There’s a story Indians are rather familiar with in one of their eternal scriptures, the Mahabharata, arguably the world’s longest single piece of poetry depicting the ancient battle between the righteous Pandava and the power-driven Kaurava.
One particular tale that captured my attention involved the five Pandava brothers trekking up the Himalayas to seek blessings from the divine, followed by a stray dog. Their leader, Yudhisthira persevered on despite his remaining brothers falling one by one. Upon reaching the peak, he was told by the Lord that he could enter into his heavenly abode but not the dog, as strays are unclean and forbidden from heaven. The honourable Yudhisthira, unaware that it was all a test by the Divine, told him that he would forfeit heaven as it wasn’t his nature to abandon a dog that had faithfully followed him and persevered in many ways that even his siblings had fallen short of. The dog then revealed its true form, Yaman, the god of the underworld and subsequently blessed Yudhisthira with added battle prowess before restoring each of his siblings that led to their eventual victory in the Mahabharata war.
Writer and his two pets, Mary Magdalene (left) and Judas Iscariot
While the moral of this ancient Hindu story is to demonstrate that the twin virtues of loyalty and faithfulness are superior to valour and courage, one can’t help but marvel at the choice of animal to drive the point. And yes, I am a dog person myself. All my life. Unapologetically too. It’s not that I don’t like cats, which can be politically incorrect for a Kuchingite. It’s just that I’ve always felt that dogs represent the two parts of my personality that I can identify with the most – honesty and sincerity. A dog is straightforward. He either likes you or doesn’t. He won’t wrap himself around your ankles when you’re having a meal and then ignore you when you need a hug! He won’t pretend to look innocent after ripping off your new couch, and he won’t poop at the same place you feed him.
I have two dogs, a poker-faced German Shepherd named Judas Iscariot, acquired from a kennel and another smiling mongrel named Mary Magdalene. Judas is rather sharp, and a bit ambitious. He has this habit of looking far ahead each time he’s marked his territory – sort of like Alexander looking up the breadth of his domain and weeping for there were “no more worlds to conquer”! He’s quite close to my missus, barking the place down whenever I try to sneak out to the pub. As a matter of fact, he’d probably even try to sell me for 30 pieces of silver if he had the chance! But Mary, the mongrel I adopted from SSPCA is quite the opposite. Each time I come back from work, she greets me like she hasn’t seen me in over ten years. And then she sits by my feet for hours, hence her Biblical name.
So yes, having a dog as part of the family is more than therapeutic. It’s the manifestation of our own attachment to them, that our own survival and well-being is somehow dependent on the manner in which they react. Naturally, if I see Judas or Mary curled in blissful sleep, I am also reassured of safety, security and well-being which trigger my own affinity towards healing and positive change.
Whether it’s a dog or cat (for most Kuchingites), rabbit, hamster or even unconventional pets like snakes or farm fowls, animal domestication sprouted from Man’s initial belief in sharing a common kindred spirit with nature. Some animals themselves display a proclivity towards the human capacity for social interaction and over the ages, gradually adopted our own communal roots. As much as I think Judas is there to keep burglars at bay and Mary is there to cheer me up, the truth is that pets have a lot more to offer than we know.
Many of us cringe reading about the seeming over-pampering of pets by their owners. Some of us wonder if they own pets or their pets own them instead. I prefer not to judge a fellow man. But I have discovered their propensities to turn to pets to alleviate the pain of the various life challenges that each of us must endure at some point. Their stories reveal how perils were turned into promises, and pitfalls into possibilities.
The wide range of positive human emotions experienced with their pets is perhaps reflected in the fact that even hospitals turn to pets for a variety of assisted patient therapies. I have a friend who made an accidental discovery recently. Her child, who had a rather serious learning disability, was suddenly seen talking to a dog belonging to a friend who came to visit. Upon getting a golden retriever shortly afterwards, the child gradually improved in communicative and psychomotor ability through simple activities like feeding treats or grooming her dog. The beauty of this story is that in only weeks to come, my friend revealed that her child’s retriever had also found itself helping her aged grandfather navigate outside their home during his evening walks.
Besides therapeutic reasons, we also connect to our pets because they seem to understand our anxieties, fears, apprehensions and even doubts. Perhaps this is why we find many dogs and cats used as mascots in high-stress environments ranging from oil platforms to even fire stations. I would gladly volunteer Mary to help the numerous nursing homes in Kuching to assist the elderly reduce their respective pain thresholds whilst elevating mood and comfort, which may cultivate more reconciliatory settings during that odd family reunion. Take a simple act like petting a dog. Any child will immediately display improved disposition, a relaxed countenance, calmness and cheerfulness. Again, I cannot help but extend this principle to the elderly as well. Domestic pets are also known to assist elderly dementia patients through close physical contact, even feeling heartbeats, caressing coats and frequent hugs.
So whatever kind of home we’ve been blessed with, I think it’s important, perhaps even necessary to keep pets, simply because living with them means we have understood the essence of living itself. While the essentials of animal life by themselves may be simple and straightforward, the ways our pets achieve them can be extraordinarily complex and varied. The wealth of different behaviours evident in our house cats and dogs reflects the huge range of social environments which they share with us. Indeed, loyalty and faithfulness are greater virtues. What better way can we fulfill them than with our pets?
Capt Dr Thiru Jr is an amateur writer and musician outside his day job flying for a leading airline. A regular Joe from Penang, he currently lives in Kuching with his family, and two demanding dogs.