Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places
The love in that waiting room was palpable.
Posted October 23, 2011
For me, New York City is an alien environment, even though I lived there for 6 years while I went to graduate school. It is too fast, too loud, too big, too frenzied, too impersonal, and too weird for me. Eventually I learned to confine my world mostly to the Village, where I lived and could walk to classes at New York University. I found the Village a manageable environment, even though then, as now, the Village housed an interesting and eccentric cast of characters. On the whole, however, I found New York a cold, sterile, and uncaring environment.
Fortunately, living in Manhattan didn't stop me from having a cat. She was my most loving companion—my sounding board, the one who was always happy to see me come home, the one who brought comfort and joy and humor into my life every day. I enjoyed graduate school, but it was a stressful time for me as it is for many people. I don't know if I would have survived successfully without my cat.
I returned to Manhattan recently to give a talk at the 92nd Street Y and to do some filming for a CUNY-TV program about my book, The Animal Connection. For the filming, the producer chose the Humane Society of New York at 59th Street just off 2nd Avenue. I took a cab there from my hotel and found a street ringing with construction crews, whistling policemen, clogged traffic, and people walking busily in all directions: typical New York, I thought.
The building that houses the Human Society is fairly nondescript, recognizable mostly by some display windows that hold pet gear: crates, bowls, leashes and so on. I turned in, went up a few narrow cement steps, and found myself in the waiting room of the veterinary clinic.
The room was jammed. I didn't see how more people or animals could possibly get into it. There were probably a dozen or more animals with their owners. Some were post-surgical, wearing "Elizabethan" ruffs made of plastic to keep them from licking or chewing their wounds. Had they come in to have stitches removed, or for a post-op check up? They looked embarrassed to be wearing ruffs. Other animals looked healthy and were probably in for shots or spaying, which the Humane Society strongly encourages. Other animals looked ill and unhappy and had worried owners.
There were a few clichéd couples. A handsome, muscular African-American man kept his handsome, muscular pit bull close to his side. Despite the muzzle on the dog, and the stereotype that pit bulls are vicious, this dog could not have been calmer or better behaved. In another corner, a young woman of Asian ancestry cuddled her shaking, terrified Shi Tzu in her arms, speaking to it softly and kissing the top of its head. I think it was tough being a small dog in that crowd. In the middle of one of the benches lining the room was a middle-aged, garrulous woman who chatted with all and sundry. She had a substantial tabby cat in a carrier and she petted him constantly by sticking a few fingers through the holes in the carrier.
Other owners, with dogs less readily recognizable as particular breeds, put their hands under their dogs' chins, looked into their eyes, and spoke quietly and reassuringly. Cats made themselves small in their carriers, recoiling in feline horror from the smell and presence of dogs, though none was so rude as to bark. I could tell the cats fervently wished to be anyplace else than in this waiting room.
"Busy day," I said to one of the staff.
"No," she replied smiling. "It's like this all the time. There is a tremendous need."
I should say that the room was not particular large or pretty and certainly was not impressive in furnishing or design, but it was clean and painted in cheerful colors. The waiting room hummed with different concerns and anxieties, yet each owner made a special effort to communicate with and soothe his or her animal. Most of the owners had probably taken time off of work to bring their pet in and would, of course, face bills for the veterinary service. I didn't know how far the pets and pet owners had traveled to get to the veterinary clinic. The value of caring for their pets was self-evident. Every single owner maintained physical contact with his or her pet.
The love in that crowded waiting room was palpable.
Here in a city of cold, gray buildings, honking traffic, car exhaust, jackhammers, and fast-walking, fast-talking people, pets and their owners lived together and thrived. All must have lived in apartments and few of those apartments can have been spacious. Even fewer apartments in the neighborhood looked out on greenery more extensive than a few spindly trees or bushes. I couldn't see a park or any sort of open, public space nearby.
While I was at the Humane Society, I met Flops, a friendly, happy, large black and white dog who participated in our filming. I also met a beautiful dilute (pale) orange marmalade cat whose name I have forgotten, who suffered from allergies and was on a special diet. He had come to the Humane Society in need of a home, but was adopted by one of the staff. Now he lived comfortably in the offices on the second floor, supervising the daily work with an air of feline superiority.
I didn't dare tour the area where the animals available for adoption lived. I have a hard time walking away from cats who need homes—not to mention dogs and horses—but I already have two cats at home who would be deeply offended if I brought another back.
Despite the minimal accommodations to nature or open space that New York City offers, these people and their beloved pets were happy. I shouldn't have been surprised to find love in all the "wrong" places. It gave me new hope for the human species. Even in urban environments, the animal connection is real and strong. We need to live with animals because they offer us so much, not the least of which is someone to love.
In the epic words of Jefferson Airplane, "Don't you want somebody to love? Don't you need somebody to love?" Yes, we do. Humans are, after all, intensely social animals.
If you don't believe me, think about this: The worst punishment carried out in prisons in reasonably civilized countries is solitary confinement. It is very difficult to bear, disorienting and cruel. Solitary confinement denies the prisoner an essential part of his being. Then again, the safety of other prisoners and prison staff must be considered too, and dangerous people must be prevented from harming others. Is solitary confinement torture or a management technique?
Let's look at another example. Babies raised without love and loving contact grow up withdrawn, brain damaged, emotionally damaged. Babies and children—and there are a few horrific cases—who do not have someone to talk to them do not learn language, though speech (and other forms of language) is one of the distinguishing characteristics of our species. In other words, a child denied social contact is robbed of a vitally important element of being human.
So yes, Jefferson Airplane was right. We want somebody to love, we need somebody to love. How amazing that the connection between humans and animals is so deep, so ancient and so profound that participating in a relationship with another species can fill that aching void and keep us human.
You know what the biggest irony is? Money CAN buy you love. For a modest fee, you can adopt a pet from a shelter, rescue center or humane society and improve your life, and the pet's.