I’m going to be straight with you from the start – this blog is a piece of shameless self-promotion. Last week I launched my book, Creature comforts: New Zealanders and their pets – an illustrated history. You can buy it from your local book store for $55 – an ideal Christmas present!
The connection with Te Ara? Well, I got the idea for the book after writing the Te Ara story about pets a few years ago. That experience made me realise that there was a rich history to be uncovered. The positive reaction of colleagues to the topic, and in particular their delight in the wonderful images tracked down by resource researcher Marguerite Hill, also brought home to me the importance of pets to people – and indeed the book has turned out to be as much about humans as it is about animals.
But when I started out on the book project I had a guilty secret – I didn’t actually have a pet (though, like many people, I had had grown up with them, and occasionally looked after friends’ pets, including cats, guinea pigs and a rat). I lived in constant fear of being exposed as a fraud.
All that changed in late 2010, when Guido the cat turned up. Actually, I had known him since he was a kitten, living across the road with his sister Peach. Two energetic balls of black fluff, they used to visit my place on their explorations of the neighbourhood.
One day when I was gardening his owner Amanda leaned across the fence. She was looking for Guido, who had been missing for a few months. She had moved several blocks away, taking her two cats, but Guido had promptly shifted back to his old territory, showing the uncanny attachment to place that some animals have. When she retrieved him, he simply returned again, and again, crossing several busy roads in the process. I promised to keep an eye out for him and, when Amanda eventually realised that Guido wasn’t going to settle at her new home, I agreed to take responsibility for him. I was happy to, having researched the problem of strays in big cities and the suffering this causes animals.
Writing about the history of pets has given me insights into theory, but Guido has supplied my practical experience.
One of the things I have noticed is how companion animals help people to make social connections. Guido likes to keep the street under surveillance and chat up passers-by. I have had some nice conversations with cat lovers who stop to admire and pat him. A neighbour, who has two cats and a dog of his own, calls out to him when walking up the road and Guido positively bounds to the fence for a smooch. Dog walkers stop to talk too. One man apologises for his small dog that always pauses at the gate to yap ferociously while Guido looks on serenely from the porch. Another friendly woman has two little dogs that wait hopefully for Guido to come and greet them, like their cat friend at home.
Of course I get to suffer the downside of pets – the projectile vomiting in the middle of the night, and the unwelcome ‘presents’ of dead or moribund mice and rats. Then there are those dreaded visits to the vet, when it is hard to know who is in greater need of sedation – animal or human.
But, like many other pet owners, I find the companionship makes it worthwhile. Being met by a cat purring a welcome as you walk home after a hard day at work is undeniably pleasant. And you can’t beat the sight of a contented feline stretched out in front of the fire on a winter’s night in Wellington, as the wind howls in the roof and the rain lashes the windows.