The tractors came.  The horses

Stood in the fields, keepsakes,

grew old, and died.  Or were sold

as dogmeat.  Our minds received

the revolution of engines, our will

stretched toward the numb endurance

of metal.  And that old speech

by which we magnified

our flesh in other flesh

fell dead in our mouths.

– Wendell Berry

JEFFERSON COUNTY, KANSAS. John Schwenkler threw me this bone, so I’ll gnaw on it awhile.  He is responding to Noah Millman’s question: “Can one eat one’s pet?”

John’s answer is fine, insofar as it goes, but I say it does not go far enough.  “Pets” as a category are a symptom of the deeper rot and sickness of conspicuous consumption in American culture and life.  Eat your pets?  One may as well ask if it is morally acceptable for one to eat his new sports car or eat his country club membership.  Which is to say, the question is a non sequitur which will inspire suspicious backwards glances at the questioner, as if dealing with some kind of sociopath.

“Pet” derives etymologically from the same root from which we get “petty,” as in “trivial,” or “inconsequential,” or “a trifle,” or “beneath dignified notice.”  A pet is a bauble, a frill, a decorative undignified phrase.  A pet is quite literally, gaudy—which is to say, pets began as status symbols of the aristocracy and have become garish imitations in the mill of democratization.  From the fox hunt to Beverly Hills Chihuahua.

A few years ago, in the indispensable Orion Magazine, Ginger Strand wrote the definitive essay on America’s pet obsession.

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.

Like all status symbols, pets fill a void—they replace something proper to its place with a prosthetic stand-in.  And like everything American, not content to simply nurse our pathologies quietly, we do it with gusto.  Strand catalogues:

Sprawling across the square-footage of thirteen football fields [at the PetExpo] 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. … 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.

And what is it that pets are prosthetic for?  A dearth of children and the hatred of nature that usually underlies such a dearth, for the most part:

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. … 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. … 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.

Now, I can just hear the caterwauling—now those Porchers are blasting away at pets!  They hate Marley!  What further evidence do we need of their twisted self-loathing, anti-modern, anti-American obsessions!!?

This is perhaps an understandable reaction, though entirely wrong, so hear me out.  I love animals.*  In my family on our ramshackle farm, we have had at various times, and usually at the same time, domesticated cattle, hogs, poultry, goats, rabbits, dogs, and cats.  Roaming wild we regularly encounter deer, turkey, coyotes, fox, coons, possum, all manner of water fowl, birds of prey, songbirds, turtles the size of your leg, snakes and sundry slithering beasts large and small.  As for our domesticated animals, each has been useful, which is what distinguishes them from mere pets.  Cattle, hogs, chickens (meat and eggs); goats and rabbits (4-H projects and cash sale); dogs and cats (security and pest control).

Usefullness fructifies in a certain elegance and beauty, which in turn bears fruits of conviviality and yes, companionship and even love between man and beast.  In the words of Wendell Berry above, man’s flesh is magnified in the flesh of another.  We love our animals because by and through them we are more fully human.  Pictured above is my Hereford, newly calved.  I was there at her birth on this chill and snappy late winter morning, and have taken care of her ever since.  She has grown fine and strong, and nuzzles me with her wet nose every morning.  She is not long for this world, as I am just finishing her off with a diet of mixed grains, and she’s off to the butcher in a few weeks.  Nearly 1,000 pounds of good food, which will feed my family for a year.

Will I be sad to see her go?  No.  She was a good old girl.  She loved in her cowish way, and fulfilled her telos with bovine efficiency and good grace.  I am thankful to her, and to her creator for her, and even moreso for the home economy by which the flesh of my sons is magnified in and by the world that they have seen and touched.  They are strong sons, and I am well pleased.

* To be clear, and to avoid being accused of stereotyping, I should say that I am well aware that many a “family pet” is likewise loved with a proper love and that everyone who keeps Fido is not doing so as a status seeking gesture or to fill a childless void, etc.  This is but a short blog post and I am reflecting on a structural phenomenon.

** On a personal note, I will be off of the computer most of the rest of the summer.  I think there are a number of great symposiums coming up here on the virtual porch, and of course all the continued bloggy goodness you’ve come to expect!  See y’all in September.

24 COMMENTS

  1. As a former farm kid, I often feel the exact same way as you Caleb.

    Growing up in an environment where animals are absolutely necessary (read central to the enterprise) creates a entirely different hierarchy (perhaps the wrong term) to enviroments where they are, in effect, extras.

  2. Wow. Less than six months and FPR has already run out of material to the point that we are demonizing pet owners as a sign of the decline of western civilization. How sad.

  3. Off topic, but nice cap collection Thomas G. My fave minor league cap is from the defunct Port City Roosters.

    Back on topic, I don’t sense demonization here. If people want to buy a $100 sweater for their dog, have at it.

    I can’t speak for Caleb (but I hope he comes back before September and chimnes in on this), but modern society (except for PETA) seems to have divided animals into two separate and distinct sets: pets and something else. For those of us who have had the luxury of dealing with animals as something other than a pet probably have some distinctly different feelings about how to interact to the animal kingdom.

  4. This post brings to mind P. D. James’ Children Of Men. In the novel, she envisioned a world where humans were unable to reproduce themselves, and as a prosthetic stand-in for the dearth of children (to use your terms), life-like dolls or pets were adopted as more-or-less real humans, complete with all the ceremonies appropriate to real humans (baby showers, baptisms, even funerals). The pathos of those images she painted has stuck with me ever since I read the book several years ago. She was prescient, I think.

  5. B.N.,

    Thanks for the comment. Sorry about the snarkyness of my comment. I agree, some people do take their obsession with pets a bit far, and fail to distinguish between human and animal. I realize that Caleb was just making a point about the utility of animals (or all of creation for that matter) and how some within our society have lost sight of that. I just thought the post was a bit of a straw man set up for easy complaining about “those people”, while simultaneously fishing for some controversy. But I guess you could say that about the whole concept of internet blog posting.

    Anyway, back on topic, once we lose sight of the difference between man and animal, we start down a dangerous road. It is the spark of the divine in man that distinguishes us from the rest of creation. Treating pets the same as people does not elevate animals, but usually ends up degrading people instead. And once you stop recognizing the divine spark within each and every human it isn’t long before it is people, not just animals being slaughtered.

    Dogs have a place on the Front Porch. But it’s next to the rocking chair, not in it. I think that was Caleb’s point in a nutshell.

  6. we could start eating our dogs and cats. or walking our pigs on leashes until they’re ready for slaughter. walker percy says that the very fact of a pet cemetery shows how confused people these days are. but still–we’ve bred dogs for centuries and centuries, in part, to be our friends–and designer breeds have been around for a very long time as an aristocratic luxury (in which we can now all share). it goes without saying designer pets shouldn’t replace children, but the dog/kid thing is not an either/or. MY DOG SKIP takes place is an isolated southern town with a strong sense of place. anyway, i thought identifying the good with the useful is some modern deformation.

  7. Never name your food.

    The neighbors named their bull “Binky,” so the neighbor’s kids were remiss about eating “Binky.” Me and mine had a lotta grilled “Binky.”

  8. Most of us can’t live on farms, so (for some of us) having companion animals is a way to partially replicate the rural existence of our common ancestors.

    P.S. Adding to peter lawler’s point, the term “man’s best friend” was around long before we existed in our current state of degeneracy.
    “i thought identifying the good with the useful is some modern deformation.” Right, it has the smell of the French Revolution, National Socialism and Bolshevism.

  9. That’s me, stinkin’ of the French Revolution! Love the smell of der Furher in the morning!

    And if that was Peter’s point, he missed my point entirely, which would be odd since he’s such a smart guy. Note the title of the piece is “Against Pets” not “Against Man’s Best Friend”.

    And of course utility is an aspect of the good (especially as defined over and against the literal meaning of a “pet” as a useless narcissistic accessory). Even the un-ed-ji-kated rednecks and clodhoppers know this. Perhaps they especially know this.

  10. The good=the useful=ordinary bourgeois Lockean opinion–nothing to do with the French Revolution. A typical American excess, Tocqueville says. And sort of a joke in the context of pets or canine friends. I think mr. icr was joking too, maybe about the tendency of some to identify the modern with the radical, the gnostic, and whatnot. Pets are pretty much useless in any obvious sense friends, although only in the obvious sense: There’s a lot to learn from them. So I’m pro pet, although maybe I should give ’em some chores.

  11. A worthy addendum:

    “The author … points out the etymology of the English word ‘pet’. What he didn’t take note of is that the Latin word for ‘pet’ is ‘delicium’, the root of the English word ‘delicious.’ I’m sorry, but that just can’t be an accident.”

  12. How much of this trend in treating pets like nice little people comes from a worldview which has lowered the status of man to just another animal?

    Christianity, especially those of us in the Augustinian tradition holds a “low anthropology”–but still sees the image of God uniquely in people.

    Certain other postmodern worldviews see us as basically no different from a chimp, rat, or pig–nothing special. Maybe the practice is not raising the pet up to human status, but a subconscious reflection that the pet is like the owner.

  13. I am reminded of another agrarian communitarian who didn’t approve of the decadence of pet ownership – Chairman Mao.

    Fortunately, Mr. Stegall is not in any position to do more than sneer at the masses of autonomous individualistic Westerners who spend some of our economic excess on ‘useless’ pets.

    Shorter version – Hey Buddy, this is America – you don’t like it? Tough!

  14. Caveat: Most of the program reinforces Caleb’s central point (see the discussion with the inventor of technology which allows dogs to bark at their masters over a cell phone). Nevertheless, the discussion at the beginning of the program regarding the history of dog breeding provides historical support for the claim that our cultural pet fetish (“petish”?) is not only a “symptom of the deeper rot and sickness of conspicuous consumption in American culture and life” but also represents a direct assault on the dignity and health of the friendly beasts themselves.

  15. The answer to the question of whether one can eat one’s own pet seems to be easily ascertained if one can provide answers to these: 1) Is it starting to annoy me? 2) Will it taste good? and 3) Is it microwave safe? I’d place a greater value on the answer to the truly moral question: “Can I bust a cap in my neighbor’s pet?”

  16. Caleb, don’t you know that you’re not allowed to criticize any behavior, no matter how moronic, in the US because we’re “autonomous individualistic Westerners”? Criticizing any behavior makes you into Chairman Mao.

  17. With the perfidy of this latest Calebist Manifesto, A Spectre Haunts the Front Porch. This Spectre is Herfordism. What now ye gawds…., with taunting the bourgeoisie and their pets, the next thing we will hear from the sturm und drang corner of Kansas is an attack upon the very foundations of the USA, the front lawn and in a kind of nihilist hysterical dialecticism, we shall hear that MAN, by force of mower will become Super Plower and verily subvert the debilitating life of stupefied obeisance to the Scotts Fertilizer Code of Applications and turn yon lawn into a rutabaga patch, thus bringing to a sordid conclusion the Hegelian conflict between the forces of Agriculture and the forces of Suburbia and in the process, perhaps bringing back full employment for sheep.

    Abandon All Hope oh ye who enter, particularly if a bucket is sighted.

    As to the etymological discovery, I take it on good authority from a certain Chinese Engineer I have the unalloyed pleasure of knowing that “Dog meat make you warm and monkey brain make you smaht.” And here I thought our Cambodian friends never shivered because they come from tropical latitudes.

  18. Mr. Stegall, being a good biblical Christian, I think you can find support from Christ in your fine argument against pets.

    “Do not give what is holy to dogs, or pearls before swine, lest they trample them underfoot, and turn and tear you to pieces.” (Mat 7:6).

  19. As a small town dweller who grew up on a farm, (but sadly find it too expensive to buy property due to the lack of economic opportunity and the high cost of land), I keep a variety of pets in a simple manner, and have always done so. Even on the farm, we always had “pets”. Generally useless, except for companionship, these pets were not treated in a decadent manner, except that they were allowed in the house and were not eaten. Outside were the chickens, the horses (who were really pets since farming with them had gone out of fashion 50 years ago), the sheep, goats, hogs, pheasants, etc. The dogs that came and went, the barn cats, and the house cats. The house cats were the main pets, but my sister and I would spend a great deal of time outdoors with the various pet and/or feed animals.
    While I cannot recreate this with my children, we do keep small pets. I find that it teaches my children responsibility, gentleness for non human creatures, and also gives opportunity for study of non human physiology and extrapolation on those biological differences to discuss other parts of our natural world. Pets can have utility in this fashion, and certainly useful companionship to the elderly, whose loved ones have gone.

  20. As an evolving society it can’t be so difficult to understand the evolution of the “Pet”. With the demise of work requirements and limitations on what once was considered a “Farm Animal”,it can be said that the lore of days gone by have led the most prominant of “Pet” owners to cottle and spoil a once scent driven hunting creature into the lap of luxury with fancy beds and polished nails.
    Albeit the need to prove that one can control and domesticate such a powerful, potentially brutal creature, defines the pet owner. Pride in ownership leads to self esteem. Respect for the creatures potential develops self assurance. Sharing and showcasing the Pet becomes somewhat of a trophy for public display.
    Had society evolved between Man and creature in the opposite direction it can not be hard to imagine that the local restaurant menu would read like the AKC roll call at show time at Madison Square Garden.
    I too grew up on the farm and ate many pets after months of careful preening and it wasn until I read “Beautiful Joe” by Marshall Saunders circa 1892, That I realized Pets do have a vocabulary and it’s time we did some listening. They have so much to teach us.

Comments are closed.