Book Review: The Animal’s Companion

People and Their Pets, a 26,000-Year Love Story

By Jacky Collis Harvey

Author Jacky Collis Harvey

When you read a book by Jacky Collis Harvey, you learn a lot. And with the way she writes, deeply researched and with wit and erudtion, you also have fun as you learn.

Bonus: you also get to know Jacky as a person, because she puts so much of herself into her books. Reading her is like a leisurely date with a new, intriguing friend at the Dog and Duck, or maybe afternoon tea at the Savoy.   When you’re in such a setting with an interesting woman, the best thing to do is to sit back, let her do the talking, drink it all in, and go home wiser and happier.

Jacky’s first book, reviewed here, was Red: A History of the Redhead. There’s no need to tell you the color of her hair, which placed the chip on her shoulder and the flash in her eye.

Her newest work is The Animal’s Companion: People and Their Pets, a 26,000-Year Love Story.  Ms Collis Harvey is one such companion. She loves animals. With passion and appreciation.  She prepares the reader for what’s coming when she writes, in the introductory chapter,

“As I look back, all of the most important lessons in my life were taught by animals: the realities of love and loss and the impenetrability of death, which could take a warm, breathing living flank and overnight turn it into something lifeless, cold and solid; the imperatives of sex; the largeness of care and responsibility…Growing up a redhead made me bold; but it was growing up with animals that made a liberal out of me.”

Okay, Jacky, so tell me more about yourself and those animal friends.

Here’s one passage that I loved; I felt myself shivering in the cold right alongside the author, and feeling her primal fear:

“…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…Fergus, my wolfhound, and I used to set off into the murk of winter fields and winter evenings without hesitation. And then one particular evening, he off his leash and me holding a flashlight rather than a burning brand, Fergus saw something at the side of the fields that caused a growl to rise from within his chest that was both the deepest and most horripliating 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 at the sound of it, never mind his. My nerve ends soaked with adrenaline in nanoseconds – the kind of atavistic response you forget the human body is still capable of producing.”

Later on in the book, after telling about the ways that literary and historical luminaries, like Samuel Pepys, King John, Plutarch, Elizabeth Barrett and Alexandre Dumas cared for animals, she relates how she unhesitatingly ponied up £3,000 for emergency medical care for her cat, Miss Puss. The cat made it and lived another seven years, though it cost what she said was “more money than we had in the world” at that point.  In declaring that the little creature’s emotional value to her was far beyond any vet’s bill, she speaks for just about all people who have pets of their own.

Each of the book’s chapters deals with a different theme in the life of humans who love animals: Finding, Choosing, Fashioning, Naming, Communicating, Connecting, Caring, Losing, and Imagining. Her own anecdotes, observations, and philosophical musings crop up frequently, but not so much that the book seems to be about her. She strikes a nice balance and re-introduces the reader to many familiar names of animal lovers from history, literature and art.

The 26,000 years in the book’s subtitle refers to the approximate age of the fossilized footprints of a boy and his dog in the Chauvet cave, rediscovered in France by archaeologists in 1995. That, the author maintains, is the oldest known evidence of a human as an animal’s companion.

Federico Gonzaga: “notoriously bad husband material.”

That’s a great answer for Final Jeopardy, so keep it in mind. But more amusing, and an example of Collis Harvey’s fine eye for history that we can relate to, is the story behind Titian’s painting of Federico Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua. Federico was on the make and targeting Margherita, heiress to the Marquis of Monferrato. Problem was, as Collis Harvey relates, the Gonzagas were “notoriously bad husband material,” and the heiress was hesitating.

So what to do? Commission a painting of yourself with a cute, fluffy little dog, looking longingly up at you while extending a supplicating paw. The little dog is there “to say that she has nothing to worry about, that as a husband Federico will be both faithful and protective…to reinforce the message that he was benevolent and trustworthy, neither of which in fact was true.”

Readers also hear from the likes of Emily Dickinson, Charles Dickens, Renoir, the Book of Job, Alfred Hitchcock, Friedrich Engels, A.A. Milne, William Blake, Lord Byron, and Horace Walpole.  All in all, this book is a delightful romp through the ages. It even feels that you’re taking that romp in the company of your own beloved pet. Several times along the way I felt the presence of my sweet golden retriever Molly, who’s been gone from this earth for more than a decade.

Yes, we do learn great life lessons from our dealings with animal friends. Those intertwining lives can also bring broader lessons for society as a whole. In the final chapter, after discussing animals’ rights and reminding readers of Mary Wollstonecraft’s pioneering writings on the rights of women, Collis Harvey muses,

“What was once, in its demand for equality and respect, the cutting edge of social change is now a given across most of the planet (and will get all the way there too)…We are coming to recognize that we cannot claim rights without also granting them; not insist upon them for ourselves without acknowledging them for others.”

Good thought. Good lesson. Good book.

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