I talked a lot in last month’s column about cats and dogs, which left me wondering, as it always does, about why people keep other animals as pets, and the strange dichotomies such tastes sometimes produce.
Fish, for example. People spend hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars on fish and their upkeep. I suppose one could regard fish more as collectibles than pets. Something to show off. They’re attractive, true, but that’s about it. You can’t walk a fish, save for certain varieties of koi you can’t pet a fish, and they pretty much only react to the offering of food.
Birds, now, that I can understand. You can pet a bird (and the bird likes it), you can walk some birds on your shoulder, and you can even communicate, sort of, with certain birds. When it comes to birds as pets, people generally speak of parrots, macaws and parakeets, but personally I would go for a corvid. Ravens and crows are often accounted the most intelligent of birds, and will work to prove it. A friend of ours had a pet crow that, when she sat down to type a letter, would pick up a piece of paper and make an effort to insert it into the typewriter (if you’re under 20, now’s the time to google “typewriter”). When she was doing laundry it would try to help load clothes into the washer. Pretty clever for a wild bird.
Pet owners often talk about how much of their choice has to do with appearance. But it’s not always the case. Take reptiles, for example (most folks won’t). Snakes and lizards can be incredibly beautiful. For years we had a bright green iguana named Broccoli (for his favorite food). But they’re not “cuddly,” people will object.
That depends on how you define “cuddly.” For ten years I enjoyed the company of a six-foot Columbian boa named Sam. As far as easy-care pets go, Sam was hard to beat. Didn’t have to walk him, he didn’t bark or hiss, and he only had to be fed a couple of times a month. Aggressive? Sam was such a scaredy-snake that I had to kill his food for him. He would slither away and cower before a live rat. When I let him out of his enclosure he would curl up in my lap and relax, or curiously explore my study.
Common misconception: snakes are slimy. Sam was dry and cool. In the summer, he would cool me on contact while my body heat would please him. It was fascinating to see him interact with small children who had not been taught to fear snakes. They would laugh and giggle as he slid all over them. In ten years he never bit anyone, which is more than you can say for your average cat or dog or kid. But I wouldn’t keep a constrictor if it grows to more than ten feet. That’s stupid macho stuff, and potentially dangerous.
Speaking of rats, there’s another potential pet that gets bad press. We have history to thank for that. I once spent part of a day in the Temple of Deshnok, in the province of Rajasthan, India. The temple is famous because the priests feed and tend to the thousands of rats that live within, believing each one to house the spirit of someone departed. No shoes allowed, so when you walk around the grounds and inside (where the darkness finally spooks some visitors), hundreds of rats scurry around and over your feet. It’s a fascinating experience. And they never bite anybody. Think the movie Ratatouille, only in real life.
Snakes and rats; sorry if I’ve creeped anybody out. The point I’m making is that we’re psychologically conditioned to accept certain animals as pets and reject others based not on how they might respond to us, but on history, superstition, and inaccurate assumptions.
For example, some people keep spiders as pets. Not just as collectibles, like fish, but as pets. Some spiders are really colorful, and they are fascinating creatures. Other people keep ferrets, and let their children play with them. Both are predators (the spiders and ferrets, not the children, at least not till they grow up). Spiders tend to be slow-moving and wary, and will not bite. Ferrets are fast, aggressive, and belong in the same family (mustelidae) as other gentle creatures such as weasels, badgers and wolverines. Want to bet which will bite first, spider or ferret?
So much of how we regard pets is psychological. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. I have to admit that “Would you like to pet my Goliath bird-eating spider?” just does not generate the same response in a visitor as “Would you like to pet my parakeet?” When it comes to which critters we keep as companions, so much of it is mental.
But no one can tell me that an emerald tree boa isn’t beautiful, even if it doesn’t purr.
Prescott resident Alan Dean Foster is the author of 130 books. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster. com.