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When 'non-animal people' get animals

Guest Contributer, Sami Grover, tries to live a low-carbon lifestyle and has written about everything from composting to e-bikes. His previous clients include Burt's Bees and Jada Pinkett Smith. Sami lives in Durham, NC with his wife, two children, and (now) a couple of cats.

"I am not an animal person."

If there is one thing more scary than uttering that sentence to an animal lover, it's typing that sentence into the blog of the New Hampshire Humane Society. Yet here I am, and this is my truth.

It's probably best if I explain.

I am, in fact, deeply sympathetic to the plight of animals. I am a lifelong environmentalist, climate writer, and author of We're All Climate Hypocrites Now—a book that I wrote as a rallying cry for all imperfect people (meaning literally all of us) in defense of Mother Earth. I am also the same person who, as a child, drove my father mad by mowing the lawn in wildly inconsistent circles—avoiding patches where I might possibly have seen a snail.

It's not that I don't care about animals. It's just that I did not grow up with them. As such, I did not have much experience being around pets and—as a consequence—I do not naturally form immediate bonds with our non-human neighbors and friends.

My wife, however, is different. So are my daughters. And that's why I now find myself co-habiting with two crazy, infuriating, and admittedly adorable cats. I can hardly be alone. According to the American Pet Products Association, a whopping 66% of US households owned pets in 2023. But that still leaves 34% who did not. A few decades before, it was closer to an even split—with 'only' 56% of households owning pets in 1988.

In other words, a sizable chunk of the population is not exposed to pets in the home. Yet, given that humans tend to grow up, move out, and form relationships with other humans, it's inevitable that these two groups will mix, cohabit, and sometimes fall in love.

That's what happened to me. Originally from England, I moved to the States and became not only the husband of the love-of-my-life, but also step-dad to Bela, a charismatic and pig headed orange tabby. He quickly let me know that while my presence would be tolerated, I had better understand which one of us was here first. Following Bela, there was Suki—a timid and somewhat troubled kitten who we ended up losing in a traffic accident. And then there are siblings Birdie and Watson, my current two, who spend their days tormenting the neighbors' dogs.

With more than a decade and a half under my belt as an accidental and initially reluctant animal owner, I thought it might be helpful to offer up some observations. Hopefully they may provide some lessons or guidance for other 'blended families' that are navigating different levels of attachment to, and experience with, animal co-habitation. So here goes:

Forming attachments takes time: This is likely true of most relationships, but it is especially true for those of us who haven't bonded closely with animals before. Yet I have grown fond of the animals that are part of my family. I am increasingly spending time with them. And my wife and children are prone to lose it if they catch me petting one of the cats as I am watching TV.

There will be irritations: When you are sharing your home, your bedroom, and your bathroom with animals, there is always some give-and-take. But for those of us who aren't used to a furry friend watching us in our most private moments, demanding attention when we are focused elsewhere, or climbing up our legs with their razor sharp claws as we talk to our boss, those irritations will be amplified. So cut yourself, or your partner, some slack if you/they are quick to get annoyed. And then, ideally, find ways to minimize cross-species conflict. Setting ground rules, for example, about what spaces are for animals, and which ones are not, can be a great way to carve out space for all household inhabitants.

Establish responsibilities: One of the hardest parts of marrying into pet ownership was taking on responsibilities that I was not used to, and might not have chosen had I remained single. Scooping kitty litter is not a pleasant task, and I have always found the smell of cat food disgusting. While I will, of course, do both tasks if others are away, I was also honest when we decided to welcome our latest additions to the family: If the kids wanted cats, then the kids would be scooping their poop. So far, so good. (Although I was the one who had to crawl around in the crawlspace with a black light when one cat decided that the litter wasn't for them.)

Always insist on kindness: There are many things that can be negotiated when you're deciding to bring new animals (or new humans!) into a household. But one thing is obviously mandatory: Animals deserve kindness, safety and protection. And if you can't provide those things, then you have no place cohabiting with animals.

While I am still not a person who naturally and quickly bonds with pets, I do hold myself accountable for treating our cats with the empathy and compassion that all living creatures deserve. And given the fact I was recently willing to climb thirty feet into a tree in a rainstorm to rescue a stranded Watson (pictured), that empathy and compassion may be slowly morphing into deeper feelings of affection.

Ultimately, the idea of 'animal' and 'non-animal' people is likely an oversimplification. After all, while some humans did not grow up with animals, the human species has a long history of co-evolution with the animal kingdom. I believe we all have a capacity to be in relationship with animals. But truly benefitting from cross-species bonds requires understanding the ways that those bonds do (and sometimes do not) form. For some of us, it comes naturally to surround ourselves with creatures of all shapes and sizes. For others, we may prefer to keep our non-human brothers and sisters at arms length. And for yet others, the truth may be somewhere in-between.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go feed the cats.



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