There is a shorthand for size in the natural world, communicated by sound. The lower your noise, the bigger you must be. It's basic physics: Large things vibrate slower than small things. It amazes me how deeply this shorthand is integrated with animal behavior. When a cat wants to be threatening, it makes a low noise. Same with a dog. Human men practice their big booming man-voice for the same reason. It feels very strange to know the zoological reason behind behaviors inside myself, when long ago, I adopted those behaviors without question, without even noticing. I feel a bizarre urge to try and justify them some other way. Greek mythology? African legend? How The Dog Got His Bark?
And now the cat passes by, and I reach a hand out and run it over her head. To her it is grooming. But what is it to me? Why do people do this? I've noticed that there are symbiotic relationships in nature, where animals of different species will cooperate to enhance their lives. I know from history that humans have formed symbiotic relationships with many animals. But for humans, the relationship is different, and we even have a different word to describe it: Domestication. I was petting the cat yesterday, and I noticed something about my behavior that may be the perfect example of the difference between a symbiotic relationship and domestication. I was looking into the cat's eyes. I was empathizing.
A bird will hop around inside the mouth of a hippopotamus, pecking up insects. A clownfish will find safety in the tendrils of a sea anemone. Ants will stroke the bellies of aphids to collect their sugary excretions. But I challenge you to find any cross-species symbiotic relationship outside the realm of human activity where the participants look each other in the face.
A few nights ago I had a long, elaborate dream where I flew all around my childhood home, skipping forward and backward in time, watching the property change. I remembered things that I'd forgotten I'd forgotten. I saw the chicken pen become a goose pen, then a duck pen. I saw the trails in the redwoods. I saw the rusty lip of the well pipe on the hill, with the big oblong rock wedged into it to prevent accidents. I remembered lifting the rock out one day, and seeing a huge black widow spider, suspended in a crystalline web over the deep blackness. I saw the barn turn into a kid's fort, saw myself painting the walls and sweeping out dirt. I even saw the ancient hardback science-fiction novel I nailed to the wall one day as a joke. Then I saw the barn become a pile of broken wood, then a weed-crusted mound.
But the memory that came back today as I pet the cat was a memory of standing in the woods next to a horse. My sisters sometimes went next door and took their horses out riding, and one day I was allowed to ride a horse around a forest glade. I remembered running my hand up and down the bony ridge of the horse's nose, feeling the prickly hairs. Even then I was looking the animal in the eyes. Thinking back, and back into history before I was born, it's no surprise to me that the animals we look in the face are the animals we've had relationships with, as humans, for hundreds and thousands of generations. Natural selection has strengthened the bond.
Sometimes I wonder what will happen to those animals we have domesticated. In this industrial age, we no longer use oxen to pull a plow. We no longer pull a buggy with a horse. We no longer need cats to chew on the mice - we just keep cats for the friendship. And the hapless cows and pigs, we breed for complacency and hunger; we breed them to end their lives, not to live with them. So far, dogs have continued to be useful... You can't beat a dog as an alarm system, and when I was young, our family dog trailed behind me in the woods and kept watch.
Are the days of domesticity numbered?