A jumping spider in temporary solitary confinement. Within an hour of its capture, it started building a silk retreat. Photo by Dana Wilde

As usual by this time of year, the cat has cabin fever. He follows us around the house with his big fat orange face, complaining about it. He sits by the door urging us to let him outside. When we open it, he sees there’s still snow and marches disgusted back into the living room, like it’s somehow our fault. He’s done this scores of times the past dozen winters.

One morning last week in the kitchen he and I had an entire conversation on the topic of confinement while I waited for the coffee. He just needed somebody to talk to. I felt like a cat therapist. It’s comforting to know you’re needed. But there’s a limit.

What that limit is, no one is exactly sure. By now it’s more or less accepted medical wisdom that pets provide emotional nourishment for humans — though what that means, exactly, is what’s so slippery. It is less widely accepted that the pets feel anything in return. Even though it’s obvious to those of us who love our dogs and cats that they do. Some animal behavior scientists like Frans de Waal argue the so-called higher apes have not only emotions and intellectual intelligence, but moral values. This seems perfectly right to me, as cats and dogs clearly evince moral behaviors such as loyalty, courage, protectiveness; dogs feel shame and cats, embarrassment.

It’s also clear that some kind of emotional symbiosis (my phrase, not scientific that I know of) transpires between humans and other sentient creatures besides mammals. Like birds, for example (see Bernd Heinrich’s accounts of making friends with his tree sparrows). And dolphins. And there is the curious story told by South African marine naturalist Craig Foster in the film “My Octopus Teacher,” where during his snorkeling excursions one year he befriended an octopus. And the octopus, at least as the film depicts it, befriended him back: In an astonishing moment late in the story, the octopus reaches its tentacles to Foster and gently hugs him.

How emotions are shared is not, as far as I know, clearly defined in science. Maybe we just make it up to feel better. If so, it works.

A longtime correspondent of mine, Ian, recently wrote to tell me a remarkable story he heard over the phone from his old friend William. In the call, William (names changed for obvious reasons) mentioned his brother, Dan, who “has spent the better part of his adult life in prison,” as Ian put it. Dan had written a letter to William recounting a strange experience he had in prison.

Dan had been placed on suicide watch in solitary confinement. The prison doctors had given him Klonopin, a drug used to control seizures which also quells panic attacks. As the dosage of Klonopin was being reduced, against his wishes, Dan noticed a tiny spider crawling along his arm. The spider lingered, and soon Dan came to think of it as a companion. It turned out to be a jumping spider, which is not surprising. Jumpers have a curious, even cute demeanor, almost like kittens, because of their two large eyes sticking up goggle-like on the front of their faces. Soon Dan noticed the spider’s presence was actually calming him down. Like the drug. So he named his spider “Klonopin.”

“Word got out about the pet spider,” Ian wrote, “and various levels of prison authority made rather good-natured and increasingly comical attempts to get Dan to turn the spider over to them, but he held his ground. Finally one understanding staff member explained to him some of the effects that Dan’s continuing refusal would have on his coming parole hearing, and asked that he relinquish the creature ‘for his own good.’ The staff member promised he would gently bring the spider outside and place him in the window-well of Dan’s cell, where he could see him.

“This he did. And Dan’s story ends with the two beings — Dan and the spider — locking eyes in one last compassionate exchange through the glass. … The spider wandered off then, its healing work done.”

This is obviously a story of psychological fantasy, right? Dan’s need for companionship is so great he projects it onto the spider. The assumption there, endemic to science as we know it, is that each of us is a separate, self-contained unit generating, as a byproduct of biochemical activity in our brains, our own illusory, disconnected, solipsistic consciousnesses.

On the other hand, emotions are, somehow, shared.

“William and I were on the phone pretty late,” Ian continued, “and the next morning I woke surprised to discover that I’d been dreaming about Klonopin. In the dream I was washing some kind of large blue plastic tub and I knew he was on it, so I had to keep moving him and be careful not to get him wet.

“In the morning I got out of bed, built up the fire, made my morning tea, and sat with your book. Soon I read, ‘It takes some practice to get familiar with eye patterns, but easily recognizable are the eyes of jumping spiders (family Salticidae), whose two main eyes are quite large and peer forward so directly they really seem to be looking at you.’ The effect was strange and wonderful, like you’d somehow read Dan’s story, or I was still dreaming, or all boundaries had abruptly thinned and here we were.”

As I write this, the cat is sitting by the door again. He thinks he wants to go out. Little does he know, he doesn’t.

 

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected]. His book “A Backyard Book of Spiders in Maine” is available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.

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