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Mother Love

That’s what binds us to our animals
Bay Weekly summer intern Brad Dress captures a portrait of JPozz Music’s Molly.
     “I could do worse than come back as Elsa’s dog.”
     Grandmother Florence Martin’s half-aspiration comes back to me whenever I reflect on the relationship between human and dogs. It has been illuminating and, in a dog-legged kind of way, predictive.
      It also has something to say about the relationship between her and my mother Elsa Olivetti Martin.
      Elsa treated her dogs — most of them French poodles — with unconditional love and good cooking. 
      Elsa had a string of dogs in the 20 years she outlived Florence. I didn’t recognize my grandmother in any of those pampered poodles or the eventual Yorkshire terrier. 
      Mother named all her poodles Cina (pronounced cheena), which she said was short for peccina. I’ve never found the word in an Italian dictionary, and as my mother has been dead 31 years, I can’t ask her if I have it right. Maybe it was a vernacular of the endearment ­cucciolo, which means “little puppy.” If so, poetic justice is served, for Mother engulfed babies, kitties, puppies and dogs in the full-blown embrace of her love. 
      My mother had a lot of love to give — an overwhelming lot for a teen or a grown-up human. But little creatures seemed able to take it all in.
      Is that why we love our animals so fervently?
      For love them we do.
     Cultural commentators tell us we’re living on a diet of diminished human contact. Families scattered across the country and the world isolate us into two-generational households that, when we or our children grow up, reduce to one measly generation.
      Most of us can’t buy family to love. But almost all of us can buy a dog or cat. Even better, animal lovers are proving, we can rescue one … two … or more. Rescuers add their good deed to the world’s accounting as well as bring love into their homes and hearts.
       Adopting an animal, especially a young one, is like bringing home a baby on a sped-up growth curve. Their faces have the perfect big-eyed proportions to melt our hearts; they’re so warm and cuddly that we want to hug them to our chests and nestle our faces in their fuzzy pelts. Puppy breath makes my husband go weak in the knees. 
      Sure they’re a bit of trouble, but not nearly so much or for so long as a human baby. Yes, they depend on us absolutely (though cats don’t admit it). But our provision of shelter, warmth, protection (including vet services as costly as human doctoring) and food gives us what we need as well, for we feed those we love. How else to explain the new generation of dog owners returning to the old ways of home-cooking all their beloved pets’ meals?
      Just what is it our animal companions give us in return?
     They give us love. They focus their attention on us the way a nursing infant does its mother. They give us devotion, commitment, routine and purpose in life. They never leave us, until death do us part.
       They also give us physicality. One aspect of physicality is the reassurance of touch. Touch is a dominant sense in our interaction with animals; about how many humans can we say that?
      They often show us beauty, and even more often athleticism. The casual grace of a cat and the agility of a working dog evoke the awe we feel for movie stars, dancers and athletes. The play of puppies and kittens refreshes our capacity for delight. In their capacity for learning and adapting to the world, we encounter the intelligence of other species.
       All that and more is why we love them so much. So much that it might not be a bad idea to come around again as an animal-lover’s dog.
      In this week’s paper, our annual Dog Days of Summer Pet Tales issue, you’ll find an array of stories chronicling what we get in return for our investments of time, patience, money and emotion in animal companionship.