August 2016

The Nation Reviewed

A companionable rooster

By Anne Manne
Why are our pets so pampered?

As I was walking into the local vet’s to buy some cat food, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a woman stroking what looked like a large fluffy white cat tucked under her arm. The sight of a devoted owner and their pet is unremarkable. As I sidled past, however, I did a double take. Out of the white bundle was hanging a long, grey, gnarled claw. The woman was tenderly holding a rooster, one arm cradling him, the other caressing his feathers with soothing, sweeping strokes.

The rooster was leaning into her, the way small children lean into their mothers when they are sick. His knobbly red comb was resting on her breast and he looked rather wan, even a little self-pitying. He may well have been ill, but there was an air of self-dramatisation; it looked like he was milking this moment for all it was worth.

Wanting to know more, I remarked to the vet nurse that I had seen lots of different animals at this vet surgery, which often cares for injured native wildlife, but never a rooster.

The nurse nodded complacently, and replied in a clucky tone, full of sympathy, “Yes, he’s been feeling very poorly, just lying on the couch all day.”

“Lying on … the couch?”

Now the rooster’s owner chimed in. “Yes, we’ve been watching TV all day.”

I must have looked startled, for then she said, “Oh, he lives inside, and he sleeps with me, too.” Gazing down and beaming at him, she went on, “He has slept in my bed ever since he was a little chicken.”

She then added, with pride, “He’s never even had a hen. Only me.”

All the staff nodded solemnly at this declaration of fidelity, and then the vet appeared and called the woman in, preventing me from asking more questions. Did the rooster sleep under the covers or on top of them? Did his brilliant red comb poke above the bedclothes next to the woman’s head on the pillow, so that they woke up in the morning, faces close, looking lovingly at each other? Was he house-trained, and if not what happened when he shat in the house? How does one house-train a rooster? Did the woman have a partner or lover, and if so what was their view of the rooster in the bed every night? And if they had sex what did the rooster think?

Everyone at the vet’s was utterly serious, as if it were unremarkable to witness such intimacy between woman and rooster. I could barely contain myself, so I ran out of the surgery, disappeared into my car and exploded with laughter.

When I got home I was still laughing, but then I began thinking. I’d read some neuroscientific research that showed how dogs exhibit the same kind of attachment behaviour with their owner as that of a two-year-old child with their parent. The dogs treat their owner, if they trust them, as a secure base from which to explore. They get anxious when separated. That’s quite touching. So, too, is the fact that a mother’s brain will light up in similar areas when she looks at photos of her dog and photos of her child. But when does this cease to be pleasing evidence of the profound attachment between human and non-human animals, and become something of a weird substitution?

I thought about the number of people I know who behave far better and with less ambivalence to their horse than to, say, an elderly parent. Or are nicer to their dog than to their spouse. And how we all, me included, turn up piously prepared to pay a fortune for veterinary care for our precious darling.

Then there is Pet Guilt. “He’ll think I’m a Bad Pet Mother,” whispered one of my friends to me, when admitting that she went 20 kilometres out of her way to another clinic rather than risk the censure of her local vet, for whom a flea is a moral catastrophe. The same mother regularly boasted about the corners she cut with her children, a tilt at the old tropes about motherhood.

Has something, at least for some of us, gone a little awry in our relationship with animals? The woman who slept with her rooster reminded me of the famous case in the 1970s where Columbia University psychology professor Herbert Terrace ran an experiment placing a baby chimpanzee with a human family. Stephanie LaFarge took home Nim Chimpsky, as he was called, breastfed him, and raised him not just alongside her seven children but as one of them. It was an experiment to see what sign language and human behaviour the chimp would develop. He bonded all right, but became jealous of her husband and displayed increasingly challenging behaviour. LaFarge was obliged to give up Nim Chimpsky, and for the following years he was moved on to carers, research institutes and an animal sanctuary. When Nim Chimpsky was reunited with LaFarge after almost a decade, he attacked her. She said it was “the closest I’ve ever come to feeling I could die”. The folly was clear.

In contemporary times, alongside great material indulgence of children there is also a lot of ambivalence expressed towards them. It could be, as shown by the ubiquitous references to becoming a “pet parent”, that animals are less-bothersome objects of affection – not only able to be doted on but also bought, sold and, potentially, euthanised.

In Australia, pet owners spend $8 billion a year on everything from pet food to grooming services. That we are affluent enough to pay for veterinary care is surely a good thing, but buying a fetching velvet suit with a fur-lined hood from Pompous Paws is another. In a suburb near us, opposite an enormous Babyco store, there is an equally huge one for pets called Best Friends. It has an extensive bedding section, a grooming salon as big as my hairdresser’s, whole rows devoted to toys, and all manner of dainty treats.

And pet pampering doesn’t stop at home. While no-children-allowed hotels are a growing market, so too are plush, pet-friendly holiday destinations. At the Langham Hotel in Sydney, you can order a meal of grilled salmon with green beans, quail egg, tuna, potatoes and olives. That’s from the Pet Room Service Menu. And, for $120, your beloved companion can sleep over on a pink Langham velvet bed and eat from matching pink bowls.

There has been a welcome revolution in our understanding that animals are sentient beings, and as a consequence there is an emphasis on an animal’s right to live as close to its natural state as possible. Rather than being confined to tiny cages in a dark shed, farmed chickens are recognised as having the right to live in a field where they move freely in flocks, have dust baths and scratch for worms.

There is, however, a more dubiously sentimental version of this revolution. One that sees a woman sleep with her rooster, and feel a rivalry with any nearby hen.

Anne Manne

Anne Manne is the author of Motherhood, the Quarterly Essay ‘Love & Money’ and the memoir So This Is Life. Her most recent book is The Life of I: The new culture of narcissism.

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August 2016

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