[IRL] OUR ANIMAL COMPANIONS
By Menchu Aquino Sarmiento
When the state of our nation makes us feel sad and discouraged, because it seems that for every step forward, we take two steps back, let us consider the advances made in the way we treat our pets today. In the 20th century, the place to go to for pets was just Cartimar. Although Cartimar is still very much around, in this millennium, every major mall has a dedicated pet supplies store. Table scraps are no longer the only option. There are even pet chefs who will cook fresh with vegetable fiber or salmon guts, for your animal companion.
My daughter the animal welfare (AW) advocate, prefers the term “companion animals” to “fur baby.” It is an “Unpopular Opinion,” as she noted in her FB feed: “. . . really not a fan of the "fur baby" title. They are companion animals. They live alongside us, and since it is no fault of theirs that they are subjected to capitalist modernity and need money to access food, shelter, healthcare, and dignity, we take responsibility for them.
I do not have to liken them to myself or to human children to validate loving and caring for them. They are not like me, or my boyfriend who loves them just as much, and that is fine. I can still value their companionship as much as I would a human relation, even if we are different.”
The generic name for domesticated dogs used to be bantay, because that’s all that they were, just guard dogs, and occasionally, pulutan. Half a century ago, Nanay, my late mother-in-law, was among the tiny vanguard of animal lovers who pampered their dogs as though they were their youngest children. She started with a terrier, Chuchi, who terrorized anyone daring to approach her boudoir. My still to be future husband was a Nanay’s Boy, so Chuchi allowed him to rub the distinctive gold patch on her back, before every major exam. He attributes this good luck ritual to his graduating magna cum laude in AB History for his pre-law. By the time my husband was in law school, Chuchi had crossed over the rainbow bridge and been replaced by an assortment of Yorkshire terriers. Nanay couldn’t resist having their silky tresses coiffed into beribboned topknots and tiny pigtails. Her favourite, Tara, was such a fashionista that she kept still for the manucurista so that she and Nanay could have matching mani-pedi.
This love for animals comes from both branches of my AW advocate daughter’s family tree. My maternal aunt who was Iloilo’s first diplomate in paediatrics, realized her calling at age 12, when she saved a maya bird’s life by stitching it up when its innards had spilled out. Her older brother had accidentally stepped on the unfortunate bird, rupturing its thorax. Tito Ben later became a general surgeon, but it was Tita Marie who performed this first emergency surgery of sorts on a creature of the wild. While enrolled at the UP College of Medicine, she stayed with us in Manila. That’s how our house also became home to 23 cats. My earliest infancy memory is of crawling along the kitchen floor, while being around the same height as the cats, thus getting a close glimpse inside their ears and as I imagined, right through to their feline brains. Tita Marie couldn’t resist picking up strays.
Unlike my husband’s Nanay who took pride in her Yorkies’ pedigrees, Tita Marie’s love for animals was more open and inclusively pedestrian. She wanted to share this appreciation for God’s creatures with her young patients and their parents. In the waiting room of her Jaro-Iloilo City Clinic, there was a big tall cage along one wall for parakeets, and a broad chicken wire pen with guinea pigs. There were little dens in both cages for nesting. The guinea pig warren was the height of a table, so patients could observe them while waiting for their turn in the consultation room. That’s surely a better way for kids to kill time than staring at a screen.
After the debacle that was the May 2022 elections, many grief-stricken younger people, faced with the very real prospect of Marcos Martial Law Take 2, considered migrating. My AW advocate daughter was not one of them though. First, as a cultural worker, her options for gainful employment abroad, were quite limited. Her liberal artsy friends who had left for the States soon after graduating from our top universities over a decade ago, were still getting by on minimum wage, gig economy jobs as baristas, Uber drivers, dog walkers, supermarket cashiers, shelf-fillers at WalMart, sales clerks at Barnes & Noble or Staples and the like. They were not getting published in mainstream media, or hired for TV pilots and Broadway shows. That’s why we can count the real Pinoy successes like Lea Salonga on one hand. The other so-called Filipino stars like the Fil-Am Jo Koy, may have a Filipino forbear somewhere, often generations back, but they were born, raised and educated there. As a migrant, you need to grow even more extra layers of thick skin over there to accept rejection.
My daughter also realized that the 12 animal companion cats who share our home, would not be able to migrate with her. Their lives are intertwined. She has a commitment to them too. They may not be human, but these too are Filipino ties that bind. In this instance, puspin says stay.
Menchu Aquino Sarmiento is an award-winning writer and a social concerns advocate. IRL (In Real Life) are short verbal pagmumuni-muni, the essay equivalent of fast fiction--but in real life. She really wants more Filipinos to care, and to do something legal and non-violent about it, preferably together, so that we act more like a civilized country, a mature democracy.