The Animals Among Us: The New Science of Anthrozoology

John Bradshaw

Allen Lane, £20

THE scientist and writer John Bradshaw’s new book was inspired by a very good question: why do we keep pets? In some respects, it makes very little sense: pets make a mess, they scratch and destroy the furniture, they cause allergies and can be aggressive and can even kill. But Bradshaw says we carry on keeping pets because it stems from deep within our nature. And he has another, more surprising reason for having animals close to us: pets will probably save the world.

Bradshaw’s theories, as usual, are based on good, solid research. Four years ago, his book Cat Sense explored feline behaviour and put some of the myths into perspective (cats kill far fewer birds than people imagine, for example) as well as suggesting how we could make cats’ lives better. He suggested that we should train cats in the same way we do dogs, and, more controversially, argued we should neuter far fewer cats so that more good genes, rather than bad, are passed on.

In The Animals Among Us: The New Science of Anthrozoology, Bradshaw takes a similar approach to pets in general, questioning some of the behaviour that many of us take for granted, such as having dogs and cats living in our homes. Anthrozoology is the term that Bradshaw came up with, along with other academics, to describe the branch of science that examines the interactions between animals and humans and why they happen. His contention is that they happen the way they do because we can’t help ourselves. With some obvious exceptions (everyone knows someone who can’t abide cats), our brains, our instincts and our evolution have made us pet lovers.

Bradshaw sets out to explain this theory in his usual engaging style. It is not easy to delve into the minutiae of evolutionary theory and keep it readable but he manages it by constantly bringing the book back to how we live with animals now. The book does feel more padded in places than his other books – partly because, as he points out several times, there isn’t much research on pet keeping – but it does contain some entertaining myth-busting.

One of the myths busted is the idea that people only keep pets because they are lonely (epitomised by the caricature of the Cat Lady, surrounded by moggies and smelling faintly of wee). But as Bradshaw points out, if pets were only for the lonely, then people living on their own would own the most pets, whereas the opposite is true: the larger the household, the more likely there is to be a pet. Bradshaw also rejects one of the more modern theories on why we keep pets, which is that domestic animals can boost our physical and mental health. In fact, reliable studies have failed to find convincing proof that living with animals makes their owners healthier

Bradshaw’s alternative explanation for pets rests on a number of characteristics of human nature, including the fact that many of us seem to find animals, particularly pups or kittens, cute. Bradshaw believes this so-called cute response developed millions of years ago to ensure that mammalian mothers took care of their offspring (it now ensures we spend far too much time looking at videos of kittens on Facebook). Combined with our tendency to anthropomorphise, which allowed our ancestors to guess the intentions of predators and prey, and the pleasure of stroking an animal, which is a throwback to the primate habit of mutual grooming, Bradshaw’s contention is that we are wired to love pets. The cats and dogs in our living room are a legacy of our distant history.

But the most striking, and exciting, and promising point in Bradshaw’s book is not about the ancient past, but about the future. Recent research suggests that people who grow up around pets aren’t just more likely to own pets later in life, they are more likely to be concerned about animal welfare in general. There is also evidence that people who have strong relationships with their pets have positive attitudes towards wild animals and indeed the natural world as a whole. In other words, could encouraging people to have pets be the key to encouraging more of us to be concerned about the planet and the environment? Bradshaw started his book with the question “why do we keep pets?” but he ends it with a more arresting question: could keeping pets be the key to our future?