THE LARGER QUESTION of why we have pets at all remains unanswered. Many of us have tacitly accepted the conventional wisdom that animals serve as surrogate children, and a handful of studies (in such publications as Marriage and Family Review, as well as more animal-oriented journals) support the idea that childless adults are more attached to pets than are those with full houses. The substitution may have a basis in evolution: in the 1970s, Nobel-winning psychologist Konrad Lorenz proposed the theory that our attachment comes from similarities between human infants and baby animals, noting that the wide eyes and flat face of most young animals mimic the vulnerable expression of human infants. They also share the chubby limbs and the softer skin (or fur) that we find adorable, all of which may stir some instinctive nurturing. But if this is the case, it doesn't necessarily mean that we're craving kids - or even more company. James Serpell, discussing the history of human-and-animal interaction in his book In the Company of Animals (Cambridge University Press, 1996), notes that, given humanity's flaws, "we can do a great deal worse than seek the partial fulfillment of [our] needs in the company of animals."
These needs - in fact, our entire history with pets - can play out in our choice of companion animals. Julie Parker, for example, has a history with rabbits. Currently cohabiting with a smoky-gray miniature-rex rabbit named Kin, the MassArt student grew up with bunnies.
"They were my first pets, so that's what I like," notes the petite redhead, as the diminutive Kin hops along the floor of their Somerville apartment, nestling down on the blue blanket that's been placed for him beneath the bed. In that way, Parker is like Croke, who first came to love wolfhounds when her father brought one home. Indeed, a 1980 study in the journal Psychological Reports confirms the obvious: we prefer the type of pets we had as children.
"Plus," adds Parker, injecting a different note into the formula, "it's redemption - for the whole family."
Her story is spelled out in a block-lettered 'zine, created for a school project. Hand-printed, its binding sewn with white thread, the 12-page journal opens with a consideration of "lost pet" posters and what such a poster for Kin might look like. The melancholy tone continues as it explains "Why I Got Kin." Using numerals with the large-press type, its author explains that when she was seven, her family got two rabbits. These were her older siblings' pets, but when they produced 12 bunnies, Parker grew attached. Each morning, she'd visit them in the unheated mudroom where they were kept. But one morning, the young girl - who grew up in Maine - found all the rabbits frozen to death.
"That was my first experience with death," she recalls. "I don't know if I understood it then." It certainly came into play two decades later when she saw the bunny up for adoption at the MSPCA shelter. "I was looking at other bunnies, and he stood up in his cage like he was saying, 'Pick me! Pick me!' "
The little bunny jumps off his blanket as Parker reaches for the roasted soy beans that are his favorite treat. "Kin lets me take care of him," she says, as the rabbit quietly grunts his satisfaction and commences nibbling.
NOT ALL our decisions are made on such a personal level, or such a generous one. Many pets indeed may be chosen for the worst reasons for both animal and owner. "People get into brand names," notes Myrna Milani. She and other animal writers, such as Vicki Croke, warn potential pet owners about adopting the "breed of the moment" without doing their homework. The cute little Jack Russell terrier that you see on TV, for example, is a working dog (one bred to perform tasks) - and a handful for city dwellers. And that golden retriever may signify the great outdoors, but do you really want it in your studio apartment?
For others, the attraction is purely sensual. The feel of a certain fur - Kin's downy-soft coat, for example - or a sweet, clean-animal odor can trigger a reaction, causing us to return again and again to a certain pet. Sometimes, the trigger is the sound of a call - as Kyoko Mori has found with her Siamese cats - or the sheer tactile pleasure of a pet's bulk, as with Croke's wolfhounds. "Some of us are more sensual than others," notes Milani. "If you've gotten used to the solidness of having a wolfhound lean on you, there's no other dog that is going to do that for you."
Sometimes, it's something else entirely that steers us toward a certain kind of pet. Take, for example, the case of Aaron Movsessian. The twentysomething East Bridgewater resident certainly adores animals: he has three snakes in the living room of his suburban apartment. He has a tank with more than a dozen turtles and a pen housing several tortoises in the spare room, along with a breeding pair of veiled chameleons, a few monitor lizards, and an Argentine horned toad who looks like he wants to have words with you. He's got four alligators in the closet, which has been transformed by an indoor pool, heater, and pump to resemble a jungle wetland. (These crocodilians, illegal in Massachusetts, are permitted because Movsessian, who heads up the New England Herpetological Society's reptile-rescue program, uses them for educational purposes and will not adopt them out within the state.) He's got a colony of mice he's breeding to feed the bigger reptiles, a pair of hairless rats for the same purpose, and a couple of other scaly exotics that he's sheltering while he finds homes for them.
But Movsessian rarely handles the majority of his pets (the veiled chameleons, he says, are particularly sensitive). Nor has he named them, as most pet lovers do. What Movsessian gets from his pets - and the half-dozen or so rescue animals that he'll eventually adopt out to good homes - is a different kind of satisfaction than that reported by the usual pet owner.
"It's so fascinating to watch these guys," says Movsessian, eyeing the animals in the controlled environments he's created for them. For the amateur herpetologist, who began collecting turtles as a child, the appeal is in having a little bit of the wild to view up close. "The way they act, the way they cohabit with the other animals - I could watch them forever. It's like having the National Geographic channel in your home."
It's a connection that exotic-animal expert Greg Mertz understands. "People with reptiles are in love with life on earth," explains Mertz, the executive director of the New England Wildlife Center and a vet in private practice specializing in exotic animals. "On a spectrum, I think that people who are dog and cat people are really looking for companions," says Mertz, a/k/a the Odd Pet Vet of Needham and Weymouth. He speaks from experience as the owner of a dog, two rats, two parrots, and "a very plump-cheeked" uromastyx lizard. "I think reptile people love their animals, but it's not the same type of companion."
Movsessian did, for a while, have a four-foot-long monitor lizard that would curl up with him on the couch. But except for that one beautiful reptile (who passed away after some trouble expelling her eggs), he sees his pets as wild animals, to be studied and admired, but not befriended in traditional-pet fashion. "I'd love to have a dog," he adds. "We always had a dog when I was growing up. But I work all the time, so it wouldn't be fair."
ULTIMATELY, SO many factors play into why we love the animals we choose that there may be no one formula that explains all of it. The only constant, perhaps, is the strength of this love. For it can be immensely strong, outlasting even heartbreak. Vicki Croke can attest to that, as she lists her former wolfhound darlings: first Misty, then Lacey, then Tess.
The reason there have been so many, she explains, is that Irish wolfhounds, like many larger purebreds, have terrible health problems. In particular, they're prone to cancer. In the case of her dogs, the problems seem to be getting worse with each one: Misty lived to the ripe old age of 10; Lacey - after an amputation of her left hind leg and several rounds of chemotherapy - made it to nine. Croke also took Tess through several series of chemo treatments, nursing her through the ensuing diarrhea and nausea, but she still had to have her "big girl" euthanized last fall at the age of five. Currently dogless, the writer has been trying to talk herself into a pet that won't be so horribly short-lived.
"I've been looking at Irish terriers, who have no breed problems," she related recently, but with little of her customary enthusiasm in her voice. "They're dandy little dogs. I can see myself with one maybe."
Not long after saying that, she visited a friend who has Irish wolfhounds and realized that she was fooling herself. When she's ready, her next dog will again be one of the tall blondes.
"I think I have very few grand gestures in my life," she says. "Irish wolfhounds are my grand gesture."
Clea Simon's The Feline Mystique: On the Mysterious Connection Between Women and Cats (to be published this summer by St. Martin's Press) can be previewed at www.felinemystique.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org