In “The Animal I Am” Jacques Derrida describes an amazing scene from his everyday life: Standing naked in the bathroom, brushing his teeth, he suddenly notices how his cat is looking at him through the crack in the door – how his body really perceives his teeth , potentially judging, potentially evaluating. She spontaneously begins to feel ashamed, frantically covers herself and closes the door. The relationship with his pet, who had seen him naked countless times before, had never been comfortable again – he had recognized something human in the animal’s gaze, which he now attributed to him forever as a possible quality.
What is important in this story is that the cat was not human: the creature was able to recognize the shame (or embarrassment) of its “owner” as such without ever having the unpleasant pleasure of such embarrassment. Because animals cannot be naked because they are never clothed.
Much has been written about the relationship of domesticated animals, pets, to humans – and indeed the discourse is endless. As I approach my thirties, I find that the people I know aren’t just starting to have kids – they’re also starting to have pets. And, as everyone knows, it actually happens that owners often look a lot like their protégés – or vice versa. Jean Baudrillard writes in The System of Things that domestic animals fall squarely somewhere between living things and objects – but I think this thesis tends to be outdated. One of my friends, for example, even took a week off for the “settlement” phase of her newly acquired poodle. The fact that people in Berlin treat their dogs like their own children may also have something to do with the fact that the principle of dog sitting, which is common in the US, for example, has not yet been implemented.
In America, on the other hand, this profession is commonplace. You can see young people walking the streets with up to twelve different small dogs or up to seven different larger dogs. It’s a trusted profession, valued more than babysitting, but still often pursued as the first part-time job out of high school or college. Dog sitters often seem happy as most people who choose this profession love dogs and enjoy spending time with them.
However, if you are interested in contact with other people, the job is rather unfavorable. It is almost impossible to hold a conversation with a dog, because any words that come out of the human mouth are drowned out by the barking and growling, higher than human voices, of the seven to ten dogs that are gathered around the sitters.
A friend of mine from New York had fallen in love with a dog who had been fostering several dogs from his home for years. She always gave him a friendly smile when they met in the hallway, but he never got to talk to her: audibly, he just couldn’t get close to her.
Dog guardians in California are particularly lonely. There are so-called dog parks: small cages containing about six square meters of lawn and a bench (for a single person) – next to it a garbage can with a built-in plastic bag dispenser. For hours, the dogs sit next to each other in their separate cages, watching the dogs (of a similar type and size) play and get up only to use the plastic bags. Little by little the trash can next to them is filling up. Any attempts to open a conversation with the respective dog next to them are futile.
Actually, I wouldn’t be a qualified dog myself, because unfortunately I’m a bit disgusted with dogs – and a lot with dealing with their excrement. When I got my hands on one of those well-tied plastic bags full of fresh poop (the dog’s owner gave it to me because I was standing right next to the litter box), I immediately threw the bag back (on the dog): I was suddenly startled by its warmth temperature of the animal’s body – the dog also from his, spontaneously jumped: the bag fell from his back and burst.
39 degrees Celsius is the normal body temperature of dogs – two degrees higher than the body temperature of humans.
Jacques Lacan, the third Frenchman in this text (Excusez moi!) describes the difference between domesticated and wild animals by saying that domesticated animals (like humans) overeat, that they have no instinct for the healthy end of their appetite, but from a desire to consume that escapes the realm of archaic necessity. According to Lacan, pets are categorically even more human than animals.
I’ve only experienced cats behaving humanly once – it was a moment that didn’t resemble Derrida’s startling nakedness in the bath. My neighbor had asked me to babysit her two Norwegian Forest Cats for a week in exchange for several bottles of wine. A day before she came back, my friend and I decided to spend the night in her bed, without asking her. It seemed a bit forbidden to us and therefore exciting. When we started sleeping together, I suddenly became aware of loud noises. I turned around and saw that the two Norwegian Forest Cats on the ground next to us had started to do the same – or at least hug each other aggressively. They had mirrored us. We got really scared, got dressed quickly and went back to my apartment where we talked a little more about the scary incident and then fell asleep. As you can see, pets don’t particularly boost libido.