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.