The fast-moving fire that roared through a West Frankfort apartment building Tuesday morning was the kind that makes you worry someone might not get out alive. Fire Chief Wallace Possich said all 13 renters were accounted for afterwards. But the destruction on Harrodsburg Lane was not without fatalities.
“I’ve lost my family,” Jeff Wiley told reporters, his face etched with grief as he said his two dogs and two cats had perished in the flames while he was at work. His roommate, Chad Howard, awoke during the fire and had to jump out a window to save his own life. He was unable to rescue the pets.
Persons of the anthropocentric persuasion may dismiss the deaths of four beloved animals as something of little consequence. They seem incapable of understanding the bond that can form between species. Others can readily empathize with Wiley, who told of the devastation he felt over the sudden deaths of his “babies,” his sadness that he could not have been there to pull them from the inferno.
In this era when marriages and cohabitations routinely disintegrate and families drift apart, the love of animals is comforting. The Harris Poll last year surveyed 2,184 American adults and found 91 percent of owners consider their pets part of the family. For some, they’re not just part of the family, they are the family. The pollsters discovered 60 percent of owners bought holiday presents for their pets, 36 percent got them birthday gifts and 70 percent allowed the animals to sleep in bed with them. The survey asked respondents if they saw any benefit to having dogs in institutional settings to help relieve stress and anger. Results showed 89 percent considered it a good idea for long-term care facilities, 72 percent for hospitals and 60 percent for prisons.
A 2006 poll, by the Pew Research Center, determined 85 percent of dog owners and 75 percent of cat owners regarded their pets as family members.
Perhaps because people who don’t share these feelings often ridicule animal lovers as misfits who’ve failed at human relations, some are reluctant to admit their deep devotion to four-legged friends and the desperation they suffer after a loss. Joe Yonan, a Washington Post editor, wrote of the perplexity he felt upon realizing the death of his Doberman, Red, left him grieving more than he did when close family members expired. “Simply stated,” an article in the journal Professional Psychology informed him, “many people (including pet owners) feel that grief over the death of a pet is not worthy of as much acknowledgement as the death of a person.”
While family ties are complicated, relationships with pets are elemental and the sense of loss is visceral. Even loving families can become embittered when disputes, over matters big and small, lead to harsh words and lingering hurt. Domestic animals need our constant attention, sometimes with a gentle reprimand when they misbehave, and they don’t hold grudges.
For everyone who dotes over furry companions, there are egotists who easily part ways with dogs and cats who’ve depended on them, and don’t look back. That’s one reason so many pets end up in the animal shelter and get euthanized when they’re not adopted.
There’s something out of kilter in a world with a surplus of creatures offering unconditional love and a shortage of people willing to return the favor.