There’s a story about the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who came out of a hotel in Turin one day in 1889 and saw a coachman beating a horse with a whip. Nietzsche went over to the horse, threw his arms around its neck, and burst into tears.
The Czech novelist Milan Kundera writes about the incident in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in a passage about humanity’s relationship with animals. Here the book’s lead female character is petting her dog:
Tereza kept stroking Karenin’s head, which was quietly resting in her lap, while something like the following ran through her mind: There’s no particular merit in being nice to one’s fellow man. She had to treat the other villagers decently, because otherwise she couldn’t live there. Even with Tomas, she was obliged to behave lovingly because she needed him. We can never establish with certainty what part of our relations with others is the result of our emotions—love, antipathy, charity, or malice—and what part is predetermined by the constant power play among individuals.
True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind’s true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it.
I’m uncertain that I could pass Kundera’s “true moral test.” I have a general indifference to animals. Look, I don’t want to see them tortured or violently mistreated, and I am capable of being impressed by the sight of a majestic wild creature. But as for the love many people have for cats or dogs or horses or such, I don’t get it. I don’t get pets. Why does anyone want to spend a dozen or more years caring for a perpetual (non-human) infant?
That doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally get some glimpse of what proud pet owners must experience when I hear a particularly moving story of having to put a dog down or read a delightful account like the piece Jeff Bowden wrote for the June 2001 issue of D Magazine. It’s one of our 40 greatest stories ever. The title, “The Day I Shot My Dog,” refers to a childhood accident, and Bowden goes on to write about the other animal companions of his life, including a troublesome goat.
An article like this one doesn’t exactly change my mind about pets. I imagine I’d need to fall in love with one myself, and maybe I will one day. For now, when I hear of people dressing in matching outfits with their dogs, or paying for canine plastic surgery, or sending their cats on a spa day, I don’t feel kinship. Instead I think of what happened to Nietzsche after he cried for that horse. He lost his mind and ended up in an asylum.