Interesting item on the news this week about a bunch of camel owners in Saudi Arabia who’d been caught cheating in a beauty contest. We should have more news like this. It makes a refreshing change from murder, groping and Boris Johnson. They’d been injecting their animals with botox to make them look more attractive. That’s right, it was a beauty contest for camels.
When they cut back to the Jeremy Vine show (yes, fair cop, we were listening to Radio 2), you could hear the disappointment in his voice. In fact, I would go so far as to say he had the hump. (Well, someone had to say it.) ‘Have you ever given your pet cosmetic enhancements to help them win a beauty contest?’ would have been the ultimate phone-in topic for Jeremy. Instead he had to content himself with ‘Have you ever been strangled to death by your pet?’ or something like that, following the story of an unfortunate herpetoculturist who had been hugged a little too enthusiastically by his python.
Apparently he was the first person in the UK ever to be strangled by his own snake, an unusual statistic that suggests plenty of people in the UK have been strangled by other people’s snakes. A little surprising too, given that people have been having nasty brushes with their pets at least since Cleopatra came a cropper while trying to get a tune out of her new asp.
This sort of incident always provokes debate as to whether humans should keep animals as pets at all. Is it wise for man and beast to lay down together? At this point I should declare that I have cats, but that’s more an arrangement of their making, not mine, and, like the Egyptians, they have decreed that when they die I be buried with them. Alive if necessary.
Animals have many uses, of course. Over the millennia we’ve found work for them in hunting, labouring, pest control, security, entertainment, sport and space exploration, and in the days before central heating it was a practical necessity to take them into the house in winter, but when and why did we come to rely on them for affection?
‘Nobody really knows,’ says Greger Larson, director of the Paleogenomics and Bio-archaeology Research Network at Oxford University, who’s an expert on the subject. That’s the sort of expertise money can’t buy.
As anyone with a bag of poo in their pocket will tell you, dogs make wonderful pets. The relationship between man and dog goes back thousands of years, to when our ancestors first managed to persuade a wolf or two to join them on a hunting trip. A few beers later and the bond was made, never to be broken. But dogs had to work for their place by the fireside. Not so rabbits, gerbils, guinea pigs etc, which leapfrogged into our affections purely by virtue of being fluffy. Mind you, there was probably a food phase that they had to negotiate first.
The word ‘pet’ itself is perhaps indicative of the original motivation behind keeping animals for companionship alone. It stems from the word ‘petty’, which, of course, is a derivation of the French ‘petit’, meaning small. So it was small animals that tended to be kept as pets and usually the young of the species. They appealed to our nurturing instincts. Once they’d grown old and gnarly, they became Sunday lunch.
There were exceptions, of course. Henry III liked a big animal. He started the menagerie at the Tower of London with some big cats, a polar bear and an elephant – not the sort of thing you’d take in to keep your kids amused in a wattle and daub hut in Epping Forest. But keeping impractical exotic animals has always been an indulgence of the rich and famous. Alligators, bears, tigers, ocelots… it’s like an addiction. Start with a pony, before you know it you’re doing horse. It’s only the lack of money and space that stops us all going down the same slippery slope.
In the 1300s the Chinese disrupted the market when they invented the fish bowl. Until then goldfish had always swum in straight lines. These bowls were made of porcelain, though, so unless you stood directly over them, the visual excitement was pretty minimal.
A century later, Christopher Columbus triggered the pet bird craze when he brought a couple of parrots back from South America as a gift for Queen Isabella of Spain. I know what you’re thinking: can parrots speak Spanish? According to this story, they can. English speaking parrot goes missing for four years and the first thing he says on his return is, ‘Quien es un chico bonito entonces!’ He had the lisp and everything.
OK, slight embellishment, but there’s no doubt that pets are good for the human soul. They teach us how to demand, eat and laze around without guilt. They have no rat race (well, apart from rats, of course), no financial worries, no materialism, no substance abuse and no issues with self-image.
Well, apart from camels, of course.