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OPINION: The problem with people and pets

Mar. 23—Lately, a lot of my friends have been grieving as their beloved pets — as they put it — crossed the rainbow bridge.

The first time I saw that phrase used was on social media, not during a casual conversation. I didn't ask what it meant because I didn't want to sound stupid. I assumed it had something to do with the LGBTQ community — either that, or "The Wizard of Oz." Turns out it may stem back to snippets of poetry, and even further into history, Norse legend.

All you really need to know is, it means your pet has died and gone to heaven. The presumption is that someday, you and the pet will be reunited.

Some people don't understand why their friends get so upset when they lose a pet. They roll their eyes and say, "It's just a cat!" Or, in reference to someone who can't face going to work or socializing at a bar with their buddies, they'll comment, "Good lord, get over it!" They don't get that for many people, pets are part of the family. They're just as important in some circles as humans, and for good reason: Pets don't lie or cheat, though they might sometimes steal the grub from your plate.

Pets accept you for who you are; they don't judge you, though they may retaliate for something you do or don't do. They don't demean people in the opposing political party, because they don't care about politics — although our cat hissed once when Trump appeared on TV several years ago. We just assumed it was because the man made a sudden loud noise the cat didn't like. The same is true for the ring tone for my husband on my phone: Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here."

Some pets are affectionate. They want to sit in your lap and purr — or in the case of a dog, emit the occasional grunt of contentment. They demand food, of course, but they depend on you, just like a child would. That's especially true of dogs, who aren't as self-sufficient as cats. Both species will drink from the toilet or rip into the bread you left on the table. But dogs won't necessarily eat their humans if the humans precede them across the rainbow bridge. Cats — well, they've been known to dig in and choose the best parts.

The hard-hearted souls who don't understand deep attachment to an animal probably haven't had a pet they loved beyond measure. For many people, their pets are their children — especially if they never had kids, or are empty-nesters. In my opinion, if you're going to have a pet, it belongs in the home with its people. Would you want to be stuck in a doghouse, even one with straw on the floor, if the temperature was hovering in the single digits, and the water in your bowl was frozen? Somehow I doubt it. As far as cats, I'll probably anger some friends when I point out the obvious: Free-roaming felines can decimate a bird population. They don't understand we'd prefer they stick to mice and other vermin.

Eons ago, dogs and cats made a partnership with nearby tribes of humans. The relationships were more or less symbiotic. Dogs acted as protectors around the fire pit, keeping other more dangerous critters at bay, while in return they got to gnaw on bones and other scraps from the humans. As for cats, history books record that they agreed to keep the granaries relatively mouse-free, apparently in return for simple worship. You've seen statues of the Egyptian goddess Bastet. Come to think of it, you've probably seen the dog-headed Anubis as well. Egyptians knew something Americans don't.

As practically everyone knows, Chris and I have a white cat, named Zeus by Cole when the beast arrived while Cole was still in high school. He's more commonly known by the simple moniker, "whitecat." He's quite old; according to Purina's chart, at 18-1/2 cat years, he's pushing 90 in human terms. That means he is qualified to run for president, and I assure you he wouldn't do much worse than some of the politicians we've been forced to endure in recent years.

About this time last year, I commented that I knew he didn't have much longer. I knew of a cat that lived to be 23, but by that time, he was blind and crippled, and peed on himself. I don't wish incontinence on either a cat or a human. A few years back, the whitecat began ripping out his fur; he now quits it for a while, before resuming this OCD behavior. On weekends, I allow him to sun himself on the second-story deck, and he's taken to "spraying" a straw broom in a corner there. I put the verb in quote marks because he's neutered when, tail upright and shivering, he does his business. In other words, he just thinks he's spraying; he's actually projectile peeing. He also spends a good deal of time sniffing the broom, and then will lie beside it for hours on end. The reason for this is elusive.

When inside the house, the whitecat prefers to sit in my husband's lap. Early in our marriage, Chris claimed he didn't like cats, but this was just an act he put on, like many men do. When this cat crosses the bridge, Chris might be more upset than I will be — and that's saying something.

So, a suggestion: Don't get frustrated with your friends, or make fun of them, when they set a great store by a pet. There are many reasons why people don't have pets; inconvenience and expense are two. But I've always believed that people who don't like animals at all are probably sociopaths, so you might be the problem. And if your friends animals don't like you, then you are definitely the problem.