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).