There have been more than a few moments in my current relationship where I’ve found myself complaining, “Couldn’t you have gotten a normal pet, like a snake?”
You see, for the past few months I have been dating an otherwise wonderful guy — let’s call him J. — who has three pet cockatiels. Cockatiels. With sincere apologies to the bird enthusiasts out there, they’re awful. They squawk at all hours of the day, they bite if you try to pick them up, they kick birdseed all over the floor, they pluck each others’ feathers out to the extent that one of them is practically bald, and if you let them out of the cage, they shriek and pathetically flap around the room at top speed while likely pooping on your head. They hate humans, they hate each other, and they hate the world.
In comparison, a quiet python who neatly snacks on a rat every few days and then falls into a food coma sounds like a dream.
In the midst of my dealing with J.’s gross feathered monstrosities, I’ve talked to friends and colleagues about relationships in which a pet got in the way. And I discovered: It’s really common.
Often, pet-related strife seems to be because the pet can’t stand the new half of the relationship and gets territorial or protective of its owner. This is a frequent plot line in the (brilliant) Animal Planet show “My Cat From Hell,” where cat behavior expert Jackson Galaxy (yup, his real name) swoops in to save relationships threatened by one partner’s beloved cat, who is having a complete meltdown.
In real life, pet situations are just as messy. (That’s right — in this case, reality TV is an actual reflection of reality!) In my quest for nightmare tales of pets and relationships, I heard from:
—A woman who said that her husband’s cat used to selectively destroy everything she bought, from coats to couches. (The husband eventually relented and put the cat up for adoption.)
—A man whose cat has a habit of attacking everyone who isn’t him, including his wife.
—A woman who went on a first date with a man who showed up with a boa constrictor around his neck; miraculously, she didn’t mind this, and even thought it was cute when the snake took a liking to her — but she got spooked at the end of the night when it wouldn’t leave her alone, and she thought it might be trying to strangle her.
—A guy who started dating a girl whose cat used to run laps around her tiny apartment every time he came to visit — it was enough of a mood-killer that he cut things off. And I want to highlight something in that story: The guy in question, who requested anonymity, said that the fact that the girl had such an insane cat in an apartment that was clearly too small for pets made him question her sanity.
Our pets are reflections of ourselves. The animals we choose to turn into our companions say something big about us in turn — and yes, I think it’s fair to judge us by our pets. I have a kind but notoriously attention-craving Russian Blue cat named Caterpillar (she’s even nice to the vet!), and if I were dating someone who didn’t like her, I’d have no problem cutting that relationship off. (Side note: Why don’t more dating sites let you filter by pet allergy? I don’t care if he looks like Prince Harry. If he’s allergic to cats, I don’t want to bother seeing his profile.)
Or, take my friend Michelle, who said she once dumped a guy because he “never-ever wanted a dog.” She didn’t have a dog yet (she now has two) but she knew that the desire to love and care for a dog is something she values deeply in a partner.
But what 30-year-old guy in his right mind voluntarily decides to own pet birds? I admit that knowing J. owned them made me a little hesitant about dating him in the first place, and the fact that he sees any value in keeping them sometimes makes me wonder whether there’s something to his personality that will always be in conflict with mine. And who knows, it may surface in the form of something uglier down the road.
For the record, I’ve tried to be nice to the birds. I’ve tried talking to them, letting them sniff me and get to know me, and all those other pet peace-treaty tactics. No dice. I still think they’re nasty and they still hate me.
But I talk to J. about it. I make it clear that I do not like the birds, and that if our relationship ever reaches the point where we move in together, they will not be coming along. (I have a good reason for this: I’m prone to insomnia. A single forceful chirp could mean I can’t fall back asleep for four hours.) We also did some research on bird enthusiast forums to see whether there was a behavioral reason J.’s cockatiels were so nasty (in addition to my ulterior motive to see how easy it would be to find an adoptive home for them), and learned that it’s probably because he can’t spend enough time with them. They’re high-maintenance pets and are rather ill-suited to being owned by a young professional with long work hours and a social life. It gets worse: if you don’t spend enough time playing with the little bastards, they stop liking humans altogether.
Consequently, thanks to some adequate research and dialogue, “What’s wrong with you to make you ever want to own such horrible pets?” has turned into “Maybe they’d be happier if they were in a home with someone who could spend more time with them?”
And Caterpillar the cat is my secret ally. J. loves her, and she adores him — her habit of licking his face because she loves the smell of his aftershave is particularly endearing — to the point that my status as Caterpillar’s Favorite Human is probably threatened. This is fine by me. It means a lot to me that my cat likes the guy I’m dating, and vice versa. I think J. is also seeing the merits of having a pet that really loves and bonds with humans, rather than one that sits in a cage shrieking and kicking birdseed at you.
It does seem right to accept that sometimes a pet is non-negotiable in a relationship, like a smoking habit or a work travel schedule, and that it’s nothing to feel bad or selfish about. The biggest lesson I’ve learned through all this is to keep the pet’s safety and comfort in mind at all times — it’s a living thing, even if it’s a nasty living thing that hates you. Not having a productive dialogue about this can have unfortunate consequences for both the relationship and the pet caught in the middle.
For example: I heard from another friend who said that her then-boyfriend hated her parrot so much that he left the window open. The parrot flew away, never to return.
The boyfriend was promptly dumped.
(Disclaimer: J. is aware of this article and saw it before it was published. Come on, I’m not THAT mean.)