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
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.