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I Just Don’t Get It: Why Do So Many People Treat Pets as Human Equals?

April 29, 2019
by Glen Martin
Close up of a dog's face

This rumination begins with a phone call from my brother, but it’s really about domestic animals, dogs and cats mostly, and our changing mores about them: How they are now viewed as peers and family members rather than pets, how we’ve come to define ourselves as their guardians rather than their owners, whether our growing obsession with them is somehow a simulacrum for the complicated and messy human relationships that formerly dominated our lives, and whether apotheosizing them somehow minimizes our sensitivity to human suffering.

But back to my brother. I got a phone call from him a couple of days ago. He is a person of a certain age who has had a colorful life. He served a stint in the Coast Guard, then 10 years as a cop, quitting the force after determining he neither liked nor respected his superiors; then he became a master trucker, driving triple trailers on the I-80 Reno to Salt Lake City run.  Several years ago, he enrolled in college, took his BA in education and obtained a teaching credential. He now teaches grammar school kids in Phoenix’s poorest and toughest district. He is a highly skilled machinist whose work has included beautifully customized—as in chopped –Norton motorcycles. He has been married four times. He is all over the map politically. He is laconic, though given to occasional scabrous and amusing outbursts. He has a sense of humor that is Sahara-like in its dryness. If I had to describe him succinctly, I’d say he is an amalgam of Hank Hill and Dennis Hopper. He’s a pretty tough guy.

I anticipated something dire. And when he said, “I have bad news,” I steeled myself.

He’s also my only sibling, and our connection is deep. So when I got the call, and the usual ebullience was drained from his voice, I was anxious. He seems to take a perverse delight in neglecting his health; his diet is horrible, he’s overweight, and he struggles with high blood pressure and a variety of other metabolic issues. I anticipated something dire. And when he said, “I have bad news,” I steeled myself.

“It’s Moose,” he said. “We’re going to have to put him down.”

Relief washed over me. Moose was his English springer spaniel. Actually, he started off as my springer spaniel. I’d bought him as a pup, thinking he’d be a good, smaller alternative to a Labrador as a retriever. He was, in duck-hunting parlance, extremely “birdy,” and I’d trained him casually, so he performed pretty well in the field. But like all well-bred springers, Moose had a lot of energy. He needed rigorous daily exercise, and a lot of emotional input. I bought him at a particularly busy point in my life, and I felt guilty that I wasn’t able to give him all the attention he both required and deserved. So when my brother visited one day, and he and Moose practically soul-kissed out of mutual attraction, it occurred to me that I shouldn’t stand in the way of a budding relationship. When my brother left in his pick-up, Moose was bounding joyously around the cab.

That was eight years ago. And whenever I talked with my brother on the phone, the conversation inevitably revolved around Moose. How he delighted in swimming laps all day in the pool during summer. His guilty demeanor when he peed in a corner of the kitchen. The way his flews quivered adorably when he anticipated a snack. The $10,000 required to surgically repair an arthritic shoulder.

 I screamed: $10,000?  I accused my brother of treating Moose like the son he’d never had. He didn’t deny it. And his wife, he said, was just as besotted with the dog. Moose was the sun, and they were minor orbital bodies, basking in the beneficence of his life-affirming doggy vibe.

So I commiserated with my brother as he mournfully described Moose’s moribund condition. I pointed out that all flesh is grass, that spaniel flesh is even “grassier” than our own, and that he had given Moose a lovely life, allowing him to live up to his full canine potential. It was time to let go and bid him a loving adieu.

Chokingly, my brother agreed. And then he said, “Oh by the way,” and described tests he had just endured that pointed to a malignancy that could well prove fatal. (Final results are pending.)

“So,” I said, “That’s the real story right? I mean, putting Moose down is sad, but what we’re really talking about are your medical tests, and that’s what has you worried. Because that’s what worries me.

“No,” he said, “I can deal with whatever they find. But I feel really bad about Moose.”

Woman making kissy face at dog

And I believe him; I believe that he is far more distressed about euthanizing Moose than the possible imminence of his own demise. Further, he’s no outlier. The animals-as-people meme is ascendant in our culture. Grief support sessions for deceased pets are as widely available as AA meetings. People talk about their dogs as family members. They die trying to save them from fierce surf or speeding cars or scalding hot springs. The Cat Lady stereotype is no longer risible because almost everyone who has a cat, it seems, is a fierce feline partisan rather than someone who merely “has” a cat. Pet health insurance is now widely available, which isn’t a bad idea, considering more and more people are opting for chemotherapy and open heart surgery for their lhasa apsos.

“People increasingly view their companion animals as valued members of their families because in every way they are,” says Kitty Jones, a spokesperson for the Berkeley Organization for Animal Advocacy, a student government-sponsored group at UC Berkeley. “Our dogs, cats and other companions love us and we love them, we share our homes, our food and our lives with them. There is a growing movement for animals around the world that is shifting our culture and the way we regard other species. Our justifications for human supremacy and exploitation of other animals are running out.”

A 2015 Gallup Poll found that a growing number of Americans—almost one-third of them—felt animals should have the same rights as people.

So in many ways, our pets are now—well, us. Not too many years ago, the vogue was Deep Ecology, the melding of human identity with the larger forces of nature. The problem now is that nature is no longer “large.” It is a series of disjointed remnants, and as people have shifted their focus from the smoldering ruins of the natural world to the crisp graphics shimmering on their various screens, the urge to conjoin is no longer so pressing. At the same time, our obsession with screens has made eye-to-eye encounters with other human beings difficult. Painful, even. How much easier it is to dote on our pets, which seem to love us unconditionally but which promote no demands other than a bowl of food and a brisk daily constitutional. Further, they are our last link to the natural realm; they remain in a state of furry innocence, so they make us feel real in an increasingly virtual world.

Instead of merging with nature, then, we have forced the last vestiges of nature—our pets—to merge with us. Despite their lack of functional neocortices, pets are considered equals by increasing numbers of people. A 2015 Gallup Poll found that almost one-third of Americans felt animals should have the same rights as people, up from 25 percent in 2008.

“Just because cats, dogs, cows, pigs, and other animals were born in bodies different from ours doesn’t make then any less worthy of equal rights of bodily autonomy and freedom,” says Jones. “By rights we mean the right to be cared for and fed, the right to not be tortured, the right to be with their families, the right to not have their throats slit. Scientists have demonstrated that animals are intelligent and sentient, but more importantly, (they) are capable of suffering. In our ability to suffer and our desire to live and be free, we are all equals.”

Woman smiling holding dog

In short, people don’t want to just romp on the beach with their pets. They want, somehow, to take it to the next level, to engage their dogs and cats as equals on a deeper emotional and spiritual (if not intellectual) plane.  Not surprisingly, American universities—including Cal, of course—are at the point of the spear for this movement. Berkeley now allows “support animals” in campus dorms, and there is wide agreement among students that warm & fuzzy critters can be essential to coping with the stresses inherent in pursuing a higher education. Numerous campus groups, including BOAA, are dedicated to animal care, animal activism, in short, anything and everything related to animals, which, from a practical standpoint, usually devolves to cats and dogs.

“I really do consider my cat a family member,” observes John Siano, a 19-year-old undergrad majoring in business administration and computer science and the graphic and technical coordinator for Paws and Claws of Berkeley, a recently-founded campus organization that provides students with opportunities to help animals in need. “I think one reason is that she vocalizes a lot. There are these different tones she uses, and when she jumps on my lap and meows, I feel like I’m really having a conversation with her. It would be hard not to be deeply attached to her. She’s a big part of my life.”

Siano regularly volunteers in animal shelters and outreach programs for pet owners, and he esteems Paws and Claws because it’s a social nexus, a place to meet other students who share his animal-centric interests. But he also takes pains to differentiate between four legs and two legs when it comes to quantifying emotion.

“If I lost my cat,” he says. “I’d be deeply depressed. I’d really hurt. But no, it wouldn’t be like losing a human being who is close to me. It wouldn’t be the same thing. I have a lot of videos of my cat, and I think that would help me through the pain. The good memories would help.”

A few hours ago, I received another phone call from my brother. He and his wife had just euthanized Moose. It was only the second time in my life that I’d heard a catch in his throat; the first was a few years ago, when he had been at my father’s death bed at the Phoenix Veterans Center. My father had been a survivor of the Bataan Death March and a POW, and when they draped a flag over his corpse and wheeled it down the corridors, the vets and active service members stood aside and saluted as the gurney passed. At that point, my brother said, he lost it a little.

Man smiling with kitten

“When they gave Moose the shot,” my brother said, “he totally relaxed, and I realized how much pain he was in.” He coughed, tried to continue, but couldn’t.

Shortly after we spoke, his wife posted news of Moose’s death on her Facebook page. Though her words were restrained, her grief was explicit between the lines, and she seemed inconsolable.

I have owned many dogs and cats, and I have loved them in a measured way, in a way that was not at all comparable to the love I feel for family or friends. I can’t feel for a pet the way my brother and his wife and John Siano feel for theirs. What I do feel is a bit alienated, somewhat out of touch with current norms. Somehow, I can’t think that it’s wholly salutary to lavish the same love, attention and resources on pets as, say, children. But I realize I’m not in the mainstream. If I were an animal other than a human being, I’d be an Apatosaurus plodding toward the tar pits. Pets, for better or worse, now rule.

One in a series of personal Perspectives. We invite writers and readers to submit their own essays—inspiration can come from California magazine or California Magazine Online stories, the news, or issues of the day. Read more:

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