The Animal’s Companion: People and their Pets, a 26,000-year-old Love Story

Jacky Collis Harvey

Allen & Unwin, £14.99

In The Animal’s Companion, Jacky Collis Harvey, author of the bestselling Red: A Natural History of the Redhead, offers us a cultural, social and scientific exploration of pet ownership that is both erudite and entertaining. But make no mistake: this book is not a history of pets. It is about you and me, homo sapiens, companions to animals since prehistoric times, and our evolving – yet oddly constant – relationship with creatures that are “like but not like us at one and the same time”, which we tame, cherish, employ and sometimes, sadly, abuse.

The fundamental question at the heart of this book is: why? Why do we keep pets? Also, what are pets? For, as Collis Harvey eloquently explains, pet ownership is not some soppy modern indulgence confined to the decadent west, but an integral part of human experience that exists in all time periods and cultures.

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She takes us back to 26,000 BC, when a boy and his “canid” took a walk through Chauvet cave in France. Their preserved foot and paw prints are the earliest evidence of a human and pet. This is the known beginning of a millennia-long interaction that has involved a cornucopia of animals (though not all – the author cites the zebra and the “wild as the wind” African buffalo as examples of species that have declined to be tamed) and all sections of humanity from down-and-out to prince, including the likes of St Albert the Great, Charles Dickens and Elizabeth von Arnim.

As to what makes a pet, that is a moot point that runs throughout the book. Is it about giving the creature a name – hence laboratory animals are not named – or is it about bringing it into the home? Is about not eating it or about mourning it when it dies and perhaps memorialising it?

There is no one answer, and the issue’s complexity is encapsulated in the story of Aisholpan, a Kazakh girl who formed the subject of the documentary The Eagle Huntress. She loves the eagle and it lives with her family, but she does not name it.

“There is no name for the eagle because after seven years the tradition is that it will be returned to the wild,” writes Collis Harvey.

The why of our companionship of animals is equally complex. An enthusiastic pet owner herself, the author ascribes part of our fascination for animals to their “like not like” quality, which the philosopher Jacques Derrida called “alterity”.

“When an animal approaches or accepts us, it makes us feel singled out, special in some way,” she writes. “Paradoxically it bolsters our human status, our sense of ourselves, to have an animal interact with us.”

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This explains a lot, from our belief in animal intuition to our early decorating of ourselves with fur and feathers. We want to care for animals, but the author also provides many examples of how animals care for us, including the increased confidence a woman may feel when abroad with a large dog. Our bond with our furry, scaly and feathered friends, she posits, may be a way of compensating for our poisoned relationship with the natural world.

One of the best things about this book, which includes chapters on how we choose, fashion, name, connect with and care for our pets, as well as the dreadful business of losing them, is the author’s shining love, not just of her own animals, but of all animals. She even has a kind word for hyenas, citing the strange tale of men who feed these über-canids from their own mouths in Harar, Ethiopia.

But there is a contradiction inherent in our role as animals’ companions, and Collis Harvey does not shy away from that. However much we may love our animals and – increasingly – spend on their care, we’re in charge and we harm them too. We can minimise that harm but we cannot avoid it completely, as she knows, having been diagnosed with breast cancer under-50. A required drug, Tamoxifen, is tested on animals.

This is a handsome volume, enhanced by colour plates of animal depictions through the ages (but slightly marred by an indifferent index). Anyone who has ever loved an animal, which is surely most us of, will find it to be a profound, witty and moving account of that bond, which avoids both cliché and “fur baby” mawkishness to reach the heart of the matter.