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.