Sunday, July 12, 2009

In Defense of Pets

This post is ill-considered. I mean, it responds to only one part of what's probably an important, interesting and maddening discussion that I didn't read.

By the time I found the thread, it had come around to whether it's OK to eat your pets.

Caleb Stegall of the Front Porch Republic bloggers responds to the question with something of a screed about the entire concept of "pets." His perspective, which I share in part, holds that pets are an indulgence of the modern commercial age--a kind of symptom of a kind of mental illness. He cites as evidence the still-brisk trade in pet-related products and the results of surveys that indicate people tend to see their pets as members of the family or as surrogate children.

By contrast Stegall, who describes his home as a "ramshackle farm," host to an array of domestic stock and wildlife, makes a distinction between pets and the kinds of animals he prefers:

"...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).

"Usefulness 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 . . . man’s flesh is magnified in the flesh of another."

He had me at Wendell.

But I think Stegall is missing something. He speaks about animals from a position of rare privilege these days. Specifically, his life as a "son of the prairie" is one that still holds a place for working animals and livestock, not to mention wildlife.

On ranches, farms and in rural landscapes generally, animals tend to have more complicated lives, closer to the kinds they've lived for millennia. Animals are arguably more capable, tougher and smarter---and more interesting and beautiful, in my opinion---in these settings. It is a matter of necessity for them.

Working animals and livestock share their lives, livelihoods and home places with people whose work depends on them. They have to justify themselves in some way, and they frequently have to fend for themselves as well. A farm dog can't afford to live as a pet any more than a farmer can afford to sit around the house all day himself, just eating and sleeping and pooping.

So I'm saying, of course Stegall disdains the idea of "pets." And as a self-made working man at home in a rural setting, he can judge the owners of pets likewise.

But in terms of percentage of American animal owners, Stegall is nearly alone. Most of us keep pets.

While I sometimes indulge in eye-rolling at "useless" designer animals (my hawk and dog have real jobs!), I can't bring myself to dismiss the persistent impulse that lies behind breeding, buying and coddling of "mere" pets.

Many people without access to the kinds of activities that benefit from (or simply require) working animals nonetheless have the same instinct or tropism toward animals that humans have always had. Animal companionship of some kind is nearly (universally?) a human norm. Some percentage of adults may feel perfectly at ease without animals, but it's a rare child who is not drawn to them, who does not literally reach out to every animal she sees.

I think it's a good impulse, something to be preserved and encouraged---although without the shaping influence of work and some significant experience of life and death, a generalized "love of animals" is easily perverted and exploited: Like any instinctive impulse, our natural affection for animals can leave us vulnerable to hucksters and charlatans.

For this, the city folks and suburbanites will continue to fall prey to big box retail schemes and PETA's direct mail campaigns. Those in rural settings, who still know animals as working, semi-autonomous partners, will continue to be marginalized.

But so long as people still yearn toward animals and desire to keep them close, we can have the upper hand on that tiny, shrill minority who would destroy all domestic animals and refuse our communion with the wild ones as well. This fringe element, fueled by the stolen money of millions of misguided animal lovers, is far stronger than Stegall may imagine. In truth, his best friends and allies (and mine) remain among the very passionate pet-owning American majority.


Anonymous said...

You could argue that all dogs have a use or a purpose. In the case of lap dogs their purpose or "work" is companionship. I always find it curious that people feel the need to elevate their working dog above that of a mere pet simply because its job is something other that of companionship. The owner of the pet dog finds their pet to be every bit as useful towards its intended purpose as a shepherd finds his border collie.


Heather Houlahan said...

Pet-keeping may be a non-negotiable feature of any biophilic childhood, and therefore probably necessary, if not sufficient, to the development of an engaged adult conservationist.

It is hardly a modern indulgence. Keeping parrots, monkeys, etc. is popular among some South American hunter-gatherers, who have the luxury of time and surplus provided by the good fit between their culture and the resources in their environment.

Pet-keeping by adults living in urban or suburban sterility may be the only thing that protects those people from fading into an existence as cogs of The Machine.

I am also now lolling in the luxury of a life where all the animals have a job. Doesn't mean they aren't "pets" as well, or to use a term I prefer, companions. Partners (the dogs). Family members (the cats). Members of the household, our domus. Even the laying hens are household members (and one or two are "pets").

I encourage pet dog owners to provide their dogs with meaningful work that is consonant with the dogs' abilities -- fetching the paper, watchdog, tattle-tale, whatever. Because even a pet -- especially a pet -- is thereby enlarged and fulfilled.

But if someone's joy is found in keeping a terrarium full of fence lizards, an aesthetic appreciation of a housecat's grace, or the conversation of a gray parrot -- first, it's none of anyone else's damned business, and second, it seems significantly more wholesome and less alienated from the corporeal World than time and resources spent playing Grand Theft Auto or collecting Precious Moments figurines.

Anonymous said...

Glad you brought that up about hunter-gatherers in South America keeping pets, Heather H. People have been keeping pets ever since there have been people! Where the heck does this guy think domestic animals came from in the first place? The idea to USE the orphaned animals people rescued and raised because of compassion came AFTER they were adopted. I bet this fellow, used to and enjoying having animals around, were suddenly put in a position where he no longer needed them for his economical livlihood, would still likely keep a critter or two! If not, then he has learned very little from the animals he has kept all this time......L.B.

Mark Churchill said...


I think you've picked up on a vital point here, the question of utility. To use an extreme example, the Chukchi and Mahlemut peoples who developed, respectively, what we recognize today as the Siberian husky and Alaskan malamute would probably find the concept of "pets" somewhat alien. In the harsh environment where sled dogs originated, they were kept for purely utilitarian purposes; subsistence culture in the Arctic precludes excessive sentimentality. With the arrival of warm weather, the dogs would be turned loose to fend for themselves, then taken up again when the snows came. (Consequently, they remain inveterate hunters—loose malamutes have killed horses and cattle, and even the smaller husky is a potentially serious threat to other animals—one of several reasons these breeds are generally tethered or penned even in rural settings where other dogs are often left to their own devices.)

But while I strongly believe that dogs should have jobs (ideally, each dog should be given the opportunity to do the job for which it was historically bred), that doesn't have to preclude the existence of pets.

In his book Riverkeepers, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. makes a good case for allowing children, especially, to keep wild pets (e.g., crows, raccoons, etc. as well as snakes and turtles), a common practice in times past and perhaps, in some places at least, even today. Nothing "utilitarian" about this, unless the purpose is to produce what you and I would recognize as "grounded" people with more than a superficial knowledge of and interest in conservation. Then, as Heather points out, it becomes almost certainly necessary.

smartdogs said...

When Stegall quotes Illich to say:

"People need not only to obtain things, they need above all the freedom to make things among which they can live, to give shape to them according to their own tastes, and to put them to use in caring for and about others."


"I choose the term “conviviality” to designate the opposite of industrial productivity. I intend it to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment; and this in contrast with the conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others, and by a man-made environment. I consider conviviality to be individual freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, an intrinsic ethical value. I believe that, in any society, as conviviality is reduced below a certain level, no amount of industrial productivity can effectively satisfy the needs it creates among society’s members."

He makes an important point. Today many people lack fulfilling work.

I suspect that a lot of the pointlessly rude, nasty people I come across in life have pointless jobs, watch too much television and are filled with unrealized, unsatisfied needs.

The American Dream is a nightmare they never wake up from.

Anonymous said...

So true, SmartDogs, but regardless of whatever survival/ menial work I've had to do throughout the years, it always had a purpose for ME, and that was so I could feed and care for all my dogs! If "pets" do nothing else, they can be great TEACHERS by example--how to be satisfied with the simple things in life: a full belly, a good snooze, a run in the woods. In providing for my many dogs and other critters, lo, these many years, keeping them happy and content has kept me happy and content as well.....L.B.

smartdogs said...

Lane - I've had lots of menial jobs too, but there have always been meaningful things I did outside that work. Sports, hobbies, art. Even when the job was pure drudgery there was plenty of "conviviality" in other parts of my life.

I see less of that today, hence my comment on television - which seems to be the only hobby some people have.

I think that as we humans lose touch with the importance of engaging in fulfilling, meaningful activities; pets become important in two ways. First, as a sort of barometer measuring how bad the problem has become - because how can a man provide meaningful work for his dog if he's never experienced the deep sense of satisfaction of finding it for himself?

The second way pets are important is as a bridge to rediscover conviviality. I live in farm country and am amazed at the number of rural people who come to me for help with dogs that are perfectly suited to do significant work on their small farms. They're skeptical when I propose putting the dog to work because they don't think they're capable of training the dog to do it. I see transformative changes happen to the ones who stick it out and successfully put their dogs to work - and I think this is because training the dog gives them them a truly fulfilling experience.

Anonymous said...

Yes, SmartDogs, pets often allow people to think about something besides just themselves and their needs, and get them out and active and doing something when otherwise they might just vegetate in front of the T. V. in their spare time. One thing about this discussion on that blog, and which I have encountered in many other discussions in the past, that irks me no end, is that pets are simply substitutes for children, or an indulgent hobby of the well-to-do. Only someone who is not truly an "animal person" would come up with that. Keeping pets and children DO have a lot in common, but I prefer not to keep any primates,--too messy and dangerous and demanding! But that is a CHOICE, not a substitute. Also, I keep various animals because I am simply INTERESTED in them, and it is the best way to REALLY, TRULY learn more about them. I think this interest is common to many people, and is very deep-seated, perhaps even instinctive, and may very well date back to our origins as a species, where interest and the gathering of knowledge about animals may very well have spelled the difference between survival or not. That's not exactly trivial or perverted, in my opinion.....L.B.

Matt Mullenix said...

I agree the nexus of work and meaning is overlooked in both our own and our animals' lives.

My animals provide a focus in my life, but moreover they provide a kind of "reality check" by seeing our shared world in ways that are sometimes familiar and sometimes alien. The truth is somewhere between all our points of view; reliying only on one (ours) leads quickly to disaster.

In short, animal companionship and mutual interaction are essential to human survival.

Anonymous said...

I want to add to this interesting discussion Fran Hamerstrom's thoughts when rules were being drawn up in Wisconsin to make people's access to wildlife more restricted, (captive wildlfe rules and regs) that this was just what wasn't needed, that people need to have wildlife in their lives, if we are to care as adults, just like RFK has written in Riverkeepers (one of my many favorite books). Read her books too if you haven't,,you're in for a great surprise,,start with Strictly for the Chickens. Maggie

ironrailsironweights said...

In some European countries such as France - fully developed, civilized countries - people have few if any qualms about eating horse meat, while in America the idea is abhorrent. Who's to say which view is correct and which is wrong?


Patricia said...

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Patricia said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Steve Bodio said...

Maggie-- Frabn Hamerstrom was a great influence and actually visited me down here. A blog post for the future might be one weird coincidence- her family mansion and estate became the grounds of my private grammar school, though we only found out late in my life-- you can see pix in her autobiographical My Double Life. Or search my blog for Jeanne d'Arc.