Monday, April 16, 2012
Why do Americans treat our pets like people?
[Does this photo look like cruelty to you? It does to me.]
As a new dog owner, I'm irritated by people treating their dogs like humans. American pet owners like to call our animals our "best friends" or the person we can always "talk to." But while you can talk to an animal, all it can do is its best to read your emotional state and try to respond as appropriate. I prefer human best friends. Ones that talk.
Although many pet owners don't like to think of ourselves as "owners," we are owners. Most of us paid good money for these animals and hold the power of life and death over them. Our animals are not our equals, however we might live in the fantasy that they are. They aren't going to grow up one day and take their seat beside us in decision-making and family-raising. They just animals. Yes, I said "just."
Here's my theory: Americans anthropomorphize our pets because we're lonely. We're a splintered society that has mostly forgotten how to build community, nurture friendships and tolerate our families in close quarters. We don't get sufficient emotional intimacy or physical touch from each other, so we turn to animals. In past centuries, people used dogs for guarding, herding or hunting. These days in the U.S. most dogs are there to be our companions.
We draw on pets to fill in for the children or friends or partners we wish we had (even if the children, friends or partners actually exist in our lives). Pets boost our esteem and help our depression. We stroke their fur and hold them close because that makes us feel better. We tell ourselves our animals love us back and feel about us the same way we feel about them.
They don't. Humans practice "love" in all kinds of different ways, many of them fear-based and self-destructive. We would really have to stretch the definition of "love" to make it apply to how animals feel towards us. I've seen evidence that our dog trusts us and feels loyal to us, but does Ozzie "love" as humans practice love? I haven't seen it and I'm glad. Human love is often harmful in ways that the trust and loyalty of a pet aren't.
But the idea of a pure and nurturing love is irresistible to us, so we call our animals' licking and rubbing and companionship "love." The problem is that if we call what animals do "loving," then we must find another name for what humans do, which is complicated, with hundreds of nuances and reasons. Americans wear each other out with the twisted behaviors we call "loving." Love is one of the most destructive forces we use on each other. Maybe what our animals are doing is the ideal of unconditional acceptance and devotion that humans aren't very good at. We need unconditional love in our lives and, unable to get it from each other, we draw it from our pets.
There are so many lonely Americans with no idea how to connect with other humans in an intimate and meaningful way. The modern dog's main job is no longer guarding or herding or hunting. Their jobs are now better described as being the child I haven't had yet, or keeping me from feeling lonely or reducing my pain and helping me sleep at night. These are the kinds of jobs American pets have. Is that good? Is it bad? It sounds emotionally vampiric to me, but what do I know? I've only been a dog owner for six months.
I understand that people have similar relationships to their pets in other developed countries like the U.K and Japan. Is this a developed nation phenomenon? Can anyone weigh in from outside the U.S?
[Addendum 10 April 2013: Maybe Americans have brought the working dog into our homes to serve as a source of and model for the kind of unfailing respect and love we wish humans would practice. We've started to replace each other with dogs, making dogs our surrogate partners, children, etc. There are Americans who believe dogs make ideal humans, but I think those people just don't like humans.]