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Don't Sell the Bond Short

What do you think of when you hear or read the words, “human-animal bond”? For many people, images of animals involved in some sort of animal-assisted therapy that improves a disabled person’s quality of life immediately come to mind. Others think of coping with the pain of pet loss, or heroic tales of animals rescuing their owners from burning homes, or search and rescue or military animals performing amazing feats within and beyond the call of duty.

While all of these activities most certainly fall into the realm of the human-animal bond, they also may create the illusion that the bond is something special that can only be experienced by a relatively small number of people under very specific circumstances. Many of these activities also support the impression that the human-animal bond functions unilaterally and is universally positive in nature; it focuses on the benefits animals bestow on us instead of the good and not so good that we inadvertently or deliberately and routinely bestow on each other in the course of any interaction.

To me such a limited view of the human-animal bond (HAB) sells the bond short. It’s akin to saying that hydrogen atoms bind with oxygen ones to form molecules of water to assuage the suffering of the thirsty, miraculously carry shipwrecked sailors to land, or save an entire village from starvation by falling as rain just in the nick of time. Granted water does provide all those benefits to humankind. But we all know that water is much more than that. Without water, all living beings on the planet would suffer physically as well as emotionally. But we also readily admit that in some forms, amounts, or locations it possesses the potential to directly or indirectly make our lives quite miserable.

So it is with the HAB. Like water, the HAB is ubiquitous rather than limited to the realm of a select few. It possesses qualities that easily can charm and seduce us as well as benefit us, but also a range and the power to complicate our lives that we ignore at our peril.

Don’t believe me? Let’s consider a few examples.

On an individual level, what compels us to seek help if our animals develop a medical or behavioral problem? While some might say, “How much money I have,” that’s really immaterial compared to the attraction that exists between us and that animal. If a strong bond exists then we do what we must to ensure the best care even if it means mastering skills to care for the animal ourselves. Or learning as much as we can about what’s normal for that animal so we can prevent those problems in the first place.

However and as alluded to previously, bonds can be uni- or bilateral. In a unilaterally strong bond skewed in the human direction, the person’s need for the animal exceeds concern for the animal him- or herself. For example, some may find the idea of living without the terminally ill animal so frightening that they subject the animal to prolonged and painful treatments. Compare this to the HAB that results in the person opting for palliative care with its goal of animal comfort even if it may mean shortening the animal’s life. Or think about the kind of bond that compels some people to seek help for an animal because they fear what others might say about them if they don’t versus those who seek treatment because they really want to help their animals. Same animal, same problem, but the motivation that determines what will be done how and when depends of the quality of the bond. When a bilaterally strong bond exists, the person’s and the animal’s needs carry equal weight and receive equal consideration.

Many years ago and like many people I defined the HAB as a function of love. But time and experience soon taught me that how we humans define love also varies greatly. Being members of an ego-centric species as we are, we often assume that our kind of love for an animal naturally represents the epitome and no need to question this exists. But once again, little agreement exists. In the purest form, some folks love a certain animal just because they do. There’s a chemistry between them every bit as real as that which binds those atoms of hydrogen and oxygen to form that molecule of water.

On the other hand, others define their love for the animal based on what the animal gives to or does for them. Sometimes the animal’s species, breed, color or other physical attributes may serve as the attractant that binds them to that particular animal. Even though they may consider themselves hale and hearty, some people may define the bond in terms of what the animal does for them, such as physically or emotionally protecting them in some way, serving as a social facilitator, giving them a reason to participate in certain activities, or gaining those folks attention by wining in competitive animal-related sports. In these situations, whether the bond endures depends on the animal’s ability to fulfill those human expectations.

On a larger level, the HAB determines how we feel about the natural world around us and, as one would expect from a bond, how connected we feel to it. Do we attract each other or does some or even all of nature repel us? Strongly or weakly? Both kinds of bonds exist and examples of them also frequently occur. Some people find hiking alone or with their dogs in the woods, cut off from electronic communication and surrounded by evidence of wildlife a remarkably exhilarating or calming experience. Others view that same experience as comparable to a terrifying trip through a war zone filled with creepy crawlies, vicious fur-covered predators, or winged demons ready to poison them or peck their eyes out. They can’t get out of such an environment fast enough.

Then we have those who experience tangible but seemingly unreciprocated bonds with certain wild species. Some of these folks function like worshippers from afar. They fill their homes with all things penguin, ladybug, or fox. Sometimes these bonds remain powerful. Other times they wane over time, but some connection may remain on some level. On previous occasions I’ve confessed my bond with otters, a bond that caused me to sit on the bank of the Connecticut River for hours in hopes that a distant otter-shaped rock would somehow become a real one. It’s a bond that causes me to stand entranced watching them swim in zoo aquaria. A bond that I know would cause me to burst out in tears if I ever saw one swimming free in the ocean. A bond that caused me physical pain when I heard that some politicians want to put a bounty of them because of their possible negative effect on certain Alaskan shellfish populations.

Do the otters sense the way I feel about them? I’d like to think that they do, but I cannot prove this. What I do know is that this feeling not only connects me to the otters but also to their environments and everything—animal or plant regardless of size—which lives there. It makes me care about what happens to the rivers and the oceans. It makes me think about the insecticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, and other wastes we dump into them. Maybe it has something to do with being a Pisces…

Other times we may experience an equally powerful connection with one particular creature at one particular time. An interspecific fast-moving whirling dervish of a connection that explosively forms and quickly vanishes. Once a weasel came tearing down the hill beside my house like the proverbial bat out of hell and skidded to a halt mere inches from where I knelt on the ground planting or digging up something. For an instant we locked eyes and froze. But somehow during that time the following communication inexplicably occurred:

You’re right beside my den.
Oh, gee, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that. I’ll move.
Thanks.

I moved and zip! the weasel disappeared down a leaf-covered hole I’d never noticed before.

What gratifies me about these low-profile kinds of human-animal bonds is how common they are and how many different forms they take. When I taught animal behavior, I asked students to write a term paper and give a presentation on any species they wanted. But I also suggested that they choose a species with which they felt a natural affinity even if they couldn’t define why because it would make the work more interesting for them. Some of their choices—wolves, elephants, members of highly publicized endangered species—most likely represented bonds nurtured by the media. But not always. Sometimes the connections between my students and these species as well as their connections to some, I admit, that I barely gave a thought to transcended that necessary to research and write a term paper and give an oral presentation. Those people possessed a link to those animals that permeated their writing and presentations. A bond on a par with that I share with otters…

And my dogs and the cat, and the 5 goldfish, the weasel. And even the owl that occasionally lurks behind the curtain of bittersweet draping the old apple tree near the bottom of my driveway, sometimes I think just waiting to explode out of there and scare the bejeezus out of me when I go down to get the mail. There’s a connection with all of them, a sense of oneness that just is. Like water, it’s part of life itself.

Don’t sell the bond short or think of it as only reserved for a special group of people involved in a certain kind of animal interaction. My guess is that it’s more uncommon not to experience the bond than to experience it. Once you know it’s there, you’ll be surprised how easy it is to recognize. And while some of those connections may be disquieting or even downright scary, even the worst of them will change you in a way that an interaction with no other human can.

Just like water.

Just like air.

Just like gravity itself.

Comments on this entry

  1. Alessandra Bacci

    What a pleasure to read your words.

    I wait (everyday) for the cool of the evening to greet the gecko that build her/him nest along the wall of my balcony (I live at the third floor of an apartment in Firenze - Italy). I call her/him Friday (the first time I saw her/him was on Friday, two years ago). For me it's always an epiphany while GildaGigi, senior lady cat, sniffs along the wall.

    Have a good life. Alessandra Bacci

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    Replying to Alessandra Bacci

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