Examining a Singular Bond
T.E. Creus’s 'Our Pets and Us' provides a history of animal domestication, from the Paleolithic period to the present
Focusing primarily on cats and dogs, but also exploring famous birds, eels, and wombats, T.E. Creus’s independently published book Our Pets and Us: The Evolution of a Relationship is a study of the unique bond between humans and their beloved animals. From stories of dogs who followed daily routines long after their owners were deceased to anecdotes about sacred cats in ancient Egypt, this book explores the varied ways in which our pets shape us—and to what extent we shape them.
For many years of human history, you write, “the view of animals was mostly utilitarian,” but at a certain point pets took on a more emotional role. How and why did that shift occur?
I don’t think it was a sudden shift—more of a long process. Cats are a good example. In Roman times, when cats were first brought to Europe—likely from Egypt—they were kept around outside to hunt mice and other pests. Yet, at some point, a few paintings of cats, and funerary monuments of children holding cats, popped up, indicating thata companionship had formed. With dogs, this bond happened much earlier, likely in prehistoric times. Even if they had an initial utilitarian purpose, such as hunting, the friendship was already there. Other animals, such as horses or donkeys, were viewed as utilitarian for centuries. And yet even some of those animals formed a bond with their owners, such as [the Roman] emperor Caligula’s beloved horse Incitatus.
What do you think draws humans to animals, even those that are completely different from us?
I think it’s a paradoxical thing. We are drawn to animals because they are similar to us and because they are different. Animals can fill distinct roles: some animals are a joy to look at, while others are fun to play with. Unusual pets—like the Roman politician Crassus’s eel—are very different from humans. I don’t know if these animals form any kind of bond with their owners, but the owners clearly bond with them.
Does your work as a filmmaker deal with animals?
Someone once said that the hardest things to work with on a movie set are animals and children. It’s true. Animals are very unpredictable, so I never really make films with or about them. I made a little short movie once, years ago, where one of the main characters was my pet cat. It’s on YouTube somewhere. But that was it. That said, I really respect filmmakers who work with animals. Tarkovsky made amazing scenes with dogs and birds, and Chaplin made A Dog’s Life. I admire those who are able to do it well.
Do you think the love that dogs feel for humans is fundamentally different from what they feel for other dogs?
I don’t know how dogs feel about other dogs, or even about humans. Do they actually see us as “human”? Or do they just see us as big creatures that somehow became part of their “pack”? With other dogs—at least in the case of wild or stray dogs—there can be competition: fighting for food, for mates, for who is going to be the “alpha.” But with humans the attachment is different. Because we are not seen as rivals—we don’t compete for the same stuff. The attachment they form with us seems to be really strong in some cases, but I think that dogs can also form a strong attachment to other dogs. Once I had two female dogs who were always together, and when one of them died, the other was inconsolable for a long time.
You spend a chapter talking about writers and their preferences for animals. Are you a cat person, a dog person, or neither?
I grew up mostly around dogs. But, later on, as an adult, I had more cats and was more in contact with people who had cats. I’m not sure whether these categorizations of “cat person” and “dog person” are a fiction, or if there really is some psychological difference between cat owners and dog owners. While it’s true that writers of fantasy and similar genres seem to prefer cats to dogs, I can only speculate as to why. But I think that writers in general seem to love all kinds of pets. I think part of the reason is that writing is a solitary activity, so cats, dogs, and other animals provide good companionship.
What is your opinion on some of the over-the-top offerings of the pet industry: doggie hotels, spas, yoga? Have we gone too far?
I think that most of the extreme types of offerings in the “pet industry” cater to the owners’ vanity and narcissism, not to the animals. Dogs and cats don’t really care. We had a Labrador dog when I was growing up, and sometimes we bought him expensive toys, but he never wanted them. The only toy he really loved was a muddy tennis ball. Dogs don’t want complicated toys, clothes, hotels, or spas. My advice is to keep it simple. Pets in general like simple things. They are not human, and I don’t think that they want to be.
What’s the future of pet ownership?
I don’t foresee many changes in the future. Although the popularity of certain pets may change over time and I can imagine other types of animals becoming popular in the future, cats and dogs will probably remain the most popular choices. Another possible change is in technology—how it affects us and our domestic animals. For example, cloning our pets. Could there eventually be a new pet created by genetic engineering? Perhaps a half-dog-half-cat, or a half-cat-half-lamb, as imagined by Kafka. Personally, I hope that we don’t start doing such experiments.
Simone Woronoff is a book reviewer and 2020 graduate of Northwestern University’s School of Communication.