When spending a lot of time with animals, it gets easy to take for granted a fundamental aspect of the relationship: that they want to be with you as much as you want to be with them. As I write this, Cookies is on the desk next to my laptop (leaving little room for anything else) and Linus is right at the base of my chair (leaving little room for movement to the right). They have a whole house with many comfy spots and sunbeams to relax in. Yet here are they are, each within a few inches of me. Earlier this morning, five busy, chatting hens cheerily followed me out of the barn, around a corner, and across a field to their tractor as soon as I said, “OK, girls!” Yes, there were treats involved, but they also had a wide world of other activity options, including eating snippets of green grass and dustbathing. Yet, they chose to follow me. A neighbor’s cat (Sinbad), who lives about a quarter of a mile away and whom I don’t feed, knows my chicken-keeping schedule and shows up for petting and chatting at exactly the right time, several days a week. I give him lots of rubs, he hangs out while I do my chores, he and the chickens give each other the side eye, and we all have a very chill time. He has a whole territory in which to hunt and explore and other humans to charm, yet he chooses to come up for a visit.
I try not to forget that these daily occurrences at the Abbey are wondrous displays of free will. By living with us humble humans, these animals do receive shelter, safety, comfort, and food (on voluble demand!). These are no small things — just ask Linus and Cookies, who certainly knew life without them. But just because we provide for them doesn’t mean they owe us their companionship. True company — being together mentally as well as physically — cannot be imposed. It is the most fundamental gift of the self.
A review of a book about animal consciousness — specifically, that of octopuses — is forthcoming from our resident staff of critical readers. The Soul of an Octopus, by Sy Montgomery, is an excellent book, but like many other books on animal intelligence/sentience, it falls prey to the gee-whizzery of the idea that — gasp! — beings other than ourselves have the capacity to make decisions too. I think many of the authors of these books understand that everything, from the “lowliest” invertebrate to the best cats on the planet, must make decisions every minute of every day in order to survive, but feel the need to press home the gee-whizzery because of the limitations of their human audience. Unfortunately, this is a real need; most humans are fairly oblivious. Unlike many other books, however, The Soul of an Octopus dwells on the decision to seek out and to give companionship, and how special that is.
So stay tuned for the review. And if you happen to be lucky enough to be sharing your space with an animal at the moment, let him or her know how much you appreciate being together.