The Times-Picayune

By February 12, 2005Articles About Rachel

Animal magnetism

New Orlean, LA – Saturday, February 12, 2005

We love our pets without condition or hesitation, and we put up with their bad behavior with patience and restraint. So why aren’t we so noble in our human relationships? Good question, experts say, and one that many of us would do well to strive to answer.

By Chris Bynum Staff writer

Pam Houston loved an Irish wolfhound named Dante who left this life on three legs Feb. 8, 2003. But it was his leaving that taught Houston to stay.

“I had lost people in my life before, either through death or men leaving. But before Dante, I had always tried to protect myself from those losses by pulling back when things looked bad,” said Houston.

“My challenge with Dante was to see if I could hang in there. What I learned–and what Dante was here to teach me–was that if you can give yourself over that way to the fullest, that even when you do lose, you don’t lose completely.”

Dante’s life and his battle with cancer inspired a novel, “Sight Hound” (Norton, $23.95), that is just one of several books unleashed just in time for Valentine’s Day that reveal what our relationships with our pets can teach us about human love.

For example, the usual trepidation about romantic entanglements–fear of commitment and fear of loss–are not unlike the emotional obstacles pet owners confront and conquer without a second thought.

“The one thing I have learned through the love and the death of dogs is that it doesn’t make me not want to do it again,” said Mary Ann Murphy, who with her husband, Paul, mourned the loss of their 14-year-old shepherd mix Plunkett several years ago. He was their “first dog together” and had moved with the couple from Tampa, Fla., to New Orleans to Indonesia and back to New Orleans (where he died a year later). The Murphys now share their home with four dogs.

“It doesn’t make me want to turn love off so I won’t get hurt,” Murphy said.

In love and life and in loss, human beings often control their emotions with denial or repression. But this is a filter animals do not have.

“They have emotions,” said scientist Temple Grandin, author of “Animals in Translation,” but “their emotions are simpler, not complex.”

Animals, she said, “can be happy, fearful, aggressive or sad.” Because humans have a “gigantic frontal cortex, they can filter emotions.”

The resulting conflicting feelings make it difficult for humans to relate to each other with the same openness that they afford their pets.

“I have a dog that I adore who is the brat from hell, but why am I more critical of the human in my life?” says Sheila West, a local massage therapist. “I mean, my boyfriend is not going to chew up my shoe, but he’s going to drive me crazy leaving his socks on the floor.”

Rachel Toor can relate. Picking up your dog’s poop is OK, but “if a man leaves the toilet seat up, it’s an act of aggression. The bathroom becomes a battleground,” says Toor, the author of “The Pig and I: Why It’s So Easy to Love an Animal and So Hard to Live With a Man” (Hudson Street Press, $22.95).

Why the double standard?

“We accept who our pets are,” she said by phone from her home in Montana. “They don’t wake up and change their dreams and desires overnight.”

Animals provide “constancy” and “forgiveness” — and in so doing, they can also, if you pay attention, offer lessons in loving each other, she said.

For example, a white rat — the only animal she could sneak into her college dorm at Yale — taught Toor to look beyond a mate’s behavior to the emotion behind it. The rat consistently bit Toor’s hand when she fed her. She contemplated getting rid of the ungrateful rodent, but soon realized that the aggression toward her hand was a desire to play and to interact with the only other living being in the room.

“I was shocked by my own ignorance, by my inability to recognize her for who and what she was–playful, curious and engaged,” Toor said. It was a revelation that she would later apply to the men in her life.

A pig named Emma provided Toor with an even more brutally honest discovery.

Emma was a pet she “co-parented” with an ex-boyfriend who remained a friend.

“In the pig, I saw myself. Emma was selfish and had no moral center. She would do anything she could get away with,” Toor said. “I began to see the way I pushed the limits of what lovers would accept. Emma had no tolerance for things she was herself continually guilty of. What was good for Emma was all that counted.

“We were both smart, manipulative, ambitious, strong and completely oblivious to the feelings of others.”

What made the medicine even harder to swallow was that Toor’s initial complaint about her boyfriend was that “he was a pig” in the housekeeping sense.

“I couldn’t accept that in him, but in Emma, it was adorable… until I saw the piggishness in me,” she said.

Deborah Choate, owner of the local pet boutique The Pampered Pug, says she often hears stories of people like Toor whose pets provided a kind of cheap–but effective –therapy.

“When people are learning things about themselves, it’s easier to have self-revelations through their animals than have someone else point out a shortcoming,” Choate said.

For other pet owners, such as Lee Gaffney, the New Orleans president of the Visiting Pet Program, animals can provide inspiration with the painful self-discovery.

“Not so long ago, my husband and I had a cocker-beagle mix we named Magoo,” Gaffney recalled. “At age 2, she earned her certification as a therapy dog. For the next five years, we visited the same nursing home twice each month, making friends, touching hearts and having our own hearts touched.”

One morning, however, Gaffney realized that Magoo had gone totally blind overnight. Many medical tests later, she and her husband were told there was no cure.

One morning, however, Gaffney realized that Magoo had gone totally blind overnight. Many medical tests later, she and her husband were told there was no cure.

Magoo regained her confidence and was able to navigate her world on her own, returning to the nursing home and her favorite dog duty.

“I loved her even more for turning herself over to me and letting me help her,” Gaffney said. “That 30-pound ball of fur taught me it’s OK to turn to those you love.”

Losing her beloved Dante taught Houston a similar lesson — that letting go, rather than holding on for the dear life as we know it, is a way of letting love in.

“Dante is still with me, sort of up and there and to the left,” Houston writes in “Sight Hound.” “I’ll never hear that big tail thwacking again, never feel his big grey chest roll toward me in sleep, but what I have instead is everything he taught me, like how without loss, life isn’t worth a hill of beans. And without love, life is nothing more than a series of losses.”

As for the cat-lovers out there, never mind that the dogs get the credit for the warm and fuzzy feelings. Houston says that even though she’s a dog person, she knows that felines have wisdom to impart to lovers as well.

“Once you get the loving thing down,” she said, “I would think cats can teach you about boundaries.”

Pam Houston, author of “Sight Hound,” will read excerpts and sign books April 8 from 5 to 7 p.m. at Garden District Book Shop, 2727 Prytania St.
For information, call 895-2266