Every Thanksgiving, the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City presents its Feast with the Beast festival. In the morning, before folks sit down to their dinner and football rituals, the zookeepers serve pumpkins and other delicacies to the elephants, large cats, bears and other mammals. The visitors—adults and children alike—“ooh” and “ahh” as the animals smash and eat the enormous squashes. People just love to see the animals celebrate this most American of holidays.
Wait! What? Are the animals enjoying Thanksgiving Dinner?
Well, not quite! On one level, we all know that animals have no concept of “holiday,” “occasion” or even “festivities.” Yet, because we humans do, we endow them with the characteristics, emotions and, yes, even speech that we understand.
Last year, my adult daughter, Rose, joined us at the Hogle Zoo for the celebration. Before the tigers were released to enjoy their Beast Feast, a large bird—perhaps a crow or a raven—flew into the tiger lair to “steal” some of the pumpkin seeds (but not the meat that was also served) for himself. When the tiger approached, the bird took off. The tiger sniffed the pumpkin and the meat and looked around. Then he looked at us. I would swear he had an inquiring look on his face.
My daughter, a playwright and animation director, reflexively gave the tiger this dialogue…
“Was it Jerry?” the tiger asked us. “Jerry is always doing this…stealing my food. Was it Jerry? It was Jerry, wasn’t it?”
And in an instant, we had rapport with the tiger (and, dare I say, with Jerry, as well). We understood them, sympathized with them, laughed with them. All because Rose “knew” just what they were thinking and saying.
Dr. Doolittle was right. “If we could talk to the animals…” And so was Walt Disney.
This anthropomorphizing (giving of human characteristics to nonhumans or objects) is universal. Behavioral scientists and psychologists have an explanation.
In ScienceDirect, authors Esmeralda G. Urquiza-Haas and Kurt Kotrschal summarize two different ways in which people engage in anthropomorphic thinking. First is interpretative anthropomorphism—we attribute human intentions, beliefs and emotions to nonhumans based on their observed physical behavior…like our Jerry and his friend, the tiger. Second is imaginative anthropomorphism—that is the representation of an animal or fictional character as humanlike, as we see in Disney’s ubiquitous Mickey Mouse and friends.
Either phenomenon is more than just child’s play that gets carried into later life. Think of our relationship with our pets.
We love our cats and dogs with a feeling akin to the bonds we experience with each other. We care for our pets, talk to our pets, play with our pets and sorely grieve for our pets.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, the human–animal bond is “a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that is influenced by behaviors essential to the health and well-being of both.” Psychology Today lists pet care as one of the dozen ways you enhance your own care.
And of course, pets are good company.
Checkout this clip of a pet cat watching Hitchcock’s Psycho. It’s not only fascinating to watch, but it went viral. Millions related to the cat’s seemingly human reaction.
The benefits of pet ownership as we age are partly due to our acceptance of the animal as another persona in our life, for which we take responsibility.
A large body of medical and scientific research has shown that pet ownership brings benefits to humans in physical exercise, medical well-being and psychological health, especially for older adults.
For example, the study by Mars Petcare and the Gerontological Society of America found that these benefits include more time spent in moderate-level physical activity, better cardiovascular health, reduced hypertension, improved survival rates following cardiac events and decreased stress. Moreover, some studies have reported it boosts immunities and resistance to disease among older pet owners.
Further, caring for a pet can heighten our self-care awareness. For example, Coolvio, a new “pet ecstatic” company offers bArctic, a shirt that keeps dogs cool in hot temperatures. The company disseminates information on the importance of watching out for your pets when temps soar. It seems to me that we are more likely to remember our own bottle of water when we go for a walk if we are clothing our pet to stay cool.
But there is more to the benefits of pet relations as we age than getting out of the house and meeting fellow pet owners.
Geroscientists grapple with why we age and die. One theory is that after reproduction is over, we are not needed to perpetuate the species. Modern science has created protocols to keep us going long after our evolutionary “sell-by date.” I’m no fan of the obsolescence theory of aging—but it does make sense that we seek a mission, someone to care for, someone or something that gives us life purpose post-reproduction. Even if you pooh-pooh the scientific theory, pets do give owners a reason to wake up in the morning.
Older adults almost universally benefit from a companion animal. A recent study by Friedmann and Katcher (as reported by the National Center for Biotechnology Information) investigated the effect of social isolation and social support on the survival of elderly hospital patients (mostly for coronary conditions). The researchers found that pet ownership proved to be the best social predictor of survival…more reliable even than human relationships.
Pet ownership is where anthropomorphism meets love. We all can look at Eeyore’s sad face and say, “First the rain, and now this”…and watch Goofy and his teammates play a game of baseball and feel like we are on the field with them. Yet we know that it’s “just a cartoon.” But when we see our dog approach us with a ball in his mouth, we see the real animal wanting to play. When our cat sits on our chest at night and breaths in sync with our meditation exercise, we feel love—real love—and companionship.
Loneliness is a killer for all elders. Dementia patients have it even more difficult than most. They may feel extra anxious, see fewer people than the average elder and have little dominion or control over their daily routines. Enter the robotic animal. Paro, the seal, started it all—now dogs and cats are available online at low cost for those who have dementia (in order to provide the “feeling” of having a pet, without risk for injury to the pet or the patient).
Health-care workers report that the relationship is almost immediate. The person treats the robot as a pet and, in turn, anthropomorphizes the “animal” as it would a flesh and blood animal. Of course, there is the fear that robotics could replace caring humans. They cannot. Just as live animals cannot replace human family. Nevertheless, there is something innate in us ready to give and accept love when we see a furry face.
We humans share something inexplicable and beautiful in our relationship to animals. So, when we visit our older relatives with their newly acquired pet and see a marked improvement in their lives, we can sincerely say, “Was it Jerry? It was Jerry, wasn’t it?”
Before you embark on pet ownership in adult life, Barbara Ballinger, in her comprehensive article in “Aging Care,” poses many questions to ask yourself…
- How flexible is my schedule and way of life? Adopting an animal usually affects a person’s whole daily routine.
- If this is your first pet, are you open to new daily commitments?
- Do you have functional disabilities that will make ownership challenging?
- If so, are you eligible for a specially trained therapy animal?
- Do you want a young animal or a mature one? A puppy or kitten may not be ideal because of the intensive care and training they require. And they might outlive you requiring forethought for their continued care.
- Is the pet healthy? Be sure that the pet is examined by a professional before adoption.
- Is money a factor? Pets are a significant long-term financial commitment.
- Do you have a backup plan? It isn’t pleasant to think about, but owners must plan for the unexpected for their pets, too. What will you do if you need a temporary or extended stay in a hospital or rehab or long-term care community?