Friendly animals and loving people

A NATION'S greatness may be judged by the way it treats its animals, Gandhi is said to have observed. By this criterion, ancient China may well occupy the high peak of civilization. During the Han dynasty, the Emperor Ling elevated his dogs to the rank of senior court official, which entitled them, among other perks, to a bodyguard of elite soldiers. No wonder Pekingese still have that certain ``And who are you?'' stare.

Of all other nationalities, English and Americans may come closest to the imperial respect Ling bestowed on his animals. Three or four years ago, at a cost of 8,000, Lady Beaverbrook booked an entire section of a TriStar jumbo jet so that her dog could travel in her company. You can't go much further than that in the Gold-Plated Flying Kennel Department.

But the almost equally high status of the dog in America suffered a defeat earlier this month when a 15-year-old mongrel named Ari lost his bid to bring suit against an airline. It seems that Ari was left behind in Tampa, Fla., circling on a baggage conveyor belt while his owners, Carl Feinstock and Susan Fowler-Feinstock, were flying home to Rochester, N.Y. Mr. Feinstock, a lawyer, sued USAir for $50,000, naming Ari as the plaintiff.

After due consideration, a federal judge disallowed the case for a curious reason. Animals, he ruled, cannot sue because they are not considered American citizens.

Well, just don't tell loyal old ``Spot.''

Beyond being amusing, charming, or touching, according to your point of view, these three anecdotes illustrate how regularly we confuse animals with human beings - never more so than today.

In the old days we had the anthropomorphic God; now we have the anthropomorphic pet, seen in our image and likeness.

How can Mr. Feinstock be blamed for trying to bring his animal under the laws for humans? He - and we - live in a world where, after a walk in their sailor hats, Shetland sweaters, and plastic booties, dogs get their teeth brushed with canine toothpaste ($6.95 a tube), put on pajamas featuring a turtleneck and fitted leg cuffs, and climb into their very own four-poster bed, complete with heated blanket and king-size pillow. See your nearest pet accessories catalog.

Aesop's fables seem positively naturalistic compared to our folklore, awash with Mickey Mouse, Garfield the cat, and assorted talking rabbits, ducks, and penguins.

We use animals for attribution - we not only talk to them but deliver their answers too, playing ventriloquist to suit our emotional needs.

Pets become characters in our dream-plays. They are the children more obedient and affectionate than any children, the friends more devoted and trustworthy than any friends.

In his excellent new survey, ``In the Company of Animals,'' James Serpell, a young Cambridge University scholar, concedes that sentimentality invariably taints people's attitudes toward pets. But, risking his reputation as a scientist, he asks, what's so shameful about sentimentality? He has a point.

We now seem to be in the process of overanalyzing our pets, as we overanalyze everything else. Does keeping a pet improve one's health? Or does attending to a pet incline one to neglect the needs of other human beings? There are whole books coming out that weigh these questions of profit and guilt - the standard questions of our times.

We are attracted to our pets by their straightforwardness, their simplicity. Why must we defeat the purpose by making things so complicated?

Certainly the rules never change for the dogs and cats. There are no fads in the zoo. The same code applies that applied a thousand years ago. Rub me behind the ear. Chuck me under the chin. Feed me. In this inconstant world, pets are engagingly unpredictable in totally predictable ways, and how we need that!

We may domesticate our animals, but they, and our hanging ivy, bring a touch of wild life to us as we sit in front of our TV screens behind the sealed windows of city condominiums. They are the wolf and the tiger in our house who happen to love us. And if that is sentimentality, make the most of it. We who are owned by pets certainly do.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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