Being a dog owner, I understand completely the impulse to anthropomorphize our pets, imbuing them with human traits that canines and felines — and goldfish and hamsters and salamanders — don’t really have. Our furry (or scaly) friends seem so much more than mere animals. They’re companions and confessors, students and teachers, and they magically take us out of our egocentric obsession with self, allowing us to focus love, care and attention on someone — something — that may or may not understand such abstract concepts.
No matter our profound affection, though, they are animals, not sentient human beings.
Recently, a horse named Barbaro, who won the Kentucky Derby and, according to experts, had a legitimate chance to win the Triple Crown, died from complications suffered after he broke a leg shortly after leaving the starting gate. His odds of recovering were slim from the start, but he showed tremendous resilience and appeared at times to be the rare equine that could live after a serious leg fracture. When he finally succumbed not long ago, thousands of animal lovers wrote impassioned letters to various publications lauding Barbaro’s courage and “heroism.” Our anthropomorphic tendency was in full bloom at that moment, obfuscating the less satisfying assessment of the situation: an unintelligent animal subjected to a cruel fate by other animals more powerful than he — humans, I mean — had been hurt and struggled mightily to survive, which is what any animal, insect, or even plant is biologically programmed to do. Barbaro was a horse, not a hero. But his death still stung.
The garden in my back contains a few magnificent ficus trees, which grow rapidly toward the sky and provide shade cover and privacy) year-round. They’re prone, however, to a root disease promulgated by a burrowing insect that causes a mildewy condition that eventually strangles the tree’s food supply. Once infected, the ficus usually turns yellow, loses its leaves, and slowly dies, no matter how much sun, water, or special tree vitamins one gives it. This has happened in my yard several times in the last three years. Each time I watch one of these majestic creatures struggle vainly to live, to flourish as Nature intended them to, yearning for height and light, I feel as though I have lost a friend. I feel depressed and disconsolate. I have witnessed a living thing perish.
They are just trees. As my pet is just a dog and Barbaro was just a horse. They are not people. They lack verbal language and problem solving skills and emotions. They don’t cry at old movie musicals. They don’t write rhapsodic appreciations of Chopin and Chateau Petrus. They don’t mourn their lost father.
But they are something more than mere plants. They are we, cloaked in emerald gowns, trying vainly to stay on this earth forever.