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Sansara Evans

Female brother

Posted by Sansara Evans Jun 4, 2020

This business of connection, whether through a leash or no, is very significant, and is an excellent indicator that the creature attached to the other end is a pet, no matter how unlikely. Images of St. Margaret of Antioch (a sort of female Jonah, who probably never existed at all but who is nonetheless a favorite of mine) often show her with a fearsome dragon curled at her feet, from whose belly, according to her legend, she rose unharmed. In 1525, Girolamo Savoldo took this imagery the logical step further when he created a portrait of a matronly Italian noblewoman about to rise from her reading to take her eager greyhound for a walk. Renew life.There he is, in the bottom left-hand corner of the painting—one of the traditional places for pets to find themselves—joined to his owner by a chain looped around her waist. Only when you register his strangely frilly ears do you realize who this “pet” and owner are meant to be.


We have an almost constant experience of this type of physical connection with our pets, which of course means that they have an almost constant experience of contact with us. You might say the clue is in the name here, with “pet” being both noun and verb. This includes flourishing brush and comb to groom them, as if we were their animal, rather than human, parent; but then thousands upon thousands of us also brush our pets’ teeth, as if it’s they who were human instead. The fluidity of who is what in the relationship of pet and owner, the way in which each side contributes to it, the overlaps in behavior and the mirroring in our experience of each other recur over and over again, as true for an owner a thousand years ago as it is today. We choose them; but they seem to choose us, too. We make a noise to communicate with them; they make a noise to communicate right back, even if neither party, frankly, has a clue as to what has been said. We love them; they behave with trust and affection toward us in turn.


And we lose them, but they lose us, too. And it is our pets, our companion animals, who in turn make that fascinating thing the animal’s companion out of us.

To add even more variety to the mix, by no means all these definitions need be met all the time. As I researched this book I was often asked whether horses and ponies qualified as pets. They certainly don’t share domestic space with us (something granted even to St. Margaret’s dragon) but they are named, cared for, and communicated with, and anyone who has ever ridden a horse will know how profound the physical connection with them becomes.

Sansara Evans

Human activity

Posted by Sansara Evans Jun 4, 2020

If you were to ask my own mother now about the same event, that is without a doubt the detail she would remember most vividly: the focus of that pair of ewes, their fleeces also bright with snow, on their offspring, and the inevitable parallel between their role and that of the woman carrying their lambs downhill toward shelter and warmth. The fact that animals reflect back at us so many aspects of ourselves, the universal and the individual, is yet another part of our conjoined history. We also have the words “petty” and “petit” or “petite,” all three related one to another, and negotiating meaning between being little and being of little account. Standing desk There is to pet, as a verb, meaning to pat or play with or fondle, and to be in a pet, or pettish, is to give way to the kind of behavior indulged in by the petted when that attention is taken away.


Our human activity around that word has expanded it enormously. Pets, after all, are made by us—they don’t come into being on their own. That should make deciding what a pet is or isn’t a simple matter, except that we not only define them, we define the definitions, too, which makes it anything but. This is rather fitting, in my view. Animal studies, which is where our activities as pet owners place us, is so new a field and is growing so rapidly that it can still almost get away with defining itself as it likes, so why should definitions of its subjects be fixed, either?

So: a pet is an animal we bring indoors—except when we don’t. It is an animal we never eat—except when we do. It is an animal we name as an individual, but not quite with a human name, except when it is. Its relationship with us is individual and unique—just as are our relationships with each other. It is yours—your cat, your dog, your parrot, your pig. It can be a hedgehog or a horse. It is a creature to whom we present belongings that don’t belong. It is animal-animal, distinct from us, who are human-animal, except that historically human beings have been kept as pets, too—the court dwarf in Europe, or in South America where the Aztecs kept human albinos in menageries, treating them as the kind of curiosities they would themselves come to be seen as by the Spanish conquistadores. It is a creature for whom the boundaries between human and animal have become blurred; and where it is we who do the blurring. We feed them in our kitchens, where we ourselves eat. They sleep with us on our beds, something that for most of us is a privilege granted to but one other member of our own species, but with our animals it is an intimacy granted without thinking (and certainly without being asked).

Sansara Evans


Posted by Sansara Evans Jun 4, 2020

The strongest indicator for being a pet owner in adult life is to have had pets in childhood, but my adult life had also included an unplanned-for, peripatetic stage, of living emotionally as well as physically in rented space, where the less I was responsible for, I felt, the better. So while I was working on Red: A History of the Redhead, I was petless for the first time in my life, and writing that down, I share the astonishment of the writer Elizabeth von Arnim contemplating her own petless state at the beginning of her 1936 autobiography, All the Dogs of My Life. (“This, when I first began considering my dogs, astonished me; I mean that for years and years I had none.”3) Now that period too was done with, and here I was with a permanent roof once more over my head, and under that roof there was a lack. Sitting on the sofa with my laptop on my knees, I wanted to be interrupted. I wanted to have an animal come in and make the sort of noise I could interpret as asking me what I was doing. I wanted a head to be pushed into my hand if I let it dangle to the floor. I wanted to have some other creature in my life to be concerned about. What I needed, I decided, as many writers had done before me, from the ninth-century scribe who immortalized his cat, Pangur Bán, all the way through Joachim du Bellay (sixteenth century), Christopher Smart (eighteenth century), Alexandre Dumas (nineteenth century), and Ernest Hemingway and Colette (twentieth century), to name but five off the top of my head, was a cat. A sensible middle-aged cat who would understand that her mummy, or parent, or owner, or guardian or caregiver or indeed companion, or whatever term is most acceptable to you, had to go out to work and who would be content to engage with the world through a window. What I came back with from the local animal rescue center were two half-starved, half-bald, tiny little scraps of cat, one of whom, the moment I opened the cat carrier, shot into the kitchen, ascended the kitchen cupboards like Spider-Man, and took refuge behind the microwave, and the other of whom, just as smartly, galloped into the bathroom and wedged herself under the loo. Digital agency

What is a pet? The dictionary definition speaks of “any animal that is domesticated or tamed and kept as a favorite, or treated with indulgence and fondness.” Samuel Johnson (noted cat lover) in his Dictionary defined “pet” in 1755 as “a lamb taken into the house and brought up by hand”; something orphaned or abandoned, and needing our human intervention if it is to survive at all. It’s a dialect word, from the Scots and the north of England, where the long winters and unpredictable springs still engender such tender care—thinking of a childhood Easter holiday on a Yorkshire farm sets loose at once the memory of watching the farmer’s wife striding down from the fell, wrapped up until she was as inflexible as a roll of carpet against the pelting sleety snow, and with her arms full of sooty-faced and sooty-footed lambs, still a little bloody from their birth cords. I remember how their black feet bobbed like musical notation against the whitening front of her khaki mackintosh and the whitening landscape.