Twenty-six thousand years ago, a boy and a dog took a walk through a cave. The dog, at one point, as dogs will, jumped onto a rocky outcrop sticking up from the cave’s muddy floor. Then he jumped down again and the two resumed their journey, paw and footprints side by side. A little farther on and the boy, who was carrying a flaming torch, paused in the darkness of the cave to wipe it against the cave wall, perhaps to keep it burning cleanly, perhaps to mark the way back out. Thus from actual carbon we get carbon dating for what, in that trail of now-petrified twin tracks, is so far the earliest-known evidence of our role as an animal’s companion.
The cave in question (in fact some half dozen galleries, with more still to be explored) was rediscovered in 1994 in a limestone cliff above what was once the course of the Ardèche River in southern France and was given the name “Chauvet,” after one of its discoverers. It is not an easy place to reach today, nor would it have been so then, a scramble on two legs or on four: there is the cliff; there was the river. There was also the chance (impossible, with human imagination, not to have this in mind) of encountering one of the cave’s original inhabitants as well—cave bears, who wore bowl-like depressions into the cave’s floor over generations of hibernations and whose fossilized skulls and bones are still scattered throughout the cave wherever you look. So the Chauvet cave was difficult to climb up to, it was dark, and it was potentially a very scary place to find yourself. It is nonetheless a palimpsest of human-animal interaction from the point where, some 30–35,000 years ago, it became the canvas for some of the most accomplished and beautiful cave art in existence.1
The cave paintings at Chauvet are among the oldest yet discovered. We have nothing before them to explain where the artists developed their skills or how their particular aesthetic was arrived at—the black chalk line that mists in and out, the blur of movement in multiply incised legs and shoulders, the tiny individualized details of whiskered muzzle, keenly focused eye. But it’s not only that the paintings manage to be both so realistic and to show such artistry at one and the same time; not even the presence of those twinned foot- and paw prints that makes Chauvet so significant; it’s what the paintings say about our perpetual fascination and engagement with the world of animal-animal as opposed to, or as a complement to, or as the surround to that of the human-animal—us.
The animals depicted in the Chauvet cave are the big beasts: lions, horses, rhinos, bears; all the most impressive trophies of the hunt. Not the easy pickings of rabbit or game bird, in what at this period was a landscape of tundra and steppe, frequently dusted with snow—very different from that of the South of France today. These were the animals that stood out, admirable in their ability to withstand the cold and in their size and power. And the way they are depicted, live, and in movement, and with that soft black line and the use of the bulk of the cave wall to suggest the weight and muscle of the animal draws us into a dialogue with them even today: What has that lion scented? Why is the horse whinnying? Has that rhino lowered its horn to charge at us? Their slightly unfinished quality might hint that the intention was always to lure the onlooker into completing the drawings in their mind and with their inner eye, and thus to set up that debate within—to complete, if you like, the story the paintings begin. Perhaps this is one of the ways in which they were used originally and one reason for their creation, as a hook for the telling of tales. Beauty has always been a splendid way to attract human attention, a most effective hook for any narrative; and in this case part of the message of the Chauvet paintings could have been that any animal is an infinitely more skilled hunter than we, and if we were to survive alongside them, above all if we were to hunt and avoid being hunted by them, we needed all our skills in interpreting these other creatures with whom we shared the world. We needed to learn to “think” animal, to project ourselves into another creature’s head in order to answer the question: what would we do if we were they? And it’s thought that this skill, the ability to enter the consciousness of another creature and the high degree to which we have raised it, is there as one of the drivers in our relationships with the animals we now make our companions, too.2
As such theories go, this one is pretty compelling—we owners do project ourselves into the heads of our pets; we do give them thoughts and characters and voices that we manufacture for them. It’s one of the ways in which owning a pet is so singularly satisfying. Being conscious of that difference, between us as human-animal, and them as something else, most definitely (in my view) plays a part in our role as animals’ companions. But there is a but, and it’s this: all animals have to learn the creatures they hunt. The fox has to anticipate which way the hare will jink, the cheetah to learn the signs that one antelope rather than another is weaker and easier prey. Even a shrew has to learn that somewhere dark and damp might equal the hiding place for a juicy beetle. But other animals do not create pets, not even the most socially complex and intelligent of them. Eleven million years’ worth of orcas circling the seas of this planet, and not one of them has ever yet adopted a baby seal. There are other factors in play here; factors in addition and peculiar to us.
Thousands of years after the first of the painters began preparing his charcoal pigments and smoothing the walls of the Chauvet cave of the claw marks of cave bears came the boy and the dog: foot- and paw prints, side by side.
To be wholly and scientifically correct, the dog at this early date is more accurately referred to as a “canid”—something between dog and wolf, but far enough away from the latter for the impressions of its toes, preserved on that muddy floor, to suggest that the side and middle toes differ in size and shape. This says dog. The four toes of a wolf are all the same size. The feet of the child—solid, no-nonsense little trapezoids—have a length-to-width ratio that make it likely he was a boy, maybe four feet six inches in height, and maybe eight to ten years old. The two sets of tracks do not cross, at least not in the 230-foot length of their walk that has been examined so far, so we cannot be absolutely certain that the two made these tracks together, but their pacing strongly supports the idea it had to be so. So projected now into your mind, or the mind of anyone who has ever seen a child walking with a dog, there might well be an image of this small human, either intrepid or terrified, making his way through the cave (did he climb up into it to see the paintings?) with one hand holding the torch aloft and the other, naturally, in contact with his companion’s shaggy shoulder. Because this is how, if you are small, you walk with a dog, a sort of canine alternative to holding an adult’s hand. Sir Anthony van Dyck painted something similar when he depicted Charles II at the age of seven with four of his siblings, plus a sort of proto-spaniel, and with an enormous mastiff sitting stolidly beside the young prince, Charles’s hand and forearm resting on its uncomplaining head as on a plinth.
So we may only have his footprints, and he may have lived and died thousands of years ago, but we can imagine quite a lot about this little boy. First, as he walked, he was in physical contact with the dog, and second and most important, that the dog was trusted and familiar to him, and we might perhaps say “his,” and third, that he took on the darkness of the cave in its company. Because big dogs change the world for you. They make you fearless. If you’re a child, a dog becomes your bodyguard.
Or if you are a woman. The psychological effect of walking with a big dog padding along obediently beside you is intoxicating. The world opens up, no matter how timid by nature you may be yourself. The poet Emily Dickinson spent most of her adult life a-tremble at the rest of creation, but with Carlo her Newfoundland, her “shaggy ally” for sixteen years, beside her, she braved the woods and fields of Amherst, and only when he died in 1866 did her reclusiveness become complete. Elizabeth von Arnim (best known perhaps as the writer of The Enchanted April) would write of her Great Dane, Ingraban, “Those fears which I suppose most women know in solitary places left me… with Ingraban magnificently slouching beside me, I could go anywhere.” Me too. Fergus, my wolfhound, and I used to set off into the murk of winter fields and winter evenings without hesitation. And then on one particular evening, cutting across a stubbled field, he off his leash and me holding a flashlight rather than a burning brand, Fergus saw something at the side of the field that caused a growl to rise from within his chest that was both the deepest and the most horripilating sound I have ever heard an animal produce. It was like listening to the ominous drawing-back of the sea before the crash of some terrible wave. My own hackles were up instantly at the sound of it, never mind his; my nerve ends soaked with adrenaline in nanoseconds—the kind of atavistic response you forget the modern human body is still capable of producing.
Wolfhounds are about as big as a dog can get. The Tudor physician John Caius might have been describing Fergus when he wrote in his De Canibus Britannicis in 1570 of hounds that were “vast, huge and stubborn… terrible and frightful to behold… striking cold fear into the hearts of men, but standing in fear of no man,” although Fergus’s behavior on this particular walk was the one and only time this side of his character ever sprang forth from whatever ancient Celtic fastnesses it ranged over, undisturbed within his doggy skull. Otherwise it was simply his appearance that gave people pause: Fergus was brindled as a timber wolf and three feet high at the shoulder, the living embodiment of the ancient Irish “slaughter hound,” and no one messed with us. Other walkers swung away from us and waited till we passed; dogs fled before him, ears laid flat, bellies low to the ground and legs a-blur.
But we all have imaginations, and Suffolk, like any other place, has its cave bears, its animals of the mind, most famously Black Shuck, a shape-shifting hellhound complete with flaming eyes, the sight of which is meant to foretell certain death for the beholder before the end of the year.3 And Suffolk fields at night are dark, dark, dark—as I remember this we had no starlight and only a thumbnail sliver of moon, and the edges of the field and ground ahead, beyond the parabola of the flashlight, dropped into that intensity of super-black that makes a mockery of trying to guess distance or form. I have no idea what Fergus saw on our walk, or what, more likely, in that darkness, his nose and ears told him was keeping pace with us. Whatever it was remained invisible to me, no matter where I directed the flashlight beam. It might have been a fox, it could have been a deer, it could have been a nothing. But I remember that walk as the purest experience of terror I have ever been through; and flashlight or no, I would not have continued crossing that field without Fergus beside me, vibrating with menace and aggression in a manner totally unlike his usual placid, slightly goofy self; and the boy in the Chauvet cave (home to those cave bears too, remember—the males ten feet long and weighing in at half a ton apiece) set out into the darkness with the same survival kit as me: light and a big dog. Perhaps we shouldn’t think of ourselves as genuinely owning any animal. Our relationship with them has always had too much of symbiosis in it for that.
The track of paw prints in the Chauvet cave pushes the date for domestication of the dog back to 26,000 years ago; many zooarcheologists would opt for an earlier date even than that, arguing that the process of changing from wolf to dog was already underway tens of thousands of years before, minus any association with or indeed assistance from our ancestors. For those with a liking for such things, you could make a creatively bad translation of Canis lupus familiaris as “that dog-wolf thing—you know.” In other words, they were around. They were on the edges of our early human world, sniffing and snuffling at our peculiar trash, backing off to watch our peculiar human doings, and occasionally, so the thinking goes, giving warning of the approach of some other predator nasty enough to put dogs and early humans on the same side. For thousands of years for our ancestors, in their camps and settlements, the sound of approaching danger would have been what I heard on that walk with Fergus—a dog’s deep, rippling, primal growl. Maybe, predator dispatched, we rewarded them with chunks of its flesh.
Or possibly our doings were not so peculiar to them. It’s conceivable that the reason why dogs so boldly became the founder species of “pet” is that we and they are not so very different. They lived in packs; so did we. They hunted; so did we, and that would have been another opportunity for our two species to rub up against each other. They had a social order—dominants, subservients—and territories, a home range; so did we. They also had (and have) a crucial socialization period in puppyhood, in which to get used to having us in their lives, and an enormous range of expressive behavior, with which to “talk” to us. And dogs are smart—which more than anything else seems to be the quality an animal needs if it is to flourish in close association with us. Even in our earliest contacts with them, we must have understood what they were telling us (front paws extended, tail aloft—happy and welcoming; backing off, teeth bared, and growling—not), and they could have read us, too: the tone of voice, the stance, the raised hand holding stick or stone. We learned each other, and our early communities were literally surrounded by theirs.
Naturally this Arcadian explanation for how it all began is thoroughly disputed, but there’s something to it, that juxtaposition of human settlement and wildish animals orbiting around it, worth keeping in mind. Twelve thousand years ago in the Upper Jordan Valley, there lived a people now called the Natufians, who might have been the first to make their movable settlements into permanent villages, circular clusters of huts (circular, like every nest ever made by any animal whatsoever). They still lived as hunter-gatherers, not as agriculturalists, but they all came back to the same place to sleep at night, and when, in one such village, one of the members of their community died, he or she was buried with their legs drawn up, lying on their right side, and with their left hand under their head, like a pillow. It’s always struck me as very poignant, how our first ancestors buried their dead in the same position as sleep, curled up like a newborn to enter the next world rather than laid out like an effigy, as we do it now; and in this one particular burial, under that left hand was the skeleton of a puppy, maybe four or five months old. So what this says is that the Natufians had dogs in their lives, importantly and significantly in their lives; and in this case not disarticulated as food nor, given its age and size, as a guard or hunting dog for the life after this. Instead the puppy appears to have been there in a relationship of close affection, of emotional importance that was seen as desirable in that afterlife, too. What do we do, those of us so minded to do it, once we have put down roots? We acquire an animal to live with us. Even if we can only guess and argue how, here, perhaps, is one of those loci where we can see it all begin. Domestication needs a domus; you can’t transport another creature over the threshold physically or in your thinking without that threshold existing first. We still speak of rescue shelters for animals, and the largest refuge for strays in the United Kingdom is still known as Battersea Dogs Home—a place where animals are brought in from the outside world to an environment created by us.
And where there were permanent homes there were permanent food stores, and where there were food stores, there were mice and rats. Cats—Felis silvestris, cat of the woods—came into our lives chasing mice in the granaries of the Fertile Crescent around 10,000 BC. The first physical evidence of cat and human coexistence comes from a grave in Cyprus dated to just five hundred years later.4 Again the grave contained the skeleton of a human of unknowable gender and, just sixteen inches (forty centimeters) away, that of a cat, about eight months old. The two were oriented to face each other, as if to watch and wait together for an afterlife, and both were buried as individuals—not disarticulated, not where they happened to drop, not tipped into the ground willy-nilly, but laid to rest with care. It’s extremely useful that the dog in the Natufian grave was a puppy; it’s just as useful that Cyprus is an island. Cats were not part of its native fauna and would not have reached it other than by human agency—more of our “carrying” them with us—and it’s been suggested that such a carrying must be evidence of domestication and of tameness by this date, as no one would undertake a journey with a cat as an unwilling fellow traveler. That’s not entirely convincing to any cat owner with a recent visit to the vet in mind, but no doubt those early Cypriots were as capable of manufacturing a cat carrier as we are, and the point survives: cats arrived when we did, so they had to be with us in some manner for that to happen at all.5 In other parts of the world, no doubt monkeys were being tempted down from trees, parrots introduced to perches, and anything small, furry, and pick-up-able picked up by human hands. Or as William Service describes it in his memoir, Owl, “our retriever puppy discovered the fuzzball, beaky and glare-eyed, in woods behind the house, and bellowed at it until children came.” There is a pyramid of sensory contact that we still have in common with our ancestors in our experience of other species. It begins with sight; at its apex is the moment of true meeting: of touch.
In the city of Harar, in Ethiopia, there are men who feed hyenas. Not merely feed them, either, but hold meat in their mouths and wait for the hyena to approach and swipe it from them. Hyenas have been a part of Harar-by-night for perhaps half a millennium, entering the city through holes in its walls and aided by jaws more powerful than those of a brown bear, feeding off its garbage.6 Human feeding of them began only in the nineteenth century, in an attempt, it is said, by one farmer to stop them preying on his livestock. Let’s put some scale to this: these are spotted hyenas, as intimidating as a canid can get, as tall as Fergus at the shoulder and, at 140 pounds, as heavy. Yet in Harar they are fed in this extraordinary manner, spoken with, and even named. Folklore has grown up around them. They have not crossed the absolute threshold into petdom—yet—but in 2010, one of the hyena men, Youseff Mume Saleh, was already describing them to a journalist as “family.” In another part of Africa the photographer Pieter Hugo has recorded hyenas chained and muzzled yet still bristling with machismo and walking beside their muscular human owners. You can see what is happening here, and you can reconstruct the first action with which such an encounter thousands of years ago might have begun because we still perform it today. Walk around any pet show and you see it happening over and over again—to meet an animal we first crouch down, negating our strange bipedal height. Then we purse our lips and make what might just be one of the first call-names (so-called) in history, the sound of one of the oldest words in the world, a vocalized kiss—the squeaky plosive p, a softer ending. From which, just possibly, in Old English and German and Dutch, and Lithuanian, and Old Norse and Irish, we get eventually to our word “puss.”7 And then we hold out a hand. And the hand is not snapped at; it is sniffed. Hand to nostrils: it’s the interspecies handshake.
Touch is the first of our senses to become functional, which it does even in the womb.8 It does look to be worth noting, therefore, that we only feel we have “met” an animal if there has been this moment’s physical contact between us. It’s even more significant that such contact feels so good, and not only through the pleasing sensation of soft fur or plumage but emotionally as well. And this, if you unpack it, might start to explain something of the “why,” the human factor in our taking companion animals into our lives.
Animals are like but not like us at one and the same time—a philosopher such as Jacques Derrida would call this their “alterity”—and part of the fascination we feel for them is this fact of their difference. So their reactions are not predictable or guaranteed—the dog that sniffs, then wags its tail at you; the cat that lifts its head and closes its eyes; the bird that rotates its pupils to watch as your finger strokes the back of its head may growl or hiss or peck at someone else. And when an animal approaches or accepts us, it makes us feel singled out, special in some way. Not for nothing have we made the ability to communicate or otherwise interact with animals so frequently an attribute of holiness or sainthood, and in some religions, we made animals our gods or our means of sacrificing to and accessing those gods. We read the future from their flight or sacrificed them, cut them up, and peered into their entrails. We esteemed them; and still today, to be the one whose finger the bird returns to, to be the one whose lap the cat adopts, to have the dog sit beside you and not someone else, makes us feel elevated among our peers. The animal enlarges and enhances us. It’s not simply that we intertwined ourselves with them mentally in order to hunt them; there’s this important emotional response as well. Why do we have pets? One reason is because we have egos. Paradoxically it bolsters our human status, our sense of ourselves, to have an animal interact with us.9 Nothing feels better, as David Sedaris says.
Why it feels this way is part of the complexity of our relationship with the natural world “out there,” as opposed to the human world that we, with our arrangements of huts and granaries and cities, have created. First of all, much that came from the world out there could kill us, so whatever emerged from it, it was wise to treat with caution or respect; second, as a result of this, whatever came from it we prized and privileged, as with our early decorating of ourselves with furs or feathers, teeth or claws, and as with our animal gods. As with our animals, too. If one selects our company, we react by seeing it as implying powerfully good things about us. It’s very deep-rooted, this belief in animal intuition. It’s part of the appeal of books such as Stéphane Garnier’s How to Live Like Your Cat (2017). The animal knows something we don’t, we say. And it knows who is a good person to be around, and who is not.
The experience of meeting an animal is also very one-on-one, a moment in the moment in itself, another rarity for most of us in the world as we have shaped it today, where nature may seem very far away and perhaps another reason why we so value this contact still. The animal watches you for exactly the reason you watch it, because you too are an unpredictable non-member of its species (it is perhaps the closest either of us will ever get to encountering an alien). It concentrates upon you as if it wants to learn you, as well as to ensure its own safety, and we meet, the first time that we meet, with twin impulses of investigation on either side. This is another example of the doubleness, the mirroring, found in so many aspects of our relationships with animals, and it’s the one they all start with. It shouldn’t be forgotten either that finding yourself the focus of such attention provokes it back—many of our human relationships come into being in exactly this way: intense regard, and its return.
And then they feel so good as well. Contact with fur or feather is a sensual pleasure; even the brush of a scaled belly has the attraction of novelty to it, let alone the sense of connection to the creature within. Rubbing, nuzzling, and above all the rhythm of stroking an animal bring specific physiological incentives into play, measurable benefits in terms of slower heart rate and lowered stress levels, for them and for us, something we seem to have known or to have intuited for a very long time indeed. “I have sent unto you… a beast, the creature of God, sometime wild, but now tame,” writes Dan Nicholas Clement, a monk from Canterbury, to Lady Honor Lisle in April 1536, “to comfort your heart at such time as you be weary of praying.” Lady Lisle was in Calais, England’s last outpost on the Continent, at the time, where her husband, Lord Lisle, was Henry VIII’s deputy and governor, and it would be very satisfying to know what kind of “beast” this was, but, sadly, we have no idea. We do know, however, that the Lisles shared their quarters with songbirds and falcons, with dogs, and with highly fashionable marmosets and monkeys. This is not the last we will hear of Lady Lisle in connection with her pets.10
Even the presence of an animal to watch helps calm us, whether we are in physical contact with it or not—hence the presence of tanks of tropical fish in dentists’ waiting rooms. The well-being of patients with tuberculosis is supposed to have improved simply with the introduction of a pet turtle (hardly the most pet-able of creatures) to their hospital ward.11 It’s magical stuff, this alterity, and there must be something in it for them, too, to make tolerable the sheer weirdness of being a pet—the asking for food, the endless being picked up, the living and sleeping with these unpredictable creatures so unlike themselves. It took a year before Bird, the bigger, cannier, and the much more damaged of my two cats, came to sit on my lap—one tentative front paw, then the other, a pause to test that this new surface took her weight, then the slow, circular settling—but when she did, that was the point at which as her human, I could begin to feel confident there was a relationship of whatever sort coming into existence here that was being made by two. And that, really, for an animal’s companion, is what it’s all about.