Ever wonder what makes some folks “animal people”? You know the ones I’m talking about – those who, after a long week, would rather stay home on Friday night spending quality time with their dog than go out dancing with friends; individuals who use their vacation days to volunteer at their local animal shelter or rescue organization; or people who think the smell of a warm cat on a cold winter night is one of the very best comforts in life.
It will probably come as no surprise that I fall firmly into the animal people camp. I can’t imagine what my life would be like without the company of animals, nor do I ever want to. Thing is, I can’t remember ever not feeling this way – which recently led me to wonder: Are true “animal people” born, or are they made?
Nature vs. Nurture
From the time I was around 2 years old, I was never without a stuffed animal in my arms. My first and all-time favorite was Kitty, a white cat covered in soft fur that never left my side. Although I was the recipient of a few baby dolls for Christmas over the years, I had absolutely no interest in them, and they languished in the toybox at the foot of my bed while I created entire ecosystems with an extensive collection of toy animals. (I do remember having a brief transient interest in Baby Tender Love, but only because if you gave her a bottle of water, she actually peed. Beyond that, meh.)
As I got older, I relented a little and started playing with Barbie, but only because she had a very cool horse and could also be a veterinarian. I imagined her miraculously fixing all manner of ailments on my collection of Breyer horses and stuffed animals before mounting her own horse and riding off (rather stiffly, since her legs didn’t bend all that well) into the sunset.
My younger sister, on the other hand, only had eyes for baby dolls, which she lovingly dressed, fed, and put to bed every night. Interestingly, when we grew up, she went on to have 3 kids, while all my kids had four legs, fur, and paws.
An Inexplicable Attraction
I truly believe that certain people are born with an innate affinity towards non-human living creatures. They are inexplicably drawn to animals, with an ability to connect, understand, and communicate with them better than they can with most people.
Thankfully, my parents were also animal lovers, and while I was growing up we always had numerous pets in our household. Our first dog, Bea (short for “Beware of Dog”) was a sweet, long-suffering Pekingese with the patience of a saint (especially since I apparently made it my life’s mission to progress through the crawling stage as quickly as possible and proceed directly to the part where you run around the house for hours like a lunatic). And somehow, every stray cat in the neighborhood always seemed to end up at our house.
As a kid, I was constantly rescuing anything that needed help – baby birds, injured turtles, orphan bunnies, you name it. I was fascinated by everything in the animal kingdom, bringing home tadpoles, snails, earthworms, toads, and tiny garter snakes. I even had an ant farm, but soon came to the conclusion that their habitat was way too small and they didn’t seem happy. My mother and I set them free in the backyard.
When I was a little older, I used to sneak into the neighbor’s barn down the road and hide there for hours, lost in my own world, surrounded by the smell of horses mixed with sweet hay and alfalfa, talking to those horses and working through my problems. At that time it was the one place where I felt completely at peace.
Now as an adult, I still have an almost pathological need to be outside in nature and/or in the presence of animals. If I’m not, I start feeling a vague agitation that will eventually progress to what I can only assume is a mild depressive state – fortunately, one that is quickly reversed by going outside or spending quality time with furbabies (my own or anyone else’s).
Can Animal People Be Made?
So here’s the short answer: it’s just my opinion, but I really don’t think so. Although I’ve met many wonderful people who learned to appreciate animals over the years, I truly believe that you’re either born with the animal lover gene or you’re not.
Certainly there are those who marry animal-loving spouses and eventually develop deep affection for the pets who are part of their families, but that doesn’t make them true animal people. Likewise, some individuals may adore one specific type of pet, but deep down they don’t feel that strong, overarching love for all animal life in general (especially for the ones that aren’t so cute).
Sadly, there are even some veterinarians and animal care workers who are not exempt from this. I’ve encountered one or two veterinarians over the years who acknowledged that they entered the field primarily for reasons other than an obsessive love of animals – whether it was for the intellectual challenge, or because they came from a family of veterinary professionals and it was expected that they inherit the family practice and continue to carry the torch. Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of veterinarians I’ve known are compassionate, card-carrying animal lovers who live and breathe what they do, and have honored their calling by easing animal suffering every day of their lives. They work extremely long and stressful hours for comparatively low pay, but continue to show up because they know they’re making a difference not just for the pets they treat, but for all animals. (I could elaborate on this forever, but perhaps that’s a topic for another day.)
The Times They Are A-Changin’
Fortunately for us animal people, over the last 20 years it seems like the rest of the world is finally catching on. The way we view our pets as family members, the progress being made in awareness of food animal welfare issues, and the advances in veterinary medicine that enable us to (hopefully) give animals the best life possible – these all serve to underscore the critically important relationship we have with all animals with whom we share this world.
So in the meantime, if you’re looking for me, I’ll be relaxing tonight on the couch, covered in cat hair, with a warm, purring kitty by my side and watching Discovery or Animal Planet or old reruns of Lassie. And definitely not out dancing till 2am. 🙂