Every pet name inevitably has a story behind it. Sometimes they're named after a specific way they look, or a cute sound they make, but for me and my family, it boiled down to this: my brother chose the cat and I got to name her. As a six-year-old, I didn't really care about what cat we got so much as any cat we got, and pretty much any cat we might have rescued that day from the Humane Society was going to be named "Rosie."
Rosie was a year old when we rescued her. The family she had previously lived with decided to move away and for some reason or another, they didn't take her with them. But we quickly deduced that she had been in an abusive household from the way she hid behind the upright piano and would skitter across the room whenever she heard the ruffling of a newspaper. Her determination to stay as far away from us as possible was pretty astounding, but truly had no match for my six-year-old soul who severely wanted to cuddle. While she may have lost the battle to be held like a baby, she won every other fight through scratches and bites, and I couldn't help but love her all the more.
When I went off to college, I prepped myself for the possibility of her absence when I returned home. At that point, she was already fifteen even though she still acted and looked like a kitten. So each time I visited, I loved on her as much as I could. And each time I would return, she'd shove her butt in my face and assert that yes, she was still here. She remarkably survived all the years I was away at school, and even held on for two more years after that, rounding out to an impressive lifetime of nineteen years.
In caring for her at the end of her life, I witnessed the cruelty of age and its non-discriminatory nature. Her back legs were starting to give out and she had to be propped up onto the couch or windowsill instead of her usual independent jump. I took it upon myself to bathe her as she had stopped cleaning herself, and I researched the best cat food to support her continually failing kidneys. These tasks were only small pieces of the responsibility I felt for her; because more than anything, I believed my real task was to be supportive and present for her emotionally just as she had been for me.
My pain as a teenager was hardly one I could share with any other peer or family member. It was delicate, precariously disguised, and muddied with shame that I had only been made to feel by the other humans around me. While it seems strange (to a more sheltered mind (me)) that homophobia still existed so pervasively in California in the 2010s, it very much defined my teenage life and the perceptions I continue to have about myself. With a school administration that fed off of hearsay and presumption and actively protected adults abusing their positions of power, any claims to my homosexuality that were exposed without my consent began to deteriorate the very core of me that hadn't even accepted the possibility that I might not be 100% heterosexual. Even in coming out to my family, all I could muster was, "I don't think I'm straight," because at that point, I didn't even know how I identified. But my environment was forcing me to either stay shoved in the closet or be kicked out.
So each day consisted of self-monitoring every action. Each minute consisted of predicting a harrowing future, or worse, none at all. I was crippled with the feeling of inadequacy that only made itself known as a result of being gaslit by both teachers and peers alike. And the one soul I never had to explain myself to was this sassy old cat that now enjoyed being held like a baby. She didn't seem to see any of the horrific things I felt about myself. She didn't question it when I cried. She just sat beside me and wanted to be pet, an act that may have served me more than it served her. And with each silent bonding moment, I felt more like a human again rather than the monster I had been made to feel.
In this way, I consider my relationships to animals to be a very privileged one. Being light-skinned, mixed race, and white-passing, I have never been actively criminalized for the way that I look, and thus have not had the experience of animals being used against me to enforce political or social dominance. Studies have proven that plenty of Black and Brown folx suffer from specific phobias and PTSD related to animals from past experiences of individual or intergenerational trauma, so much to merit further studies questioning whether animals themselves can be racist. In the article Can Dogs Be Racist? by Stanley Coren PhD., DSc, FRSC from the Canine Corner, Coren sites that an animal's general behavior is not necessarily contingent on their own personal prejudices, but that of their caregivers. He infers that if a White dog owner does not heavily socialize with Black folx, then neither would their dog. In other words,
"...the more social interaction there was between the owner and people of different races, the less likely the dog was to show any apparent racial discrimination in its behaviors toward strangers of different races. While people familiar with dog behavior are apt to view this as a simple matter of socialization, similar results are found among humans. People who interact more frequently with individuals of various races are much less likely to be explicitly or implicitly racist."
This 2019 study reveals the power of socialization and constructed biases to go both ways so as to influence animals' behavior around humans and humans' behavior around animals. While colorism plays perhaps a larger role in these circumstances than racism itself, the point still remains that these binaries are taught. But what are we left with at the end of the day from these prejudices? Shame, anger, hurt, discomfort, self-sabotage, the list goes on. We're given these fancy names like racism, colorism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. to understand what these instances consist of, but what we're left with is our feelings and the overriding notion that we are less than we are supposed to be. So how do we reclaim our innocence after being socialized to hate one another?
Perhaps we don't. If we've lost something we didn't even know we had, then there's no real way to get back to "before." We mourn our childhood after it ends; we don't cling to it while it's happening. So as we unlearn our self-hatred, as we un-teach ourselves to fixate on difference and attack it at any cost, perhaps we ought to look at those who we consider the most impressionable and present no impressions for them to learn from. Perhaps their innocence is our next teacher and we can rediscover our intuitive nature that recognizes difference but does not attack it; that recognizes pain but does not capitalize on it, and thus strive to create a society and self more accepting of what we are rather than what we aren't.
During disasters or even just for comic relief, we often look to animals for their purity of heart and general obliviousness to world catastrophes. Sure, animals can understand when a moment is emotionally charged, but how many animal videos have you watched since the world went on lockdown due to COVID-19? Their ability to remain present is somewhat of a miracle to folx who suffer from crippling anxiety and depression (me), not to mention the reminders they provide about the simple joys in life like eating good food, taking a good nap, and having a good cuddle. The daily onslaught of dealing with prejudices that are so deeply embedded in our human society, and thus in our own psyche, places our productivity and conformity to societal norms over our own wellbeing. And when we no longer hold our wellbeing as a pillar of self-accountability, we have nothing to give ourselves and therefore nothing to give to others.
But animals seem to have everything to give. When they find themselves in a comfortable environment where they are loved and cared for, they love back with a force that knows no bounds. Imagine if those of us who walked through this world being defined by our skin color, sexuality, gender expression, religion, disability, or age, were treated simply as ourselves rather than be defined by our categorical humanity? Because when a human has been deemed less than, they can discover a myriad of ways to dismantle any kind of humanity within themselves. The shame they are taught begins to perpetuate their inner dialogue, building upon its own silence and strangling its victim voiceless. But when another being who is not versed in these prejudices can recognize one's humanity so clearly, it's like finding a light at the end of the tunnel. No, not even that. It's like discovering that everything you were taught is a lie. Your life is the Truman Show and you've found the door in the sky. You can finally see a world beyond what you've been told, a world that values you and doesn't even know you yet; because in this world, it's okay to not know how you identify. It's okay to be a skin color you can't control because it's not being used against you. It's okay to place your wellbeing over your productivity to a society that never valued you in the first place.
I know what you're thinking. I got all of this from my geriatric cat? Yes. She's very deep. And she gave me a wink before she took her last exhale on this earth; because she knew I'd still need that little bit of love to get me through the rest of my life without her. The most cliche things annoy us so much because they're true. So I'll leave you with this horribly cheesy *ending* just to spite you.
My family rescued her when she was a year old. And she spent her remaining eighteen years rescuing us in return.
Love you forever my sweet girl.
Written by: Misao McGregor
Pasadena Human Society
Addressing Homophobic Bullying in Second-Level Schools
The People Who Are Scared of Dogs
Can Dogs Be Racist?
The Difference Between Racism and Colorism
Funny and Cute Animal Videos Compilation (2018)
The Truman Show