I’ve got pets. Plenty of them. Six dogs, a cat, a snake, a barn owl, three horses. Lots of them. But I don’t get vaccinations. Not for them, anyway.
“Sometimes your instinct is stronger than medical instinct,” my vet Mary says. “They don’t ask the difficult questions.” I mean, how hard would it be to tell me they weren’t my kids?
“He really isn’t well. His joints don’t work,” says my neighbour Debbie, looking at our rottweiler. We just need to give him some oxygen, she says. “He’s an old man.”
There’s no doubt my dogs are great pets. They’re affectionate, full of energy, full of love. They’re the kind of animals that can carry around sheep in the back garden, lounge in carpets and drive tractors around. They’re not wild things at all. But they live in and on land. The flora and fauna they came from aren’t your people. They’ve never lived among us, in cars or close by.
I look at my dog Guillaume with newfound respect, and see how much he resembles my kids. They’re very soft, they’re full of love and warmth, they’re intelligent, they can fit in anywhere and listen to them. They’ve never been vaccinated.
I don’t get it. What gives?
I’m an urbanite, in my forties. I live in a big city. To me, a huge medley of nutrients and nurture, these creatures are – implicitly and explicitly – sick.
So why do I do it?
“When you first get a pet,” my vet Mary says, “you’ll hate it.” In the first few months you’ll try to please them, to make them happy. Like so many people, you’ll be terrified of letting them pee in the street, you’ll spend hours whipping up batches of biscuits for them, you’ll cry and cry and cry if they don’t like the way they are.
You’ll try to help them through grief, you’ll try to make them more comfortable with your life, you’ll fly to your best friend’s house to comfort them when they’re sick or unhappy. You may even not know how to help them.
“You could ask them not to poo in the street, she says, but they’d come out and pee on the ground instead. Or run into a window pane. Or run into your living room.”
And in the end, there is no changing their nature.
I see it in my eyes. I see it in those faint tears I might tear out to feel less alone in this world. I see it in my little dog. I see it in her wrinkled face. It’s a mess. She’s a pet pariah.
I’m glad for my neighbour Debbie, though. Her dog’s shaking from pain. He’s killed his tail in a tick infestation. He can’t really walk. He’s too big. He won’t win the office crossword, and is a vicious irritant. I’ve even told him to put down the dogs, not me. I’d miss him. But I wouldn’t be the same. And that’s what I wanted.
Celestial Pets is an essay by Dr Matthew Walker that is published this week by Faber