For most of us, the relational world is divided into humans, dogs and cats. There are bird people and fish people and horse people, and there are pig people and goat people, and I suppose there are moose and squirrel people. (There are bear people too, though we have seen that this is not always such a good idea.) But mostly there are dog people and cat people, and dog-and-or-cat-people.
This tripartite world is the subject of "Why We Love Cats and Dogs," a Sunday presentation of the PBS series "Nature." It's a question that can be answered by everyone who lives with a dog or cat -- I was about to write "own," but as a person who lives with cats I know better than that. Most of this hour is devoted to pictures of people with their animal pals, sitting with them, playing with them, feeding them, hanging out around the house or in the park and talking about them -- the cute and crazy things they do, but also the ways more than one person here have been saved by animals, not in the Timmy's-in-trouble, dragged-from-a-river way, but in terms of spiritual, mental and physical health.
"When I was at my bottom, it was the cat who'd wait outside that door," says a man who had a drinking problem. "It was having to look him in the eye . . . that got me to seek help." Another person dealt with HIV by visualizing his diseased cells as mice and sending his cat in after it. Conversely, a couple takes to the road with their cancer-stricken three-legged German shepherd to live out his life as constant companions, on their dog's time, in the ever-present animal now.
But this is a science series, so there are credentialed experts and fascinating facts thrown in as well. (Not that many, really.) Dogs play fair (it's called "wild justice"). Cats possess "mirror neurons" that allow them to mirror the emotions of other animals (it's "the neural basis for empathy"). They live in a "time-sharing society," and see the world not as patches of territory but as paths.
We spend time at a cat show, where we see that cats can be trained, and at a shelter where personality assessments are done of both adoptee and adopter in order to reduce the number of returns. Dog trainer Sarah Wilson has identified nine patterns of behavior between owners and dogs: the soul mate, the observer, the buddy, the idealist, the dynamo, the free spirit, the angel, the master and the expert -- significantly, those terms are meant to describe the humans.
"For years we have been trying to get people to train their dogs, and it hasn't helped," says Wilson. "We're missing the point entirely. It is not about that end of the leash; it is about us."
Young man on his cats: "They bring out the softer side of me. Does that sound weird?"
Young woman: "No, that doesn't sound weird. Thank God."
You'll laugh, you'll cry. If you are any sort of human at all.
'Nature: Why We Love Cats and Dogs'
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-G (suitable for all ages)