At a Spanish class recently I was asked to write down my three favourite animals. I knew this was supposed to reveal more than a lack of vocabulary for discussing raffia donkeys, but couldn't remember what, so dutifully racked my brains. Three animals I liked? Three I didn't mind then. What, three?
Amid animated whispers and much riffling through dictionaries I drew a blank. I drew a second blank with twiddly bits and coloured it in while everyone else listed three characteristics for each animal. What the exercise revealed, in my case, was a serious personality defect. I don't like animals. On my plate, in the house or in London Zoo. In their natural habitat - up a tree or scratting about down a cathode ray tube - fine. But as friends? I reckon they're overrated.
They smell, they have fleas, they're noisy, they're ugly. And if they're none of these, they're goldfish. Say no more. Swimming round gawping at everything, pausing occasionally to eat a dead friend. Yes, but what about dolphins, you say. Dolphins are intelligent. Dogs are loyal. Horses noble. Owls wise. And pigs, of course, were on to helicopters long before Leonardo da Vinci.
Horses are noble in the sense that they're daft enough not to mind being sat on for long periods of time. Dogs are loyal because they have an instinct for self-preservation which informs them where their best interests lie. Dolphins are very clever I'm sure, but only relative to other animals. For company, for conversation, for intelligent behaviour, give me a human any day. Can you play chess or Scrabble with a dolphin? 'Catch' comes a poor second, especially for the dolphin. Can you leave a gerbil with a week's food and tell it to eat sensibly? Can you discuss Flaubert's Parrot with a parrot?
Affectionate, you say? I had a cat, once. I gave him everything. Love, a tray, a garden. Lashings of cat food. Use of the sofa. A ruddy gas fire in the evenings. While he was a kitten, I humoured his little whims - his penchant for peeing behind the stereo and unravelling cassettes. I lined his tray with The Observer, cherished the turds that landed therein and swept up the soiled litter that he then kicked all over the floor. He will mature, I thought, and we will spend quiet, continent evenings together watching Newsnight.
He left. Took up residence with neighbours, who apparently gave him more. Fitted carpets, central heating, 24-hour attendance. 'He's not fussy,' they said. 'Eats anything. Whiskas, scrambled egg, smoked salmon.' They lived à quatre, I lived alone - but what did Fatso care?
As children we kept stick insects. A sop on the part of my parents, I think, to our claims that all the other children had pets. These things fell sadly short of the mark. You couldn't see them half the time and, having spotted one, weren't sure whether it was dead or alive. With luck and a following wind, you might just see one twitch. Evidently they too felt there was a world elsewhere, for every so often - once or twice a week if they were feeling particularly loutish - they and their offspring, a centimetre long and cute as a small piece of green cotton, would escape from their tank and stroll round the living room. They weren't missed immediately, but after a while someone would sense that the handful of privet twigs on the windowsill was less interesting than usual. The decor being green, we would comb the carpet for hours fearful of squashing one, or finding one in our hair, or the salad. You never knew if you had stumbled on a baby or a severed parental leg.
I know it's possible that our furry, feathered, scaly and crustaceous friends are superior life forms evolved far beyond our comprehension, with a philosophy which dispensed aeons ago with speech, personal hygiene, material comforts and board games. But that doesn't make it any easier for me to communicate with them. And until I get insight from the horse's mouth, I'm not convinced.
Julia Deakin is a member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders.