I grew up with pets, just like a lot of people I know. Everyone has a philosophy about pets and about the proper relationship between humans and animals. I have known vegans who wouldn't squash a fly but kept murderous cats. I babysat two little children who were content to eat the bunny rabbits they had named and played with all spring. Some people consider a cow food, a horse a tool, a dog a friend and a cat a terrifying menace.
Suffice it to say, our relationship with animals is complicated.
A very wise friend of mine once said that people who hold extreme views are doomed to contradict themselves. The fact of the matter is, humans are animals, too. And on a more basic level, we are alive and we like having other living things around us.
I used to think that keeping a mammal or a bird as a pet was quite reasonable, but that creatures like reptiles and insects were illogical pets. But my perspective was too limited. Keep in mind that from the ages of ten to fourteen, a tuxedo cat was my best friend in the entire world. For me, pets were all about friendship, about caring for something that cared about me, too. So when I looked at a snake or a lizard, animals that are not terribly social, it was hard to understand the appeal.
But since then I have kept quite a few creatures in my home that couldn't have cared less about me, and it was still worth it. There is something to be said for having other living things around. And there is no better way to understand another creature than to live with it, day in and day out, observing its habits and being surprised by its idiosyncrasies.
My husband once brought home a tire track eel. At first, I was a bit horrified. I felt no affinity for the creature whatsoever. It looked like something I would hope to find on some rice at the sushi restaurant, and the way it was looking at me implied that it had the same idea about me, too.
They are carnivorous, smart, and energetic creatures. The eel was active at all times of the day, and turned out to be an uncanny escape artist. We had our tank divided to keep the convict cichlid from chewing on everyone else, but the tire track eel viewed the divider as a challenge. He always had to be on the other side of it. He also figured out how to get into the filter tank outside the main tank, several times. We started keeping the water level low to discourage his antics, but we still found him in the filter every few days or so.
Over time, I grew to admire the eel. He was funny. He liked to hang out with the catfish in his private cave. The catfish was shy and hated having the eel with him, which seemed to delight the eel. The eel also seemed to relish tormenting the cichlid, who was territorial and felt compelled to pick a fight with anyone who came near. When the eel wasn't in the cichlid's side of the tank moving her rocks around, he was on the other side of the divider, mocking her as the cichlid attacked the divider over and over again.
At this point I can imagine most people are thinking: "you are anthropomorphizing your fish." And it's true. But I would argue that it's a healthy exercise to try to understand the behavior of alien creatures in terms of our own motivations. This is one of the very reasons that parents give their children pets, even though children are notoriously bad with responsibility. Having a pet is an excellent way to learn empathy.
Whatever the eel was up to, one thing was abundantly clear: he was bored. He was an intelligent animal, and after years of watching him, I grew to admire his intelligence and ingenuity and to feel bad that we weren't providing him with enough entertainment. When the tire track eel died after an unfortunately successful escape attempt (suicide attempt?), I was genuinely distraught. In my mind, eels are no longer something to eat or be afraid of. They are now something to admire and enjoy.
And that in a nutshell is the totally reasonable reason that people keep pets. We all struggle to survive, endure, thrive and abide. And in the end we know we will all lose this battle. We feel a connection with other collections of molecules trying to do the same thing.
There is something freaky and special about life. Life is all about bucking the system. It's a big F-U to the man, to entropy. We know we are just eddies in time, but it's glorious while it lasts. And whether you are cuddling a fat furry cat who is purring on your stomach, watching a cichlid fish sort the rocks in its den, or listening to your hermit crabs clicking to each other in the middle of the night, there is something irresistible and wonderful about life.