Book Reviews and Author Interviews from

The Animal’s Companion: People & Their Pets, a 26,000-Year Love Story By Jacky Colliss Harvey

Reviewer: Robert Ellwood

Publisher: London: Allen & Unwin

The Animals' Companion
The Animal’s Companion: People & Their Pets, a 26,000-Year Love Story
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Jacky Colliss Harvey’s first book was Red: A Natural History of the Redhead, an informative, amusing and totally can’t-lay-it-down study of this particular segment of humanity by a writer who was one, and so knew firsthand both what the redheaded peculiarity has meant over a long history, and also how every case is different, sometimes in subtle ways.

Now, as an equally lifelong companion to animals, she brings the same insider’s scholarly perspective to that other human proclivity, our virtually unique desire to share our living spaces, and indeed our lives, with much- beloved animals of other species. Most, of course, are dogs and cats, but there is also reference to the different sort of interaction we may have with horses and donkeys, as well as the more exotic companionships some have with monkeys and turtles and more.

We take this human animal-yearning almost for granted – though not all humans have felt it equally – yet when we think about it we find ourselves facing far-reaching questions. Where did this companion-animal desire come from, and why did it come to have such importance for many of us? Why, as Harvey inquires at the book’s beginning, do we “cherish and indulge and care for them as if they are the exact thing they so unalterably are not – like us”?

Harvey goes on to rehearse the importance of her own childhood animals, in the spirit of novelist Edith Wharton’s remark that Foxy, her first dog, made her a “conscious, sentient person.” Harvey adds that in her own case too, “all the most important lessons of my life were taught to me by animals: the realities of love and loss and the impenetrability of death. . . the imperatives of sex; the largeness of care and of responsibility.”

The present reviewer can add a loud Amen, or in Quakertalk, “That friend speaks my mind,” to these lines. Despite all that my parents tried to explain to me, or I was told in school, nothing brought home to me the deepest meanings of love, responsibility for the care of another, reproduction, and death more than experiencing them in companion animals. Seeing a dog’s anxious hunger and knowing my feeding job, finding a mother cat’s litter of newborns, and being unable to look away from a once-lively animal’s dim eyes and motionless body, taught me more about life and death than could all the words in the dictionary.

To all this is added a corresponding observation of Harvey’s: “The animals I grew up with were like and unlike me at one and the same time.” They didn’t have to go to school or wear clothes, yet they clearly could get angry or show affection and were supposed to follow rules. They shared the house and sometimes even the beds (like our beloved cat Tali) of their people, unlike most other humans. What exactly are such creatures?

Harvey, well aware that this is one of those issues that might seem easy to define at first glance, but becomes harder and harder to reckon out precisely the more one tries to do so. Despite the companionate title, she notes major objections to the now-popular term animal companion. The expression implies equality, she avers, but while that may be the ideal, in fact the relationship is much more complicated, with the human usually having the better part of the responsibility for the animal’s food and shelter, while no less abundant though subtle gifts (of what, exactly?) flow the other way.

Throughout the book, Harvey also employs such terms as “owner,” “pet,” and “master,” well aware that they will offend many contemporary readers, but wanting thereby to get their attention as she wrestles with some difficult but important realities. “Owner” does imply responsibility, as mentioned, in the eyes of the law and of our next-door neighbors. “Pet” in English is a complicated word, implying caressing and fondling as a verb, yet also related to adjectives like “petite” and “pettish.” “Master,” related to magistrate, implies one who makes the final decisions, but also refers to one who is highly skilled, as a master of a craft, and moreover, especially in British English, a respected teacher. Much to reflect on in all this regarding our relationship to the animals around the house.

After treating of these substantial definitions in the opening of the book, Harvey goes on to history, starting with the dawn of that 26-millennia love affair. This onset she decides to place in the Chauvet cave in France, famous for its paleolithic paintings, where the tracks of a boy accompanied by those of a dog have been detected in what was once mud. The canine, clearly in a relationship s/he valued, occasionally veers off to sniff at something as dogs will, but quickly returns to the human companion.

Leaving Chauvet, the author goes on to inform us of the human-animal relationship in ancient Rome (despite the horrors of the Coliseum, there are also Latin tributes to beloved beasts); in Elizabethan England; Flemish art; and Chinese philosophy (Yi-Fu Tuan, in his famous essay Dominance and Affection, argues those two qualities together make a pet rather than a slave).

One should not expect Harvey’s text to be chronological from Chauvet on. The text is more thematic, with chapter titles like “Choosing,” “Naming,” “Communicating,” “Caring,” and “Losing,” all referring of course to animals. Even so, the writing is what I would call rambling, wandering from one topic – usually a vivid companion animal anecdote – to another. In this case, however, rambling is not meant, as it so often is in talk about writing, as a criticism however mild. Harvey is a great rambler, one we might like as a fellow-rover on a hike across the colorful countryside of her English homeland. Strolling down her pages, one hardly makes a turn without coming upon a sight even more picturesque than the last, all informative about our life with animals. Like Jesus, she tells what she has to say through pilgrimage and parable, and the telling is all the more memorable, told along the roadside.

The Animal’s Companion is for all lovers and companion animals who want better to understand that relationship. It belongs on their bookshelves, and would make a magnificent gift.

About the Author:

Jacky Colliss Harvey was born in the wilds of Suffolk, and grew up surrounded by farms and animals. She studied English at Cambridge University and art history at the Courtauld Institute, and putting those two together, went on to a career in the museum world as a writer, editor and publisher.

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