What’s the Use of Pets?

Photo: Alen MacWeeney/Corbis
Photo: Alen MacWeeney/Corbis

As you glide down over central Florida into Orlando International Airport, the Earth glitters up at you as if strewn with diamonds. The lush, landscaped grounds of the airport are ringed, like much of the Sunshine State, with a circlet of man-made lakes.

“All this was once swamp,” the driver of the Mears private van — Florida’s idea of mass transit — tells me. We pass a sign for Boggy Creek Road. “They built canals and retention ponds to drain it and built the airport on top.” We pass a rectangular lake crisscrossed with overhead tracks from which cables tow waterskiers in mechanized circuits. We pass a billboard announcing Shamu’s All-New Show. Traffic slows to a crawl because this is the highway to Disneyland, and the driver switches to unfurling a fairly comprehensive, if unattributed, recap of An Inconvenient Truth. I’m trying to look involved, but I’m eavesdropping on two people behind me who are discussing the Zone Diet for dogs. By the time the driver gets to Florida’s disappearance under rising sea levels — an outcome I can’t bring myself to regret just at this moment — the folks in the back have switched to discussing hip replacement surgery for dogs.

There are two conventions at the Orange County Convention Center this week. One is a whirlpool spa exhibition. The other, the one we are headed to, is Global Pet Expo 2007, an annual trade show sponsored by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA). Here, the makers of food, supplies, vitamins, toys, services, and furniture — yes, furniture — for pets put their wares on display in the hopes that the five-thousand-plus buyers attending will adopt them for their stores.

The U.S. pet industry is booming. The trade-show press conference unleashes the new stats: 63 percent of American households now include a companion animal, a number steadily on the rise. This year, for the first time, Americans are expected to shell out over $40 billion on pets and associated costs, more than double what they spent in 1994. Nothing — not September 11, not recession, not war in Iraq or rising seas lapping at the convention center gates — seems likely to hinder this cash-flow juggernaut. As Bob Vetere, president of the APPMA, puts it, “This industry is unbelievable.”

ON MY EXPLORATORY PASS ON THE EXHIBIT floor, the first booth to catch my eye is a dais decked out like a Roman arena. Corinthian columns are flanked by large flat-screen monitors playing the film Gladiator. The product on display is called Pork Chomps. Before obelisks of digestible pork skins, Russell Crowe gravely salutes the emperor.

Ancient Roman decadence feels oddly appropriate here. With more than twenty-one hundred booths, this is, as the organizers keep declaring with glee, the largest Pet Expo yet in North America. Sprawling across the square-footage of thirteen football fields is an unbelievable assortment of goods only the most affluent society would consider lavishing on animals: designer clothes, jewel-studded collars, high-end pet strollers. Elaborate, if not actually gilded, cages are everywhere. You can buy a mahogany canopy bed for your cat, hang your fish in a framed, wall-mounted aquarium, and dress your dog in fashionable duds — whether your taste runs to hip-hop or haute couture.

It’s hard not to think of Thorstein Veblen, the political economist whose groundbreaking 1899 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, skewered society for its addiction to what he named “conspicuous consumption.” Pets, declared Veblen, were of the class of commodities valued not for real worth but for “honorific” value. Once considered tools for hunting, pest control, and transport, animals had become expensive and useless. Like landscaping and trophy wives, they were nothing more than status symbols.

If Veblen were around today, he wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Burberry and Snoop Dogg have pet clothing lines — which he could read about, as I did, in the trade magazine Pet Style News. (Other canine couture trends for spring: mix-and-match, alligator leather, and animal prints.) Nor would he wonder at pet sunglasses, custom oil-paintings of pets, pet jewelry, or the company called Cain and Able that offers dog spa products: shampoos, soaps, “Paw Rub,” and aromatherapy candles. Their brochure shows a white-robed yellow Lab contemplating a rose-petal-strewn whirlpool tub with patrician calm. A plate of cheese and doggie biscuits and a glass of white wine perch at its edge. Okay, I find myself thinking, cheese, biscuits, robe. But the wine glass? How’s he getting his snout in that?

The notion of conspicuous consumption seems less apt when it comes to pet Advent calendars or edible greeting cards (“The pet can eat it when he’s done,” exclaims Bob Vetere, raising the question, Done what?). Not to mention the scads of products that are less status-seeking than simply upscale: organic foods, wild Alaskan salmon-oil supplements, heated beds, and pet car-seats. These items seem less about showing off than improving pets’ lives. According to the APPMA‘s 2007 survey of pet owners, pets are being treated better all the time. Few live outdoors anymore, almost none are fed on table scraps, and most get elaborate medical and dental care. Even major medical procedures once reserved for humans — chemotherapy, organ transplants — are increasingly performed on pets. Pet insurance is on the rise to cover the costs.

Veblen might be right that we give the dog a designer bone to keep up with the Joneses. But when we give the dog a kidney transplant, surely there are deeper longings involved.

DEBBIE BOHLKER HOLDS OUT a plate of dog biscuits.

“Have one,” she insists. The cofounder of Claudia’s Canine Cuisine has the soft-spoken determination of an Arkansas housewife, which she was before becoming a purveyor of high-end dog treats. Reluctantly, I pick up one of the iced dog biscuits and bite in. It’s like the German pfeffernuesse that turn up around Christmas: hard and mildly ginger-flavored.

“It helps their digestion,” Debbie tells me. “Our treats are all human-grade. We just think our dogs are our children, so we bake for them like they’re our children.”

If there were a Global Pet Expo tag line, it would be PETS: THE NEW KIDS. The dog and cat toys look just like baby toys, and they’re marketed with the same educational claims. The pet playpens and strollers could work for human infants, and the clothing booths with rows of outfits on display resemble nothing so much as those expensive boutiques set up to waylay the wallets of indulgent grandmothers. You can even buy a mini-armoire for your dog’s wardrobe. Debbie Bohlker is far from alone in making human-grade food for animals: many exhibitors boast of USDA-approved kitchens. Fortunately, no one makes me eat kibble.

Cats were not discussed in America’s first general pet reference guide, the 1866 Book of Household Pets, even though almost every household had one. But cats weren’t pets; they were seen, according to pet historian Katherine Grier, as “independent contractors,” housed in exchange for controlling vermin. Today, pets rarely have practical functions. According to the APPMA, the most frequently cited benefit of pet ownership — listed by 93 percent of dog and cat owners alike — is “companionship, love, company, affection.” The second-most-cited benefit is “fun to watch/have in household,” and the third is “like a child/family member.” Seventy-one percent of dog owners consider their pet a member of the family, as do 64 percent of cat owners, 48 percent of bird owners, 40 percent of small animal owners, and 17 percent of reptile owners. Even the scaly and cold-blooded, once brought into the home, can inspire parental affection.

“PETSMART REFERS TO CUSTOMERS AS ‘pet parents,'” Daphna Nachminovitch tells me by phone. “I think it’s a gimmick. And it’s dangerous for people to fall into it, in a way. The main thing to remember is that your dog doesn’t need to go to the movies; he doesn’t need to go to school. He needs your companionship and to be exercised, and not be in his crate for the ten hours you’re at work.”

Daphna is director of the domestic animal and wildlife department at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. There’s a perception that PETA opposes pets: they do not. But when I tell Daphna that Americans will spend more than $40 billion on their pets this year, she is agog. It takes her a moment to express what dismays her about it.

“For the three to four million who are killed every year, that doesn’t mean a thing,” she declares.

I’d been thinking about shelters, too, while cruising Pet Expo. The fact that a significant percentage of the pet population is continually surrendered to shelters suggests that pet mania has little to do with loving animals en masse. Considered in the light of overcrowded shelters and factory farms, the urge to turn pets into children looks less like appreciation for animals than a way of raising just some of them above the class of creature — an apotheosis that can be revoked at will.

I stroll the Pet Expo floor again. With a slight shift of perspective, it’s easy to see all the anthropomorphization as a deep discomfort with the nonhuman. Many of the products on offer suggest a covert dislike of beasts as beasts. We want our pets to be loving, entertaining, and companionable, but we also want them to be clean, quiet, and obedient, to refrain from stinking, shedding, destroying our property, alienating our neighbors, biting our kids, and trashing our homes. Much of what comes with animals — poop, hairballs, hunting, scent-marking, sex — is, well, bestial, and a good percentage of the pet industry seems dedicated to eliminating or coping with these “problems.” There are anti-bark devices, dog diapers, deshedding tools, breath mints, scented collars, fragrance sprays, and treatments for everything from flatulence to eye goop. The more we integrate animals into our domestic lives, it seems, the less we want them to act — and sound and smell — like animals.

On the other hand, there is B.A.R.F.

“If we weren’t feeding them, they would be eating their food raw,” Jackie Hill of Nature’s Variety tells me. Hers is one of a number of companies at Pet Expo featuring raw pet food. There are Wild Kitty, Primal Pet Foods, Natural Balance, Northwest Naturals, and Bravo, all of which offer “biologically appropriate raw food,” a back-to-nature movement saddled with an unfortunate acronym.

“Raw diet is not a new thing,” Jackie tells me. “It’s just come back into how we’re feeding our pets because processed food has failed us. As we’re watching the organic natural trend grow in the human market, we’re seeing the same thing happen in pets.”

It seems the humanizing trend has come full circle — back to paying homage to pets’ animal natures. And the trend encompasses more than raw food. Current theories of animal behavior focus on understanding an animal’s evolutionary heritage. Bookstores are filled with titles like What Is My Cat Thinking? that explain your pet’s actions in terms of its wild forebears, and Cesar Millan, television’s “dog whisperer,” has created a mini-empire explaining pack mentality to overindulgent pet parents who don’t get their dog’s wolfish ways.

But do we want to understand animals’ natural sides in order to respect those natures or to master them? “Domestication means domination,” writes historian Yi-Fu Tuan in his book Dominance and Affection: The Making of Pets. “The two words have the same root sense of mastery over another being — of bringing it into one’s house or domain.” Certainly Millan, whose training gets humans to assume the role of pack leader, is about control. But the very fact of domestication, like gardening or landscape painting, may be just another manifestation of the human desire to impose its will on nature.

At the booth of BowTie Incorporated, publishers of magazines such as Bird Talk, Dog World, Hamsters, and Cat Fancy, I browse a rack of American Kennel Club books about dog breeds. Peering out from each cover are squished noses, ruffled ears, droopy jowls: forget the beak of the finch, the muzzle of the dog is infinitely more varied. The obsession with breed standards is surely a fetishization of human ability to control outcomes and master the wild. Some pet breeds were even created to mimic wild animals. The Bombay cat breed was created as a “parlor panther,” and the Ocicat was bred to resemble an ocelot. “With so many wild spotteds disappearing as their native habitats are destroyed and invaded,” declares the Cat Fanciers’ Association in its Ocicat breed profile, “it is increasingly important that this man-made breed can satisfy people who want something ‘exotic.'” The housecat doesn’t just evoke the wild, he replaces it.

Or supplants it with something better. True wildness makes us feel small, a tiny part of a larger ecosystem; the parlor panther and the toy poodle, the shedless dog and hypoallergenic cat, make us feel like gods. The exuberantly lifelike environments we can build for fish and reptiles put us in the role of intelligent designer, placing ferns and waterfalls, organizing the ocean floor, cueing the rising mist. Sixty-one percent of small animal owners cite “good for children/teach responsibility” as an ownership plus, and 28 percent of aquarists see their fish as “educational.” Pets seem at least partly about teaching kids about nature. Few people ask, teaching them what?

ON DAY TWO OF THE EXPO, I SPEND a lot of time avoiding the booth where a man is parked next to a box of kitty litter. Every time I pass, he’s digging a serving spoon into the box and waving it under some potential buyer’s nose.

“Smell this,” he keeps saying.

His is one of the more interactive exhibits. Oddly, there are very few pets at Pet Expo. The special permit required for live animals was clearly hard to get. The aquariums have fish, and a few of the reptile booths boast lizards or bearded dragons, but other critters are rare. I see a pen with a pair of skittering ferrets, a woman with a two-legged dog, and two playpens of puppies at the giant Purina booth. But most exhibitors, in the absence of real pets, display their wares with simulacra. Stuffed dogs don harnesses, toy cats peer out from carriers, plastic reptiles sun themselves on fake rocks.

An aura of artifice hovers around our pets, too. Animals prowl the margins of modern life: factories have taken over their husbandry; engines now perform their labor. In his 1977 landmark essay “Why Look at Animals,” critic John Berger argued that animals, no longer essential, had become merely “objects of our ever-extending knowledge.” As the real animals were banished, shattering “a relation which was as old as man,” zoo animals, teddy bears, and pets replaced them. These fake animals were unsatisfying, but we filled our lives with them because we missed the real ones. We missed needing them.

In the afternoon I go to a press conference at the Reef One booth. I stand next to an energetic blond man with wire-rimmed glasses.

“Marty Becker,” he announces, holding out a hand. He smiles as if I’m supposed to recognize the name, which I don’t. I shake his hand and then we turn to listen as Reef One director Paul Stevenson announces his company’s donation of spherical biOrb aquariums to autism treatment centers. Watching fish, he explains, can both reduce stress and increase attention spans. Then he hands the mike to Marty Becker, who turns out to be a celebrity-vet, coauthor of the bestselling Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover’s Soul and frequent talking head on Good Morning America.

“We’ve always known that pets made us feel good,” Dr. Marty Becker says. “We just didn’t know that pets were good for us. And there’s an increasing body of research that proves it.”

Becker is referring to studies such as a 1995 report in the American Journal of Cardiology, which found that dog owners had a decreased risk of dying within one year of a heart attack, or a 2001 study in Hypertension, which reported that stressed pet owners had lower blood pressure than stressed people without pets. More recent studies have questioned these results, finding them unconfirmed, inconclusive, and contradictory. The media, however, love the notion that pets might have health benefits. And so do most people. The crowd melts into warm fuzzy applause after Becker speaks. I page through my spiral-bound National Pet Owners Survey as camera strobes strafe Marty. Fifty-seven percent of dog owners, I read, believe their dog is good for their family’s health.

The idea of pets as stress relief feels familiar — yesterday’s moral elevation has become today’s therapeutic relief — but it’s a throwback too. It returns us to an older view of animals, the view that saw them as our tools. Having made our animals useless, we find ourselves trying to manufacture new uses for them. Perhaps it grows out of the longing Berger described: if having them brings us health benefits, our animals become essential again, something more than an accessory carried around like a handbag.

On the plane to Florida, I read dog-owner diarist Jon Katz’s book The New Work of Dogs, in which he profiles a group of needy New Jerseyans — divorced women, workaholic men, lonely elders, an anxious teen, a terminally ill woman — and notes how dogs help each of them cope. Emotional support, Katz writes, is the new work of dogs, and he’s concerned with how it affects the dogs. In asking pets to relieve our neuroses, we might be imposing those neuroses on them. In asking them to help us cope with the ills of our culture, we may simply be passing those ills along.

Now, as Becker floats away in a bubble of good cheer, I think of the previous night’s poolside press reception. Caterers circulated with trays of hors d’oeuvres near a long table offering up swag (full disclosure: I took the dog barrettes shaped like martini glasses). Reception sponsors talked up their products to the free-food-scarfing writers. Balancing a glass of sauvignon blanc, a plate of tortellini, and a skewer of chicken satay, I found myself conversing with a veterinarian who specialized in psychopharmacology.

“You mean like puppy Prozac?” I joked. He fixed me with a tepid stare.

“Most people’s first impulse is mockery,” he said. Then he went on to tell me that over one hundred psychopharmaceuticals are now being prescribed for pets. Prozac, apparently, works great.

WE HUMANS MAY NOT LOOK LIKE ANIMALS, but we are creatures who eat, drink, and die. In the APPMA pet owners’ survey, the most frequently cited drawback to pet ownership is “sadness when they die/die too soon.” The line has a poignancy rarely found in marketing shorthand: when is dying ever not dying too soon? The French call dogs bêtes de chagrin — beasts of sorrow. Not only do we lose them, the loss reminds us that our own lives, too, are marked out in minutes far too few.

Homer’s Odysseus, returning home in disguise, is recognized by his dog Argos. Decrepit and fly-blown, left on a dung pile to die, loyal Argos hears his master’s voice and weakly thumps his tail. Odysseus has to hide a tear — and in that moment, we see how very human he is. The tear is not just for Argos, but for himself, old and decaying too. If we humanize our pets, they animalize us.

BY THE END OF MY SECOND DAY at Global Pet Expo, I’m fried. I retreat to the press lounge to drink coffee and eat free candy. A woman with long blond hair and high, carefully made-up cheekbones sinks down on the chair across from me. We strike up a conversation. She is Connie Wilson, founder and editor in chief of Modern Dog. She hands me a copy of the magazine.

Modern Dog is a sleek, stylish effusion of pet mania. Packed with ads, its fashion spread shows models and dogs wearing the latest styles. There’s a feature on throwing dog parties, another on canine weddings. An ad for dog jewelry declares, “Dogs deserve real diamonds.” I flip through its glossy pages with a sense of dismay.

And then Connie Wilson tells me about her dog, Kaya.

“Having a pet brings you into the present moment, where you can reflect on all things,” she tells me. This doesn’t sound like commodity fetishism. I ask her to say more, and she looks off, thinking.

“When I go out walking with my dog, I find myself just being there. I see the world in a different way. It enables you to take a step back from the craziness of the world and see where you are at that moment. And that in turn makes you look at the big picture.”

There’s an element of enigma in our relations with animals, even the most familiar. The diamond-collared pug being toted in a Louis Vuitton bag is still, in the end, a beast, as inscrutable to humans as a giant squid. Yet a human takes that pug into her home, feeds him, perhaps lets him sleep in her bed. He will never unfold the secrets of his heart; he will die, in some sense, a mystery. That mystery trumps every anthropomorphizing human accessory, every impulse to interpret or explain. It locks us out.

That may be their highest use, in the end. The pug’s diminutive size and bugged-out, injury-prone eyes are signs of years of human tampering, his plaid coat and booties tokens of the human drive to humanize everything. But the love heaped — even lavished in commodity form — on his warm animal body suggests a human attitude toward the nonhuman world that, for once, is not about mastery. Even in its consumerist drift, it short-circuits market logic by giving without a guaranteed return. There must be some real value in that.

Ginger Strandis the author of three books: Flight, a novel, Inventing Niagara, the untold story of America’s waterfall, and Killer on the Road, a history of the interstate highway system told through the stories of the killers who have haunted it. She has published essays and fiction in many places, including Harper’s, The Believer, The Iowa Review, The New England Review and the New York Times, as well as This Land and Orion, where she is a contributing editor.


  1. After reading this article, I wanted to share something I wrote this winter about our cat. I think it hits the same nerve as the author’s conclusion.

    Meaningful Moment with Franny in Winter Sunlight

    Hrothgar, one of our first two kittens, met her demise a few years ago on our road in Fillmore, New York. I still recall with an ache in my chest the vision of her lying still and lifeless on the gravel shoulder, her face black on one half and rusty-orange on the other, never again to nip my toes in the morning or stalk the baby. It happened a few days after she saw me fearlessly cross the street to walk to a friends’ house. She had first wanted to follow me, and I shooed her back to the house. She stood there watching me, head tilted slightly to the right, wondering where I was going without her. I remember feeling a terrible pang of guilt for teaching her, unintentionally, by my example, to not fear the road.
    Franny, her sister-kitty, lives with us still and is a quite tolerant cat, allowing the children to scoop her up into their arms, dress her, and occasionally even spin her around. Despite this treatment, she prefers to spend the night curled up asleep in bed with them, a living fur rug for their feet.
    We now live in rural Virginia, and the scenic country road, a shortcut to I-81, is flooded with heavy traffic day and night. There are workers commuting from West Virginia, semi-trucks en route to deliver Little Debbie cakes to Canada, local poultry trucks loaded with battery cages of white fat chickens, shedding feathers every mile. Purportedly another road, the infamous and highly controversial Corridor H, will eventually be finished and is expected to reroute traffic away from our neighborhood into someone else’s. In the meantime, I take my life into my hands every time I cross it to get the mail. This is the yang to our yin of peaceful country living.
    One day this week I stood near the mailbox, watching semi-trucks barreling past as I waited to cross back to our house, counting the number of vehicles motoring by to pass the time while I waited for safety. It must have been a midweek afternoon because I was weighed down with a heavier-than-usual case of ennui, wondering what was the meaning of my life and whether I was fulfilling my cosmic purpose. The mailbox had been empty. How is this fulfilling my great purpose, I wondered, to risk my life walking to empty mailboxes? A series of cars approached. Suddenly I saw Franny look at me and shoot down the gravel driveway as if she might hurtle straight to me. A moment of frozen terror seized me as she drew closer to the road, then she suddenly stopped and lay down on the gravel drive, waiting for me to come to her. Slowly I crossed the road, dazed with the sensation one has only after having seen the inevitable horrific thing not come to pass, and felt, for the first time that day, alive in all my senses. I noticed the sun hanging just a few inches above the treeline, a ball of blatant light, and the particular slant of light that comes in mid-December afternoons, whiter than in summer. The day was unseasonably warm, ideal for my lightweight sweater. The air clung comfortably on the exposed skin of my face and neck, the dead leaves that lined the driveway rustled softly as I passed. I enjoyed the sensation of my shoes cushioning my feet from the sharp stones. I stopped near Franny, who was now rolling gleefully in the dust, and bent down to touch her thick, soft, black fur, which reminded me momentarily of animal pelts I had seen for sale at the Short Track Trading Post. Unlike those fox and coon pelts, however, Franny was substantial, warm, breathing. I could feel her heart beating against my fingers. Her warmth, a few degrees warmer than human blood, radiated into my hand, giving it life. I had a surreal feeling as if this could be the end of it all, the last moment of all living things, or at least of my life. Yet it would be perfect. It seemed that all the individual seconds of time, past and future, were contained in that one present moment. This could have been the last, and I would have welcomed the nothingness that came next.
    Slowly, I stood, and put my fingertips to my nose, expecting to inhale some trace of fragrance lingering from the mystical moment. It smelled only like me, reminiscent of earth and garlic, and like outdoor air. I wanted to remember it forever. As I walked toward my house, everything appeared to me as though it had been shot at 24 frames per second. My life was saturated with meaning, and it had absolutely nothing to do with me.

  2. Fascinating article! I wonder if, in time, these kinds of conventions could include booths for the SPCA and no-kill shelters to really flesh out the entire spectrum of the effects of animal domesticity. Perhaps one reason humans are so attached to housepets is due to the lack of seeing animals in their natural habitats. Here in sw Montana, it is common place to daily view pronghorn, elk, osprey, eagles, mule and white tailed deer, and less commonly moose, wolves, bison, fox and black bear. There are horses, sheep and cattle aplenty, also.
    It appears, as a recent transplant to this state, that few folks have pets other than as an extension of their working cattle and bird dogs. I wonder if there is a connection.

  3. Thanks Ginger Strand for this marvelous article–it struck a nerve, I guess because I consider 21st century America’s relationship with animals irrational and cruel to the extreme. I would call it a sin against god, if I believed in sin or god. Which I might.

    The lurid case of Michael Vick points out this societal schizophrenia.

    I can tell you this, Vick’s high price lawyer didn’t do him any favors. He got NOTHING for his money. And I bet it was a lot of money.

    boxing football nascar racing–all witness inhumane acts. I wonder how many of the screamers yelling for Vick’s blood buy items from China. There people are treated much worse than pit dogs, and a misstep brings a bullet to the head. 2,000 coal miners are admitted to have died since 2007 began. Where is America’s precious
    moral outrage where their pocketbooks are concerned?

    Here’s some articles on china briefly collected:
    World Briefing | Asia: China: 50,000 Dogs Killed In Rabies Scare

    Published: August 2, 2006

    Mouding County in southwestern Yunnan Province has killed more than 50,000 pet dogs in five days in a government campaign ordered after three people died of rabies, news media reported. Only police and military dogs were spared, The Shanghai Daily reported, citing local news media. Dogs being walked were taken from their owners and beaten on the spot, the paper said. Other teams entered villages at night, creating noise to get dogs barking, and then beating them to death. Owners were offered the equivalent of 63 cents to kill their dogs before the teams were sent in.

    or these dogs, killed because they were “bourgeois symbols”:

    Chinese dog-lovers live in fear as cull claims thousands of pets
    By David Eimer in Beijing
    Published: 03 October 2005

    The start of the Chinese Year of the Dog is just four months away, but in the southern city of Guangzhou thousands of frightened dog owners and their pets are lying doggo after local authorities intensified a crackdown on unregistered animals.

    Dogs are being rounded up by the police and, in the past week, hundreds have been culled, some in front of their owners, by special dog-killing teams.

    E-mails sent by anguished Guangzhou residents to the Hong Kong-based animal welfare group Animals Asia spoke of owners collapsing after their animals were put to death in front of them and of streets running with the blood of dead dogs. “The dog-killing team killed all the dogs they saw,” reported one witness. “Their blood made the street turn red and their owners fainted. The dog-killing team showed no mercy and said it was an order from the government.”

    Of course, the Chinese do not show much mercy toward corrupt or even incompetent government officials either–hmm. Tempting–but no.

    (I heard them on the news–shrill voices yelling dog killer–as if the spca wouldn’t thus qualify. some seem not to think death cruel if it is out of sight. but imagine the death row horror of the “animal shelter.” Hah!! I’ve seen the desperate looks of the animals waiting there.) Every year 4 to 6 million animals put to death in the u.s. alone–they can’t even have the decency to know the correct number within 2 million!

    If you get a chance read Adam’s Task–calling animals by name. It’s by Vickie Hearne, my hero. It’s my favorite book.

    Also, check out the article in today’s NYTimes about the upturned palm in the Science section. It’s a mistake in my opinion to imagine that overt cruelty is the worst we can do to a fellow creature. Robbing them of life–sex-dirt-society–YES to be a member of a society-FREEDOM to live and see the sun and root out food and make a life and yes take responsibility and partake of the great chain of being–I personally would rather be given a chance to be a gladiator.

    In sweden, and in many other countries, farm animals are not treated in this fashion. and there is food for all. All it takes is a willingness to spend a few more pennies per pound, if the populance demands it.

    did you know, that it is “cheaper” to kill chickens in America, ship them to china to be processed into their plastic shrouds, then shipped back to America to be sold? This cheaper business is only in paper, not counting the cost in Chinese children, use of oil, global warming.

    environmentally and long-run cheaper would mean local grass-fed animals. Factory meat is only cheap on paper. (and that paper features ben franklin, to be sure. . . .)

    i hope you don’t take this rant as anything other than trying to get something off of my own chest. As in the case of “recycling” –Haha–our society seems more interested in appearances than results. And a bee which does not go along with her hive has little hope. . . .

  4. If the premise is that pets are the new kids in America, then it is only fair that more analogies be made between parenting children and “parenting” pets. By my quotes you can see that I do not view raising pets as parenting; I think that is an insult to parents, although perhaps it does call attention to parenting roles that rely on children’s friendship, love, companionship, steadfastness, fun, and teaching.

    I agree with Anna Maria Johnson that her essay about Franny reflects Ginger Strand’s last line–much more beautifully than what Strand was capable of. Strand’s essay falls short by not looking at pet owners who are not part of the mega-industry. I think her essay is significant for examining this industry and questioning what drives it–although I don’t think she truly questions it.

    The interesting questions raised–what are we teaching our children about nature and why do we have pets and what does a healthy realtionship with a pet look like–are yet to be answered. A note for Ms. Weisberg: I appreciate the sources you brought in, but I might add that China also limits the number of children a couple can have. It is commendable that they are addressing overpopulation–of all species–and pause for thought of the implication of limiting ALL species and not considering humans exempt.

    I, too, live in SW Montana, and based on what I have observed or heard from folks with pets in other parts of the country, yes, we do have a different view of our pets in this area. It causes friction between newcomers and oldtimers. In general, oldtimers in this area eschew leash laws. In general, we–counting myself as an oldtimer–expect our animals to fit in based on a rapport we’ve established with them. Perhaps this does come from our closeness to nature and a respect and appreciation that generates for wild things to be as they are–for example, knowing that we can’t have bears in our backyards but attempting to give them their space as we keep ours; perhaps this comes from our long history of working dogs and their intelligence. Not just their duty to us, but their outright ability to think for themselves and surprise us by their wide range of emotions and decisions.

    Ted Kerasote writes well in his new book about how freedom with a dog can enhance the human-dog connection. Kerasote is a Wyoming author, and he writes about what many dog owners have expressed: the better you treat the dog, the better he treats you. Well, that is kinda like parenting, isn’t it?

    My eighteen-year-old dog has been central in my life. He is a not an accoutrement, unless dog hair has a new vogue. Nope, I’ve never invested in bling for him, but he does eat well, as do I, meaning organic. It was worth the extra time it took to get to know him and learn how to read his language as he did mine rather than slap a leash on him for ease of control and less frustration. I learned how to take him places and allow him time to fulfill his dog desires; he learned how to behave well enough in my world to get to go everywhere with me, which is part of what he wanted. Even people who adamantly do not like dogs have ended up favoring my mutt because he, in their words, “doesn’t act like a dog.” He doesn’t drool, slobber, lick, jump up, bark, pace, or interfere. By “not act like a dog,” neither they nor I mean that is what dogs are inherently like. Rather, that is what dogs that have been over-domesticated and over-bred or under-attended to act like. Kind of like kids no one pays attention to or kids who are over-controlled.

    A healthy relationship with my pet? I respect him and he does me. I take time to know his personality. I enjoy his company. I make sure he exercises the right amount, eats well (which includes not too much fat or excess or catered palate–he never had people food until he was ten), and is socialized with people and all animals (and I recognize that I cannot socialize him with deer, nor would I try to; we work around that one when we run trails). I respect his solitude if he doesn’t like someone and wants to be in the other room: he is often a better judge of character than I am.

    Mostly, I’ve learned everything I have learned about unconditional love, patience, tolerance, compassion, and care from this one dog. Those who work with horses often say the same is true: they cut through the linguistic crap or psychological games we humans maneuver. They read emotions and intentions clearly and respond directly. For this, we can all be grateful to learn more about ourselves and take these lessons from our pets to treat one another better–and our kids, too.

    In my prescription, having pets doesn’t distance us from the wild, it brings us closer. A disdain or intolerance for pets–or perfuming and de-animalizing them–is acting as if humans are the only animal. Sharing a home with different species reminds us that we are only one of many, and we are gifted with the ability and responsibility to share the earth.

  5. I’m writing my response to Ginger Strand’s article as I cross Puget Sound on a Washington State Ferry hauling horses and dogs (with a gas-guzzling truck and an expensive horse trailer)to a place where I can have a quality experience with them.

    Ginger Strand wrote her article from the objective viewpoint of a journalist, she may not even be a pet owner. I write my response as an insider: veterinarian for 27 years(Dr Marty Becker was a classmate)and a dog and horse owner/trainer. I believe the humanization of pets is an aberration practiced by a minority of pet owners and is reflective of a sick, self-absorbed culture. It might satisfy some need in the “pet parent” but does nothing to address the real needs of the pet:exercise, training, companionship, weight control.

    As a veterinarian, I encounter the full spectrum of pet owners, from those who consider their pets family and sometimes humanize them, to those that consider them a disposable commodity.The majority of pet owners fall somewhere inbetween these two extremes and their reasons for having pets are many and varied. A co-worker told me, “I resent the assumption that I have pets as a substitute for children. I have pets because I don’t like children.”

    Pets give me the same spiritual lift that I get from spending time in a wild place and I like to share this experience with them.

    In my ideal world I wouldn’t have to haul horses and dogs long distances on ferries and the interstate. We would be partners in survival: horses cutting cattle, plowing fields or providing transportation; dogs guarding and herding livestock. That would be the best life for all of us.

  6. “He will never unfold the secrets of his heart; he will die, in some sense, a mystery. ”

    Yes but he, she, our pet(s) will unfold that mystery into our hearts– we ALL speak the same language there.

    I am on a tight budget so those highpriced items are not mine to buy — nor am I interested in them — I DID manage to scrape together, beg borrow, $3,000 in the course of one year, for my cat’s Cancer surgeries– NO way would I have let her die a horrible death. At the same time I had to care for my other 2 cats and have 3 root canals in one month– I did it, no rhinestone collars involved. I would do it again if I had to — we have an obligation toward our pets, living creatures who depend on us and bring us much joy. And at times, I give small amounts — 5, 10 dollars, to rescue groups because I know how hard they work for the animals– rescuing, medication, caring for, at their own expense.

    My only wish is that those purveyors of high priced animal toys/beds/foods would give a small portion of their profits to those dedicated compassionate organizations staffed by people who rescue animals — animals hit by cars and left out to die (oh people — its brutal enough Out There on the streets for humans– please keep your pets indoors or behind a SAFE fence!!!), people who rescue and care for animals abandoned, not spayed, not neutered– who reproduce and live in misery (TNR works!! please support it!), and people who TRY so hard to promote Humane Education so our kids can grow up learning that pets are NOT animated disposable toys.

    And let’s not forget those Third World Nations, where the price of a rhinestone-studded dog collar could feed a village– THEY TOO have pets who, like their human counterparts, live in squalor and ill health – it is time we did something for them too — a portion of the profits of the sale of that studded dog collar could go to International Animal Rescue sites as well. When you rescue and help the animals, in concert with other relief efforts going on, you help the morale of those villagers as well.

    We RESONATE with all of creation — They were here before We were — and their lives are no less precious than ours are – whatever we do for creation is felt by all Man”KIND” — let’s act in positive ways toward animals and the environment, and this will beget more compassion and consideration towards our fellow humans and help change this world (ever been in a vet’s office? notice how many people are smiling and talking to starngers with joy about their animals? This can extend to the Outside World too!).

  7. Hopefully, with education, we can get more “moral elevation” so that watching (marine) aquarium fish WILL produce more stress when folks realize (and hopefully care) that almost ALL MARINE FISH in aquaria are taken from the wild: raped from reefs, with high mortality rates. Even those that survive to get into people’s aquaria–and their potential progeny–are stripped from reefs around the world. With all the stresses that coral reefs are under, targeted extirpation of “pretty” fishes by the pet trade should not be tolerated by a “morally elevated” society.

  8. Following in the line of thought of the book “The Botany of Desire”, I wonder if pets are not a group of species, hard at work trying to adapt to the ever-expanding human-made environments. In modern times we humans see ourselves as separate from the evolutionary chain. But it is possible that our human-made environment is, as seen by the forces of evolution, just one more environment to adapt to. And pets are doing a fine job of ensuring their place in it. The love, companionship, laughter and all those valuable emotions that pets inspire in us, might well be what pet species are bringing to the table in an unusual but successful symbiosis.

  9. I thought it ironic that Ginger Strand’s article, which highlighted some of the more hyperbolic and hyperconsumerist behavior towards pets should follow the beautiful piece on unplugged schools: obviously pets put us in contact with something we crave, something alive, dependent and unscrutable. This is often a perfect antidote for plugged in life. The Global Pet Expo is an easy straw man for ridicule, but it hardly represents the range of American’s behavior toward, and need for, animal companions.
    In my small animal practice, I find that most people interact with their pets pretty much in keeping with the way they treat other humans: some are manipulative, adoring, indulgent, strict, some are abusive but many adopt a healthy attitude of give and receive. If we can accept that pets fulfill a role in our lives, if we bring them under our dominion, then from there forward it is our responsibility to ensure the best health we can reasonbly afford. For some with destructive behavior, yes that means Prozac. For most, it simply means healthy food, freedom from parasites and infection, exercise, training and hopefully a little affection. What pets give back to their humans is immeasurable.
    I would add that sometimes there are surprise lessons. On many occasions, a pet (through me) has been able to teach a person basic anatomy, the major functions of the liver, what the immune system does, or even how to measure in milliliters. Most people enjoy caring for animals, and particularly a sick animal, brings the pet, the owner and the pet’s doctor closer together. Although I do tend to roll my eyes at yet another rhinestone collar or fuzzy hooded sweatshirt on a Chihuahua, in the end I don’t care if the owner considers the animal to be human-like or not. I only care that that he or she be loved, respected and have basic needs met.
    I recently attended a conference where a prominent gastro-enterologist asked the mass of us veterinarians sitting there: What do you like about your pet? He volunteered that he loved to feed his dog. I love to feed my dogs. I love to see their instant gratification after a bowl of (the same old)kibble, I love to see them sniff outside, I love to see them napping soundly and dreaming (of what?) I love that I will never know what that dream is, or what sniffs are on my front walk, or why garbage tastes so good. Why does my cat sit on random pieces of paper? Why does my lab mutt like to carry dirty socks around? As one of your other commentators said, animals help us temporarily to forget ourselves, to care for another, to have responsibility. Yes it is alot like having children, after all.

  10. The purpose of giving pets to children was to teach them responsibility and how to care for others. However, that idea became subplanted and confused with the notion of caring soley for pets instead of people. So, instead of adopting orphans, providing foster children with homes, or helping poor children around the world, our society has become insane – totally insane – and are now caring for pets as surrogate children.

    But how can we stop this parasitic cycle and restore normalcy when the pet industry wants us to buy more, pamper more, and no one in the media or in society is saying STOP!

  11. Kevin, Many would disagree with you. Pets are not teaching tools for children. That’s what paper routes are for. Pets are animals that find a home in our families because they need us and we need them. Dogs domesticated themselves to human societies and humans accepted them because there are benefits for both. Nobody is insane; nobody is getting a pet instead of adopting a foster child. Living with animal companions means that we are responsible for them. Have you ever been to an animal shelter? Who will care for these animals?

  12. Animals did not choose to become domesticated. They were captured and kept by humans. Some for food, some for labor and beast of burden, and some were made play things and objects of affection and status.

    I can only imagine what the 150,000 foster children awaiting homes, or the 25 million Aids orphans in Africa must think when they see an affluent American pampering their dog. Three simple letters … WTF?!

  13. I agree with Liz Bernardini’s comment on domestication. The 19th century view of nature and species interactions as one of domination, failed to understand the interconnectedness of all living creatures. Thinking that caring for an animal while children suffer is offensive, is like thinking that treating a broken bone while the patient has liver problems is offensive. Both the bone and the liver are part of a body, and both need to be healthy for the body to work properly.

  14. Kevin, Dogs were captured and forcibly domesticated? What evidence is there for that idea? There are dog burials right alongside human burials dating to precolombian North America and neolithic Europe. Dogs are natural companions to people. That doesn’t excuse some of the more perverse relationships they may have, but we shouldn’t distort the true dog-human relationship for sake of your argument! Not evertyhing in the world has to have a utilitarian function to be part of our lives.

  15. It’s offensive to pet owners who’s priorities are unbalanced and unnatural. Koyaanisqatsi, as they say.

    You may want to ask yourself why America has the largest pet ownership in the world, but also the largest amount of endangered species in the world.

    The problem of pet shelters and abandoned animals is the fault of PET OWNERS. For whatever reasons, millions of pets are dumped every year. Over half of them to be destroyed like so much consumer waste products.

    In my county in Virginia, the pet shelter has a large smoke chimney and is located, appropriately, next to the garbage landfill.

    Animals aren’t the problem.

  16. “Dogs were captured and forcibly domesticated? What evidence is there for that idea?”

    All scientific evidence indicates that humans bred dogs from wolves. The wolf is a wild animal hostile to people. Humans captured and domesticaed it.

  17. At 46, I’ve remained childless by choice and have been grateful for every single moment I’ve shared with my dog. I cannot describe this human/animal bond, as it surpasses my own understanding. I only know that there are quite a few individuals who will never experience it, either because they do not need it, or perhaps do not want it. In sharing my life with my pet, I’ve found everything I could ever want for and everything I will ever need. I am able to give love unconditionally, and always seem to receive more than I give. What could be more beautiful than that? Am I a pet-owner, parent, master . . . no . . I’m just hers and she is mine . . . it’s just that simple. Devotion doesn’t require a set language,title, or even social acceptance. It just takes two very compatible souls, and although one soul lives a much shorter life than the other, it is still worth taking that journey through life together.

  18. Whats a better life, let the dogs starve on the street, or let them live with people? I vote the second.

  19. my only experience is with Hunting dogs in the Wild….the delight is theyre out evolving hominids…Could it that the US is now waking up to being the largest bio hazzard on the planet.At Last!

  20. This is a great article. But I was shocked by this:

    “But when I tell Daphna that Americans will spend more than $40 billion on their pets this year, she is agog. It takes her a moment to express what dismays her about it.
    “For the three to four million who are killed every year, that doesn’t mean a thing,” she declares.”

    If this isn’t hypocrisy, I don’t know what is. According to its own report, in 2008 PETA killed 95% of the cats and dogs in its care. That’s more than 2,000. Their total score is more than 20,000 since 1998.


  21. hi Ginger,
    I love the picture of the bull dog kicking it on the sofa. LOL.
    I didn’t really understand the “mystery” of pets until I married my wife and, thus, her cat as well. I never realized how one can bound with an animal (I am speaking of out cat, of course).
    You are absolutely right that we really can’t talk to our pets, and thus they are a mystery… but what a wonderful mystery!
    Thanks for a great article. Steve

  22. well the use of animals is that they can be pets or service animals they can also be used for breeding. they can be useful in many different situations. I personally have service animals and a couple pets.

  23. “Pets are animals that find a home in our families because they need us and we need them. Dogs domesticated themselves to human societies and humans accepted them because there are benefits for both.”

    I know this article is old, but I hear statements similar to this all the time and it’s always seemed absurd to me. I can go to my local park and hand-feed the wild squirrels, chipmunks and birds. Does that mean they “need me” and they’re asking me to capture them, contain them, breed them in all different shapes and sizes, and sell them to others as objects of amusement/affection? Of course not.

    At one point the relationship between canine and human may have been symbiotic, but as soon as humans started capturing, restraining and breeding them that relationship became one-sided.

    The only reason dogs “need” humans is because we’ve purposefully bred them to be too infantile and dependent to survive on their own (in most situations). If this was done to any other species of animal, with the exception of the cat, such as lions, apes or bears, it would be seen as unethical. The Russians domesticated silver foxes. However, many people think this is wrong and that the shouldn’t be kept as pets, even though it’s no different than what we did to dogs.

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