Just over 2000 years ago, Catullus wrote one of the earliest requiems we have for a pet animal. ‘Weep’, the poem opened, ‘all followers of Venus and Cupid and whichever men consider themselves lovers. My girlfriend's sparrow is dead - the sparrow so precious to my girl, the bird she loved more than her own eyes’.
He went on to catalogue that great love, and the happy times his girlfriend spent with the little bird, before driving the poem to ever more excessive lamentations: ‘Evil be upon you, you evil shades of Orcus who devour all beautiful things - for you have stolen that lovely sparrow from me. O evil deed! O poor little sparrow’!
Typically of this most urbane and cheeky of Roman poets, he's joking. As his complaints become ever more exaggerated, we're forced to ask if he's sincere or if he's mainly just upset because now his girlfriend is crying and won't pay him any attention. Also, typically, there's all sorts of innuendo about the fact that this ‘sparrow’ (the translation of passer, something of a dirty word in Latin, make your own guesses) got to muck about in his mistress' lap.
Even so, the poem is curiously moving. At one point, Catullus reflects on how the sparrow has had to go down the dark shady road ‘from which they say no one returns’ and you can't help but feel a shiver of mortality. A feeling compounded by the knowledge of that other Catullus poem where he (entirely sincerely) weeps over his brother's grave and says a sad and eternal hail and farewell (in perpetuum frater ave atque vale, goes the famous Latin.)
Back with the sparrow poem, it's also reasonable to assume that Catullus was riffing on earlier and more serious poems about pet death - otherwise, why make the joke? He also certainly inspired plenty of similar elegies. Afterwards, Martial wrote about a dead lapdog, Ovid grieved over his own mistress's dead parrot - and so it went on. Pet death became an important side-line in the literary canon. It makes sense. If you want to wring sympathy out of your audience, there's no better trick than killing off the beloved dog character, after all.
Less cynically, if you want to relate to a writer, think of them teary-eyed over a dead animal. Think of Dickens getting his pet raven stuffed because he couldn't endure its loss. Think of Steinbeck burying his beloved poodle, Charley, in his garden in Salinas. Recently too, my wife has been reading Virginia Woolf's diaries and telling me about Bloomsbury's leading light's grief at the loss of one of her dogs - and the near unbearable pain this death occasioned in her husband Leonard. And doesn't knowing how upset Woolf was, and about her concern for her husband, and how much she loved her furry friends, doesn't this new insight make you feel some warmth for someone who is otherwise often portrayed as cold and callous? Doesn't this sad and loving diarist feel like one of the best, or certainly, the most approachable versions of Virginia Woolf?
This glow of recognition comes not only because we can see ourselves in Woolf's sadness. It's because it helps us see something of ourselves at our most human and vulnerable. At our best, too. The death of a pet is often the beloved animal's final gift to us. When they pass, they teach us something about the preciousness of life and shared moments. They also teach us how to mourn and move on and deal with hardness and tragedy. They make us stronger. It's well known, after all, that children generally learn how to cope with the death of an animal before they have to deal with the trauma of a close relation.
So, thank you pets. You are wonderful. And since I'm doling out the gratitude, I want to say thank you especially to my own dog, who is lying at my feet as I write these words. I love him with such tender warmth that I feel it in my throat and chest, like vintage rum.
But that's enough of that. Actually, the preceding 600 words is pre-amble... A guilty throat-clearing. My shy buildup to an ignoble admission. The other thing that's going on as I write these words is that my daughter's gerbil is frittering around in the room next door and I can hear its little scratchy paws scratching on its wheel. And I'm thinking that really, the truth is, I can't wait for the fucking thing to god damn die already.
Poor gerbil. I suppose I'm also sad for it. Certainly, it snags my heart to think that my little girl has called it Strawberry Fizzpop and that he's recently lost his friend Buttercup and that the poor creature has ended up mainly living in a cage in Norwich, alone. That his boring repetitive existence is punctuated only by the occasional and terrifying visit of other nine-year-old-girls who aren't as gently fed-up with it as my daughter and grab it and hold it up to their faces and laugh their teeth at him...
But I'm not just sad. I'm also grumpy. I'm fed up of the sawdust that Strawberry Fizzpop sprays everywhere, its uric pong, the space his cage takes up. I have a suspicion that the real truth is that I think of it as an inconvenience, as much as a fellow creature. As so much mess.
I'm not even a cruel god to this helpless, tiny, toothy not-quite-rat. I'm unheeding. I'd have no right to judge it anyway, but I haven't bothered to reach that far. I'm indifferent. And what gives me the right to care so little? Conversely, what would give me the right to care more? The gerbil didn't ask for any of it.
Now I want to rationalise, and say, well it's as dumb as Brexit, anyway. It has no brain, so it has no problems. It's also true that it would be worse off in the wild, constantly afraid, hungry and harassed by predators. Maybe keeping a pet like this one isn't as cruel as letting it go?
But, clearly, I'm protesting too much. I'm overthinking, when, mainly, I don't think about it at all. Except to inwardly sigh about having to hoover up poo and sawdust. Perhaps it's better like that. Because, now I've started to convince myself that I'm worse than the gerbil. After all, I'm the person who's just spent the good part of a sunny afternoon sitting at a computer, agonising how best to set down these 'feelings' about an entirely indifferent creature. Maybe, actually, it could teach me something about living. It's no doubt spent this same afternoon happily chewing sawdust and spinning round on its wheel without a care in the world. Maybe its life isn't so bad. It's mainly painless. Mainly free of worry. Mainly well fed and watered. And possibly no more futile and depressing than anyone else's. Or mine. The little bastard. So far as I know, no one's written a poem about a dead gerbil. Why would they?