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The Power of Pets

America’s obsession with the cute and cuddly.

Americans today own 63 million cats and 54 million dogs, on whom they rain more than $17 billion a year--and business is booming. These facts should give us paws. More and more we live in proximity to small animals. People come home dog-tired from work, and they find release and consolation in pets: it is medically proven that they lower blood pressure and heal the mentally distressed. Cats have recently become more popular than dogs in this country. In the stressful rush of the '90s, cats, requiring less attention time yet emotionally responsive to humans, have become the purr-fect pet.

Please pardon my puns. Something contagious happens to your style after you've been reading the literature on pets. Journalists, in particular, writing on the topic find themselves compulsively obliged to pun, often in the most outrageous ways. Repetitive punning quickly becomes socially unacceptable. To pun in succession while speaking, say, to a president would surely be considered a faux-paw. But is there something necessary, some inherent compulsion, that motivates journalists to pun when they start writing about pets? Punning surely contributes to making animals cute, like babies, and all the better suited for domestication--for bringing into the home from which beasts are otherwise rigidly excluded. But does the subject also invite a form of linguistic playfulness, a sign that the tone is being dropped down to a level more appropriate to the topic? After all, pets in this culture belong essentially to leisure, to play and distraction, rather than to the earnest realm of laborious work.

This has not always been the case. It was not that long ago, in the nineteenth century, that the French debated the question of whether one should put a smaller tax on working pets than on those that were kept strictly for leisure. People resisted the distinction. Guarding a home, for example, is a valuable use to which so-called leisure animals are put. In fact, a lot of pets, around the house, serve multiple functions and work like dogs.

But now there is something that takes them out of the realm of work and invites punning. The punning tells you that the writer doesn't take this entirely seriously--this assumed responsibility to report on the state of our pets. At a time when many issues are matters of life and death, pets cannot be treated with too much gravity, even by journalists, who take seriously too many things already.

And yet, the more one reflects on the role pets are coming to assume in our lives, the more the topic seems to require the most serious attention, maybe even what Ross Chambers calls a new "crittercism." Providing not just amusement and wonder, pets offer us a mirror of our own humanity, one that moralists and philosophers should not treat lightly. The importance pets are acquiring in our lives and the anthropomorphic qualities with which we endow them may signal a troubling tendency to blur, as never before, the distinction between humans and animals. This, in turn, may have ethical and political consequences we may not immediately perceive or necessarily desire.

What are all these pets doing here? And why are there more of them? Why are we pursuing them with ever more dogged intensity, regularly inventing whole new categories of pets, multiplying their vast inconvenience and inflating their exorbitant expense? Pet superstores are rushing to open in cities around the country, pushing hot products like poultry-flavored toothpaste or sparkling water for pets in Tangy Fish and Crispy Beef flavors. Fat clinics count cat calories and serve diet dog-food. A company called Phydeaux makes battery-operated balls, and specialty clothing shops sponsor Critter Costume competitions to encourage dressing up. The cost and frequency of major veterinary surgery have skyrocketed in this country. Hip replacements and chemotherapy are no longer uncommon. Some procedures have catapulted surgeon and hospital bills to five figures, and treatments for cancer can run to six. Major medical insurance for pets, no longer a luxury, is increasingly a prudent necessity. And pet cemeteries, featuring ever more elaborate sepulchra, are attracting masters ever more bereaved.

In The Beast in the Boudoir, Kathleen Kete asserts that it was in Paris first, in the nineteenth century, "that the family dog became a cliche of modern life." Even today the French own more pets than any other nation, and they are granted exorbitant human privileges. You may bring a dog into any French restaurant; you may never bring a baby. Well-dressed women, putting on the dog, have long been expected to be accompanied by well-dressed pets. Kete describes some of the elegant dog coats and brilliant dresses that were advertised in Parisian catalogs more than a century ago. Today in America, on a vaster scale, at the Pet Department Store in New York (the so-called "Bloomingdale's of pets") you can join others in one of their "Pupper-Wear Parties," which highlight designer fashions for both pets and their owners.

What is a pet, to begin with? Historically, in the long debate over animal rights, the question of the humanity of animals (their right to humane treatment) versus their animality (their mere beastliness) has been the essential bone of contention. In general, pets are considered closer to us, closer to being human, than, say, farm animals, like, say, a pig--although pet pigs, small pot-bellied Vietnamese pigs in particular, lately are becoming less and less exotic in pet stores. Pigs themselves, of course, have been extensively humanized; from the baby pig in Alice in Wonderland to the demagogic pig in Animal Farm, they are the seemingly hairless animals who most resemble us. But you get what I mean; we feel closer to our pets than to, say, a turkey--although turkeys are often endearing.

Whereas the primary meaning of the word refers to "any animal that is domesticated or tamed and kept as a favorite, or treated with indulgence and fondness," according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it early was extended to encompass "any person or thing (material or immaterial) specially cherished; for which one has a particular fondness or weakness." At the limit anything can be taken to be a pet, as the brief vogue some years ago of pet rocks serves to illustrate. But there are also pet highways and pet mountains; some astronomers have what they call pet galaxies--those they observe with particular attention and pleasure. You can even have a special fondness for something you absolutely can't stand--what is called a pet peeve. Today pets are becoming more and more exotic, more removed from the realm of animals for which one traditionally felt special fondness. Giant hissing cockroaches are kept by some. One can't help wondering if they aren't being kept as a variety of anti-pet, a pet that invites no petting.

The origin of the word "pet" seems to reside in the practice of taking a petting lamb. A domestic animal was taken away from its mother, fed by humans and incorporated for a while into the most intimate circle of the house, which may have anyway comprised domestic animals. After a while, of course, the little lamb turns into a sheep whose leg one Sunday turns up on the dining room table. But, for the time of its infancy, this lamb, like the lamb of God, is the dearest thing in the world. You love to pet it, this lamb. To caress it in the way you want to touch the most adorable, the cutest, the most lovable things. Cuteness is the beauty that attaches to beings that are small, immature, but cunningly concatenated; pets have it. Petting, or patting, is a way of reaching out to touch in a way that implies you want to be touched back. The difference between touching a pet and, say, a rock, is that a rock doesn't touch your touch. Whereas a pet does. But what about a pet rock? Funny the way it seems to reflect the affectionate attention you lavish on it, with which you polish or eye it. In your fondling hands it becomes a thing with a surface and depth to which you can relate. You love its smoothness, the slippery uniformity of its skin, but also its bumps and accidents, whatever peculiar idiosyncrasies seem to make it exclusively, irreducibly this thing, this pet and not another--and not any other's but yours.

What inhabits the center of the pet, what makes it possible for a rock or an iguana or a galaxy to be your pet, what resides there at the secret center of what makes it so fascinating, so desirable, so adorable is you.

In the form of something else.

In The Stranger, Albert Camus wrote: "Perhaps through living in one small room, cooped up with his dog, Salamano has come to resemble it." Many pet stores these days sponsor pet-and-owner-look-alike contests. It has often been observed that people resemble their pets, just the way they do their spouses. Of course, coming to look like the exact opposite of your spouse, or pet, also counts. The widely understood notion that there is some deep identity or multiple correspondence between people and their pets explains the obsessive fascination journalists have with the pets of politicians. Politicians, no dopes, understand with increasing sophistication how their pets can be used to convey the most subtly articulated, crucially self-defining messages to the voter. It's no wonder at this time, with pets proliferating, that politicians are displaying theirs on an unparalleled scale, and newshounds are lapping it up.

To be sure, Roosevelt's Falla and Nixon's dog, Checkers, achieved fame in their lifetimes. But who recalls the names of Amy Carter's Misty Malarkey Yin Yang, or Susan Ford's Chan or Caroline Kennedy's Tom Kitten? These days, political pets are no longer anonymous or obscure; they make public appearances, issue statements, have public relations, fan clubs and literary careers. Often more popular than the masters they serve, they may be, in this dog-eat-dog world, the only real heroes left.

Consider Socks, the Clintons' cat. The name instantly evokes the sort of cuddly, down-home empathy, the unvarnished familiarity, that this president practices most effectively. That's why Socks attracts an immense amount of mail, more than 200 letters a day, as a consequence of which a fan club was instituted, with its own director, staffed by people who handle the correspondence and publish Socks's fan club letter.

These activities did not escape the watch-dog eyes of Representative Dan Burton, a Republican member of the new Committee on Government Reform and Oversight. One of his first acts was to write the White House demanding to know how many taxpayer dollars were being "wasted" on the president's "feline fan club." He took aim at the cost of postage, stationery and envelopes as "the type of waste the American public wants to get rid of."

On the surface it might seem that Burton is merely being a sourpuss, supercilious and fiscally dogmatic. But his attack on fan club finances might be more shrewdly directed against the growing media power of the "First Cat" and the subtly coded messages it conveys. The public, too, directs more of its communication to political pets. Representative Pat Schroeder of Colorado recently acknowledged that her dog, Wolfie, a kees-hound, always appears on the Christmas cards she sends out and that "about 90 percent of the cards we receive have something addressed to Wolfie." We have learned to listen to what the pets say or do, in order to get the scoop on what politicians may be really thinking. Or who they are?

The White House response to Burton's inquiry was categorical: the congressman had neglected to note that in the last administration Millie Bush, the English springer spaniel belonging to the Bushes, had had an important fan club, similarly subsidized by the government. Millie, just like Socks, spent taxpayer money answering her own mail. She, too, sent fans her large picture postcards that were similarly "signed" with an authentic paw-print. In short, the White House concluded, fan clubs are no more Demo-cat than Re-pup-lican.

Normally, the presence of a signature implies the signer's consent to what is being signed. But, in the case of a paw-print (forgive me for having to say this), it's not actually Millie or Socks who consents to the message on these cards--to this use of our money in their names. Why pretend they do? It must be because these celebrity animals are not just cats and dogs, but animal masks, ventriloquized by their masters, upholding the moral principles and transmitting the social values these political families would like to represent.

Socks, a stray cat, recently sent his condolences to Representative Charlie Wilson of Texas on the occasion of his having lost his tailless feline companion, the popular Khyber. Socks wrote: "As a former homeless cat, I also know that by adopting Khyber from an animal shelter, you gave him many wonderful years that he otherwise might not have had." (As a literary critic, I'd say Socks's written style bears remarkable resemblance to that of Hillary Clinton.) According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (aspca), there is a monstrous and mounting problem of stray pets in this country. As many as 20 million dogs and cats have to be euthanized every year. Socks used the demise of his colleague to draw attention to the plight of America's homeless, amplifying the message of social compassion this White House seeks to convey. The Clintons themselves are often represented as homeless, having lived in governmental housing for decades, always having to borrow other people's houses for their vacations. But this first family, like that of most Americans, is bound together not by blood or soil, without roofs or roots, but by love and mutual responsibility. Socks, without a pedigree, without a home, has reached the White House, the purr-fect metaphor (a catachresis) of the American dream: felix domesticus--a happy cat at home at last at the top.

Bob Dole's grayish-black schnauzer, Leader, is another important political pet. His name resulted from his having been given to Dole by his wife at the moment of his master's first, brief accession to the position of majority leader in 1984. The timing of the gift may reflect Dole's own view of his profession; recently, he quoted Harry Truman's cynical insight: "If you want a friend in politics, get a dog." On hearing Truman's aphorism, Clinton reflected that he wished he had known that before showing up in Washington with a neutered cat. The press has not failed to note the irony: Socks is, presumably, the only male in the White House without a full complement of male organs or a fully developed sexual drive. Still, the example of an irreproachably chaste "First Cat" must rather reassure some of the president's image-makers and handlers. Cats are animals of great emotional responsiveness, whose shameless sexuality has traditionally aroused the wrath of those who associate them with the devil--with witches, for example. A neutered cat has all the positive virtues of its human-like capacity for affectionate sympathy without the downside--those bad cat, street-walking, caterwauling blues.

Socks has received particular notoriety as a comeback kid. Like the president, Socks had a bad last year. There was talk of suicide when the cat ran up a tree and nearly strangled on the long leash at the end of which he is walked by the Secret Service. But he seems to have come back again with a new feistiness. In the December issue of his fan club newsletter, Socks directs unusually pointed, partisan sentiments at his Republican predecessor, putting her down in terms that exhibit the worst sort of invidious stereotyping. Socks tells the interviewer: "Millie, slobbering Millie. Pat-me-on-the-head-I-want-to-be-loved Millie. Claims she wrote a best-selling book. No way. I mean dogs are stupid, you know? Chasing squirrels on the South Lawn. Jogging with her master? What an idiot." Socks's jealousy seems all the more blind, or hypocritical, since he himself has been widely credited in the press with having shamelessly hustled several birdies up a tree.

It is not surprising that Socks should feel envious of Millie, who has, after all, achieved immense literary success. In Millie's Book, Barbara Bush extensively transcribed the musings of her liver-and-white spaniel, who speaks, often eloquently, but doesn't write, whose full family name is Mildred Kerr Bush and whose popular reflections on life in the White House have earned hundreds of thousands of dollars for the charity she doggedly supports. But Socks must surely also bear a professional grudge toward a first pet whose master publicly credited it with a certain grasp of foreign policy. You remember when George Bush said during the campaign, "My dog, Millie, knows more about foreign policy than these two bozos," kindly, gently referring to Clinton and Al Gore. Bush, at that point an underdog, was no doubt exaggerating, insulting the Democrats' grasp of foreign policy and flattering Millie's. Nevertheless, one picture in Millie's Book shows her assuming a contemplative pose, in the Oval Office, surrounded by President Bush and his closest national security advisers: Brent Scowcroft, Bob Gates, John Sununu, etc. Millie laconically glosses the photograph: "I often sit in on the morning briefings."

Socks's attack on Millie's character zeros in with particular ferocity on her obsequious subservience. Indeed, there are certain kinds of Republican dogs whose essential qualities seem tied to their obedience, to their subordination of themselves to masters for whom they are prepared to give everything--altogether too much, perhaps. Millie, for example, dedicates her book written with "Bar" to "George Bush, whom we love more than life."

Kathleen Kete, in The Beast in the Boudoir, quotes an epitaph for a dog: "One would have thought he was human, but ... he was faithful." In the same breath, she cites Pascal's famous aphorism: "The more I know people, the more I love my dog." The superior loyalty of the dog is the basis of its moral claim on us and the oldest stereotype in literature. Homer speaks of it in the Odyssey. Sculpted medieval tombs of knights and ladies regularly feature the deceased with faithful companion chiseled at their feet. The strength of the bond that unites the wolf to its pack is generally considered to be the rationale for domesticating the canine species. Those zoologists who claim that all dogs belong to the same species, a much disputed contention, classify them under the Latin name, canus familiaris. The name reflects our understanding that dogs are the embodiment of our family values, the emblem of the loyalty that keeps human families together--that suspends, imperfectly, the suspicion that normally marks our interactions.

When we turn away from the world of work to the place we relax, we return to creature comforts and to the creatures with whom we feel most like ourselves. With pets, we feel surrounded by love that resembles the love we feel for ourselves. Pets--too often, not enough--make the house a home, create the family's sense of being a family. Even if, especially if, it's only you and your dog.

Cynicism, from cunis, the Greek word for dog, referred originally to post-Platonic philosophers, like Diogenes Laertes, who adopted a dog-like attitude toward life. The philosophy of cynicism was a kind of fanatical Platonism, a pagan form of unhappy consciousness. It believed so strongly in the reality and the beauty of the Platonic ideal, of the pure Idea whose reality for Plato was absolute and universal, that the world, by comparison, in all its messy impurities, was considered worthless, worthy only of dogs. Cynics are often accused of having no values, but they are cynical precisely because they have the highest, most absolute, most unrealizable ideals of all. Compared to the infinite distance between the ideal and the real, between the idea of absolute perfection and an imperfect world, compared to that, no distinction in this world has any value at all to the cynic, not even the difference between humans and dogs. Talking about one is the same thing as talking about the other, to a cynic. For all the difference there is, dogs might just as well talk, or write books; philosophers, or presidents, may just as well bark. Bush's bark is quoted (if that's the word) in Millie's Book; it serves, in a thank-you note, to acknowledge a gift for his dog: "Arf, arf for the dog biscuits--Sincerely, George Bush."

One of the most interesting moments in recent pet history occurred when a capital magazine insulted Millie's beauty in its pages. It called her the ugliest dog in Washington (which even Barbara Bush acknowledges to be true). To her rescue chivalrously came Leader, who, in a press release, perhaps quoting Bush, denounced the attack as "an arf-front to dogs everywhere." The schnauzer's reply to the insult to Millie was first reported in his newsletter, issued by Dole's office, called News from the Leader. It comes beautifully printed on excellent paper, embossed with a photograph of the schnauzer's head, looking old and wise and doleful. In it he warns the magazine: "If the editors of Washingtonian keep up these dogmatic attacks, they had better watch their step--literally watch their step." Manipulating the distinction between the literal and the figural, Leader draws attention to the metaphorical nature of this punning language. Taking the metaphors with which we sometimes equate humans and dogs as if they were concretely, actually true, the cynic, Leader, laughs. Laughing too, we momentarily adopt the cynical position of people who think that politicians have all literally gone to the dogs.

The complex personification of political pets reflects the degree to which animals, everywhere in our society, are being anthropomorphized. To the Greeks, closer to our animal ancestors, it seemed extremely important to distinguish oneself from the beast. Since Aristotle, humans were supposed to be absolutely distinct and superior, by virtue of their soul, their reason, their morality, language, emotions, their relation to death, beauty, to laughter, to love and so on. This supposed superiority of humans was vigorously and usually brutally assumed, for example, to give us absolute power of life and death over all animals. German idealists, from Kant to Heidegger, promoted enlightened treatment of animals, but located them on a hierarchical moral scale, somewhere above rocks and plants, but definitively below us. At the other extreme, and much more recently, are those radicals of the Humane movement who see nothing more than a difference of degree between animals and human--a slippery slope on which animals, if anything, are higher up on the scale of virtues than humans. Anti-vivisectionists, for example, see no reason in principle why one should permit the suffering of animals in order, perhaps, to alleviate human suffering. Jeffrey Masson and Susan McCarthy, in their new book, When Elephants Weep, take a radically humane position, displaying with compelling anecdotes what they take to be the moral quality of animal sympathy and the dignity of animal suffering.

The question of the nature of the difference between animals and humans comes most sharply into focus when one reflects on the conditions under which we may kill an animal, in particular, a pet. In the eighteenth century in England it was said, "He who would hang his dog first gives out that it is mad." A mad dog, it being assumed, deserves to die. The aphorism tells us something about the usefulness of malicious rumor. You smear before you spear. But it illustrates as well, already back then, that hanging your dog, while strictly legal, was something your neighbors were likely to disapprove. You may only kill your pet, today, under certain strict conditions, surrounded by increasingly formal rituals and institutionally sanctioned gestures.

The ALPO Veterinary Advisory Panel, in its brochure, Death of the Family Pet: Losing a Family Friend, recommends that the pet-owner: (1) Discuss euthanasia frankly with the doctor. (2) If the owner chooses to spend the final moments together, stroke the animal's head and speak gently as the drug is administered. (3) Consider a last good-bye after the procedure. (4) Complete your physical separation. Pet cemetery burial, home burial or individual cremation are among the options one can take by way of "final arrangements."

Time was you'd take the old decrepit yellow dog behind the barn and shoot it. A horse that breaks its leg, the dog whose hip degenerates, are supposed, it was thought, to be put down. That, of course, was before veterinary surgery had made bone repair and hip replacements possible.

Sourdoughs, lonely trappers who live all winter long adrift in the snows of Alaska, develop the most intimate relation to their sled dogs. But when the time comes for them to retire, when they can no longer defy the winter and must go off to live in Anchorage, they sometimes shoot their dogs, out of kindness. Unable to live in the city, raised in devotion to their leader, those dogs, bereft, deserve to die, they think. There appears to be no more humane alternative than to kill the very creatures you love--who love you--most in the world. That principle is worth preserving, with regard to animals. It is a sign of respect for the animals and a form of self-respect. It acknowledges our debt to their sacrifice, that they lived to die in harness. It also says that you're not an animal and that whatever love you felt toward those creatures--however deep or affectionate--was not the feeling you reserve for human beings, or for yourself. It confirms the fundamental ethical difference between animals and humans, which we are in some danger today of forgetting, with consequences that may be dangerous. By anthropomorphizing pets we are encouraging the tendency to blur the distinction between humans and animals, which in turn may lead, and often has led, to the worst forms of biologism, racism or naturalism. The Nazi Lebensphilosophie, to cite an egregious example, explicitly assimilated human striving to the impulses of animal instinct.

In Colette's animal novels, the dogs and cats whose conversations we overhear are remarkably civilized and eloquent creatures; they discourse remarkably like Colette herself. That is why it is always a surprising moment when one of these subtle pets interrupts the conversation to go kill. Millie Bush produces the same effect in her book when she reports, with chilling sangfroid, her serial murders: "four squirrels, three rats, and, to Bar's great sorrow [but not her own], a pigeon."

When animals in Colette kill, it's not hunting but always a form of ethnic cleansing, rape and species murder at the same time. She writes in her Dialogues de Betes (1904):

Toby the bull [dog], yawning, asks Kiki [the cat]: Tell me, birds, do they taste a lot like chicken?
No, says sweet little Kiki, her eyes suddenly shining blue. No it's better. It's alive. You feel everything cracking beneath your teeth and the bird, shivering, the warm feathers and little exquisite brain.

A similar moment occurs repeatedly in A Dog's Life, set in Provence, the memoirs of Peter Mayle's dog, Boy, who, with immense cynicism and an archly knowing manner, recounts how he's managed all these years to manipulate his owners, the "Management." From time to time, this Anglo-French dog interrupts his reflections on, say, rose wine, to consider the firm but yielding consistency of a squirrel's back leg or the tantalizing smell of live chickens:

I made a mental note to pay them a visit.... The chicken, you see, is that happy combination of sport and nourishment. She runs and clucks in the most gratifying ways when chased, and is also very tasty once the feathers have been dealt with. A useful bird, unlike most of them.

What is amusing and slightly shocking is not only the brutality of these hyper-refined creatures but the suggestion that, if pets are assumed to be civilized like humans, then humans may be presumed to kill like pets. If sweet little things like Kiki, or clever ones like Boy, can kill without compunction or remorse, in high spirits, with good conscience and conscious delight, then why not the rest of us, so much less good-natured or refined. If marvelous animals like these can casually murder, then humans, who are so much like animals, may similarly be expected to kill for reasons of genetic difference, by virtue of caste or nationality or race--or simply for the pleasure of the crunch of bones. If pets, who are just like us, have natural enemies or traditional prey, why not us? Only the "natural" enemy is hunted by these otherwise peaceful, charming pets, but it is hunted ruthlessly, with mechanical cruelty. Whenever the radical heterogeneity between human and animals is erased, the door is open to brutally eugenicist arguments advanced under the guise of biological necessity or the authenticity of nature.

In the Science Section of The New York Times, under the headline, "Social castes found to be not so rare in nature," may be read the following:

For years, an exclusive club made up of ants, bees, wasps and termites has ruled as the social elite of the animal world. The insects' well-run colonies of sterile workers devoted to serving their fat, fertile queen so impressed biologists as to acquire the scientific classification of social or "eusocial," [perfectly social] a distinction even humans cannot claim.

Animals are not only being assimilated to humans; they are being made into the destiny of humans, the entelechy of humanity in which it realizes its highest possibility. Eusocial animals are assumed to have achieved a degree of success as social animals that we ourselves, who invented the idea of society, have not attained, argue the socio-biologists. And this cooperative perfection is predicated on a caste system that attributes biologically determined functions to groups and assigns them an immutable place in a social hierarchy.

It is necessary to stop humanizing animals for fear that we start predicating animal attributes on humans. We ought to resist the anthropomorphism of real animals (as distinct, say, from Disney), which is practiced in pet stores and promoted by pet products. It is too often encouraged by veterinarians, who are probably only responding to the wishes of their clients. The mobilization of vast medical resources and expensive interventions ought not to be encouraged. Pet cemeteries ought not to encourage the marmoreal interment of animals. A dog should die like a dog, not cruelly, but with a respectful matter-of-factness, unaccompanied by the rituals of human mourning. As for cats, presumed to have nine lives, losing one is no catastrophe. 

This article originally ran in the July 10, 1995 issue of the magazine.