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.