Pets – companion animals – are important in many people’s lives. They provide company, exercise and fun. Studies have shown that owning a pet lowers heart rate and blood pressure, and improves mental health. Pets help children to understand animals, and learn about birth and death.
New Zealand has one of the highest levels of pet ownership per person, well ahead of the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. A 2007 survey revealed that 52% of New Zealand households had a cat, and nearly 30% had a dog.
In 2006/7 there were 8,558 dog registrations in Wellington city, which had 179,466 people – an average of one dog for every 20–21 people. Christchurch has a similar ratio – with twice the number of both dogs and people.
Cats and dogs are popular pets because they don’t have to be caged or restrained, can be house-trained, and are active during the day. Most importantly, they show affection and develop a bond with their owners. However, many people find other animals rewarding companions, including horses, fish, turtles, pigs, birds, and so-called ‘pocket pets’ – mice, rats, rabbits and guinea pigs.
The pet paradox
Only a small range of animals enjoy pet status, and treating certain animals as pets has a cultural origin. In New Zealand, and many other countries, cats and dogs are cosseted by humans, whereas sheep and cattle are farmed and killed for food. In contrast, some Asian countries have cats and dogs on the menu, and in India cattle are sacred.
The boundaries between pets and other animals are sometimes blurred.
- Working companion animals, such as guide dogs and animals in rest homes for the elderly, provide practical help or therapy for vulnerable people, but usually enjoy the same comforts as pets.
- Other working animals such as racehorses, farm dogs, police dogs and Customs dogs perform strenuous and sometimes dangerous jobs. However, some may also be treated as pets during or after their working lives.
- Wild animals, mainly indigenous species of birds, fish and insects, are kept as pets by some people.
- Some farmed animals such as sheep, cows and pigs may start off or live their entire lives as pets – for example, many country children have pet lambs or calves.
Remembering a pet
On board the Endurance, during the 1914–16 trans-Antarctic expedition, was a male cat called Mrs Chippy – the much-loved pet of carpenter Harry McNeish. When the Endurance was crushed in sea ice and sank, leader Ernest Shackleton gave the order for all animals, including Mrs Chippy, to be shot. McNeish, who performed heroic feats on the expedition and later settled in Wellington, always mourned the loss of his cat. As a tribute, the New Zealand Antarctic Society erected a bronze statue of Mrs Chippy on McNeish’s grave in Karori cemetery in Wellington, in 2004.
Some New Zealand pets have become famous locally, nationally, or even internationally.
Paddy the Wanderer
In the 1930s a stray ginger-and-brown Airedale terrier became a common sight around the Wellington wharves. Paddy the Wanderer, as he was known, was cared for by watersiders, harbour board workers, seamen and taxi drivers, who took turns to pay his annual dog registration. When he died in 1939 obituary notices appeared in local newspapers, and a fleet of taxis formed a funeral cortège. His memorial is a drinking fountain near the Queen’s Wharf gates.
In the 1990s Rastus, a black cat, was often photographed perched on the handlebars of the motorbike driven by owner Max Corkill. Rastus, who growled like a dog and ate a vegetarian diet, had his own cat-sized helmet, racing goggles and red bandanna. After Rastus and Max were killed in a head-on smash in Taranaki in 1998, more than 1,000 bikers took part in the funeral procession.
Colin’s, a cat named for the port worker who adopted her, lived at Port Taranaki. She hit international headlines in 2001 after making an unscheduled trip from New Plymouth to South Korea on a methanol tanker. A Korean sailor had taken her on board to feed her and both had fallen asleep, not waking until the vessel was at sea. There were plans to retrieve her in a tanker-to-tanker transfer at sea. This was rejected as too dangerous, and a pet food company paid for a port official to bring her home by air. Colin’s spent the last years of her life as a celebrity, dying of old age in 2007.