that saying that our care for animals is a dry run for our behaviour with our neighbours is a truth and not simply a manner of speaking.

We honour our pets, and animals generally, just as much by offering the same regard to every living thing as we do to them.

But there is something childlike and unsullied in the care shown for Walnut in his last hours, something it is impossible to mar, or scoff at.

More of that regard, please. More of that visible and unembarrassed care.

It might help save us all from whatever eternal punishments are coming our way for the maltreatment of other beasts and our fellow human beings.

Belfast Telegraph

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