I have always been an animal lover, but recently I have really seen how much of a positive impact a pet can have upon a person who is ill, lonely or suffering.
When my mum moved into my grandparents’ bungalow to look after them (my grandad, last summer, with an aggressive brain tumour and my grandma having Alzheimer’s), she took my cat, Maisie, with her. I say ‘my’ cat because that is how everybody refers to her, even my mum. Whilst Maisie these days is comfortable with everyone–even my young nieces and nephews who shower her with sometimes over-zealous cuddles and kisses!–she and I have always had a special bond.
I rescued her from the shelter, when I lived with my mum, before I began my teacher training. Our bond was instant. Maisie was around eight years old at the time, a grey tortie with beautiful green eyes and the sweetest temperament, and she had FIV, which meant that her immune system was weakened and that she couldn’t go outside. There was also a risk that she could pass it on to other cats, so she would have to have no more feline friends.
As it turned out, she was more than happy to be an indoor cat and she loved nothing more than cuddling up on my lap and sleeping.
When I moved to London to study, I wasn’t able to have Maisie in rented accommodation. I missed her, but I knew she was being well looked after and I saw her every holiday and many weekends.
When my grandparents became ill, we really weren’t sure how they were going to respond to Maisie. They were tremendously kind people, but they had never had pets, nor were they big animal lovers. But my grandad took to her straight away and my grandma’s affection for her–even reluctantly!–has grown over the past year and a half. She is such a pretty little sweet cat, small for her age, around fifteen now, and I have never once seen her become aggressive nor try to claw or bite in fear.
She is a blessing, not only to me, but to my mum, my grandad and now, my grandma.
The transformative nature of animals is amazing.
Yesterday, my mum sent me a photo of my grandma, asleep in bed in the afternoon, half-sitting up, as she tends to do these days, with Maisie snuggled into the crevice between her shins. Both looked so peaceful, and I could just imagine how much that familiar warmth comforted my grandma in her increasingly confusing and distorted world.
Animals are calming because they are what they are. As Eckhart Tolle says, “It is so wonderful to watch an animal because it has no opinion of itself. It is.” That presence, true presence, being in the moment and alert to everything that is happening without pontificating on the past or the future is such a breath of fresh air for humans, and such a great reminder to breathe and just live each moment.
Maisie is so in tune with my grandma’s moods. She will crawl into her lap when she is ill, or, when my grandma could still walk, she would trot after her when she was agitated.
I find it incredible that some people seem to be so unaware of just how perceptive animals are. They are sentient beings that have distinct personalities, sense sadness, feel pain and enjoy the simple pleasures–lazing on a blanket in the sunlight, well-fed and warm. And they can have a profound impact upon the human spirit.
There is a story told by the author Michael Morpurgo about a boy named Billy who went to visit Michael’s farm with his class as part of the Farms for City Kids project, run by the Morpurgos. The teacher warned Michael not to pick on this child to answer a question because he refused to speak. They had never heard his voice in school.
One night, Michael was walking near the stables and heard talking in the darkness. To his amazement, he watched as the boy, Billy, stroked one of Michael’s horses and chatted away to him about his life. Michael said he realised in that moment the incredible effect an animal can have upon a human being. The openness, presence and non-judgement that was obvious as that horse stood patiently and let Billy speak.
Those relationships between animals and humans have fascinated Michael Morpurgo ever since.
That story is one of my favourites, and I am such an advocate, not only for animal welfare, but for allowing elderly, vulnerable and isolated people to experience the companionship of an animal. Children should have this experience from a young age, too. We need to cultivate respect and love for animals in our society and to teach children to take care of all living creatures, no matter how small.
Although I was upset that I couldn’t take Maisie to live with me when I started my teacher training several years ago, I am so grateful that my grandma has her to comfort her during the latter stages of Alzheimers.
Sometimes things happen for a reason.
If an animal can help a mute boy to find his voice and bring joy to someone in suffering and sickness, I truly believe that an animal can save a person’s life. Or at least bring a lonely soul in from the cold.
They are extraordinary beings and deserve to be treated as such.