The temple of Fido
Culture | How our worship of animals dehumanizes us
by Warren Cole Smith
Posted 3/30/19, 01:55 am
Pets on planes. The stories have become their own sub-genre in journalism.
Consider the 2014 story of US Airways Flight 598, which was en route from Los Angeles to Philadelphia but was diverted to Kansas City because a dog had diarrhea.
“About an hour into the flight, I started smelling this terrible smell,” passenger Steve McCall said. “I look up the aisleway and there’s a dog pooping right in the middle of the aisle. … A couple of people started dry heaving, a couple of people were throwing up.”
McCall told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the crew cleaned up “the stinky mess,” but the dog defecated again about an hour later, prompting the pilot to divert the plane to Kansas City.
In October 2018, police had to escort a woman off a Frontier Airlines flight who had brought on board an “emotional support squirrel.” The incident delayed the flight by two hours. In January 2018, a woman tried to bring an “emotional support peacock” on to a United flight. In both cases, the airline refused to accommodate the animals, and the stories ended up in a USA Today article about the “craziest” travel stories of 2018.
But frequent travelers know that such stories are less crazy and more the norm than they were just a few years ago.
Why? When did we start treating pets like humans, and when did pet owners—some of whom prefer to call themselves “pet parents”—develop such a militant sense of entitlement about their animals?
MATTHEW SCHMITZ WRESTLED WITH THESE QUESTIONS in a 2017 article for First Things:
“Pets are replacing America’s children. According to the marketing research firm Mintel, two-thirds of American pet owners treat their pets as ‘part of the family.’ One-third say that their pets understand their feelings better than most humans. Half care as much about the health of their pet as about any family member. Forty-four percent of young pet owners see their pets as ‘starter children.’ Seventeen percent of pet owners bought pet costumes last year, and 10 percent bought pet strollers. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Fido in the baby carriage.”
Schmitz’s observation about pet costumes and pet strollers give us a part of the answer: A huge industry now depends on pet owners who spend money on much more than the basics of pet life and health.
The International Business Times reports that spending on pets will reach $96 billion by 2020. For comparison purposes, federal and state governments combined spend about $20 billion a year on the half-million or so children in foster care in this country.
The IBT article says the reasons for all this pet spending include “an increase of pet ownership, the humanization of pets and pet parents demanding premium products and better quality food.” (There’s that phrase again: “pet parents.”) The article drills down into these trends:
“According to the American Pet Products Association, almost 85 million households have a pet and over the last 30 years pet ownership has gone from 56 percent to 68 percent of all households. This increase in ownership drives innovation in the market, resulting in a vast array of new choices and unique items, including specialty treats, bully sticks, vitamins, supplements and electronic training equipment.”
This spending goes far beyond vitamin supplements and chew toys. A new cat brush is designed to be held in a cat owner’s mouth so it appears that the owner is licking his kitty. The brush is supposed to allow the cat owner to imitate the grooming behavior of a kitten’s mother.
In 2011, Americans spent more than $60 million on plastic surgery for pets. One popular surgery is the implantation of “neuticals,” artificial testicles in male dogs who have been neutered. More than 500,000 dogs have had the procedure. And if your dog has a floppy ear, you can put a plastic stay in his ear for about $600—that’s $1,200 for the pair. The PermaStay ear implantation is a relatively new procedure, so only about 3,000 dogs have so far had them implanted.
All of this spending on animals does, of course, produce economic benefits. A $96 billion industry produces tens of thousands of jobs in manufacturing, retail, veterinary, and service sectors.
However, as Schmitz noted in his article, all this animal idolatry has very real social costs. He said there is evidence that those who are “sentimental about pets” become “unwilling to welcome human life.” Schmitz believes that those who think “It’s better … more comfortable—to have a dog, two cats, and the love goes to the two cats and the dog” end up showing “their indifference to man.”
“The conflict between love of pets and love of children is most obvious in gentrifying neighborhoods, where sterile, secular, dog-loving whites are displacing poor, fecund minorities,” he wrote.
In 2011, Marshall Brown, a veteran Washington, D.C., political activist, criticized the gentrifiers: “The new people believe more in their dogs than they do in people. They go into their little cafes … they don’t connect at church … they don’t volunteer in the neighborhood school.”
When these comments became public, the outcry against Brown was so great that he lost his job on the staff of a District of Columbia Council campaign.
And in D.C.; Charlotte, N.C.; and Colorado Springs, Colo.—to name but a few of dozens of similarly minded cities—dog parks have displaced parks where children used to play. And in some cases, dog owners are appropriating public land for dog parks. In 2017, also in Washington, a Columbia Heights neighborhood park was taken over by dog owners, forcing out local kids who had used the space for soccer matches.
But perhaps the most interesting example comes from New York City. News broke in April 2018 that a group of “snooty dog owners” in the hipster enclave of TriBeCa had taken over a small public green space back in 2008. The group incorporated as the Dog Owners of Tribeca (DOOT) and installed a lock on a gate to the 4,000-square-foot space, charging $120 a year for the lock’s code. That means that in the past decade DOOT has collected more than $80,000 in fees and has locked out taxpayers who should have had access to the public space. There are so few children in this neighborhood that this coup went unnoticed until last year, when a list of 22 rules (which included “no children under 12”) caught the attention of locals, who complained. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation is now trying to boot DOOT off the property, but—according to an article in the New York Post—“the snooty pooch privateers are biting back,” promising to appeal the decision of the Parks Department.
THE MILLENNIAL GENERATION HAS BECOME the “whipping boy” of all manner of social, cultural, and demographic ills—from falling birthrates to video game and pornography viewing to the slow growth of the economy. Millennials have been dubbed the “Peter Pan Generation” for its allergy to “adulting.” They have been called the generation that experienced “failure to launch.”
Millennials (defined as those born from about 1982 to about 1998, depending on who’s doing the defining) have been maligned so much that Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff offered a defense of them in their best-selling book The Coddling of the American Mind. The authors make plain that “millennials are getting a bad rap these days.” They say millennials behave the way they do because of well-intentioned but badly mistaken parents and teachers, who—armed with the affluence of the late 20th century—no longer had to devote the kind of energy generations past had to devote to providing the basics of life: food, water, clothing, shelter. “Boomer” and “buster” parents turned their attention to protecting what they and their parents had fought so hard to gain. Safety became obsessive concern.
This obsession with safety extended well beyond physical safety to include emotional safety. In sports, winning was not as important as participation. Parents sought safety for their children instead of experiences that might result in failure or temporary hurt, but that in the long run lead to growth and—eventually—full maturity as adult human beings.
Haidt and Lukianoff call this obsession with safety “safetyism,” and say it has backfired:
“Safety is good, of course, and keeping others safe from harm is virtuous, but virtues can become vices when carried to extremes. ‘Safetyism’… has become a sacred value. … When children are raised in a culture of safetyism, which teaches them to stay ‘emotionally safe’ while protecting them from every imaginable danger, it may set up a feedback loop: kids become more fragile and less resilient, which signals to adults that they need more protection, which then makes them even more fragile and less resilient. … The ‘cure’ turns out to be a primary cause of the disease.”
So while this pathology of “safetyism” may not be the fault of the millennials, there’s little doubt that it is a generation profoundly affected by it, and pet culture is a leading manifestation of it. Pets as emotional support animals have proliferated, and one of the purposes of pets for millennials has been to delay or eliminate one of life’s most significant emotional risks: having children.
Shane Morris, writing for The Federalist, echoed Matthew Schmitz, and gave the phenomenon a name: “replacement baby syndrome.” Morris, himself a millennial, cited a Mintel study that found “three-fourths of Americans in their thirties own dogs (for the purposes of this study, all adults 37 years old and younger were considered ‘millennials’), and half own cats. When you compare them with the population in general, only half of whom own dogs and just over a third of whom own cats, the surge is obvious.”
Morris concluded, “I can tell everything I need to know about a person by whether he ‘got a dog,’ or ‘adopted a dog.’” Morris reserved special scorn for those who say “buying luxury items like indoor pets is somehow altruistic or noble.” He said it is one of the “oddest habits of the millennial generation” to say they “‘rescued’ their dog or cat, as if they snatched it from a burning building at the peril of their own lives.”
Morris continued, “In reality, most of them simply visited the pound and picked the cutest furball they saw. I’ve never met someone who asked shelter workers, ‘Which dog is scheduled to die first?’ and took home whatever mange-riddled chupacabra emerged from the back room. When you go get a dog, you are doing something you want to do. Portraying it as a sacrificial act of virtue is just indulgent.”
PETS AND PET OWNERSHIP HAVE and currently performed a vital role in cultures almost since the beginning of recorded history. Both ancient art and archeology are full of animals. Indeed, animals and humans have shared living space for the past 6,000 years. However, it was not until the 17th century that animals became pets in the current sense. Until then, animals worked, even dogs and cats.
With the migration of Europeans to cities in the 1600s, pets became luxuries of the rich or aspirational accoutrement for the middle class. By the 19th century, pet ownership was big business. In London, thousands of street vendors sold animals, though we must acknowledge that many of these animals were for eating. The first major dog show took place in England in 1859. Kennel clubs, which provided fairness and governance to the shows and to dog breeders, emerged in the 1860s and 1870s. However, even with the elevation of status of animals, they were still, well, animals. Property. Valued property, in many cases. Thieves stole and resold purebred dogs as early as the late 19th century. And some dogs were petnapped and successfully held for ransom.
That’s not to say that people didn’t care about animals. They did, and often passionately and vocally. Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle was a defining moment for worker rights, leading to a wide range of workplace safety rules. Because the book was set in the Chicago slaughterhouses, it also brought attention to the plight of animals. By then, animal welfare leagues had already sprung up in both England and the United States.
But the epistemological shift from a concern over animal welfare to the promotion of “animal rights” came in 1892 with Henry Salt’s Animal Rights: Considered in Relation to Social Progress. This book has become something of a sacred text in the animal rights movement. It drew from abolitionist arguments to make the case for something just short of personhood for animals. Here’s a key passage:
“[The] notion of the life of an animal having “no moral purpose,” belongs to a class of ideas which cannot possibly be accepted by the advanced humanitarian thought of the present day—it is a purely arbitrary assumption, at variance with our best instincts, at variance with our best science, and absolutely fatal (if the subject be clearly thought out) to any full realization of animals’ rights. If we are ever going to do justice to the lower races, we must get rid of the antiquated notion of a ‘great gulf’ fixed between them and mankind, and must recognize the common bond of humanity that unites all living beings in one universal brotherhood.”
Salt is not widely known today, but he was one of the great literary impresarios of early 20th century England, and he championed communism, secularism, and progressivism in more than 20 best-selling books, including a biography of Henry David Thoreau and several books on vegetarianism. He also supported the Fabian Society, a group of British intellectuals who promoted communism, but who also actively promoted eugenics, especially forced sterilization of the lower classes.
The animal rights movement was often championed by those who promoted eugenics, forced sterilization, and—later—abortion. The great wit and Christian thinker G.K. Chesterton was among the first to note this relationship.
“There is a healthy and an unhealthy love of animals,” he wrote in 1920. “I am quite prepared to love a rhinoceros, with reasonable precautions. But I will not … worship an animal.”
He went on to say, “Wherever there is animal worship there is human sacrifice. That is, both symbolically and literally, a real truth of human experience.”
By the 1970s, Chesterton’s observations about history had become a “real truth” again. A group of graduate students at Oxford University, now known as the “Oxford Group,” advocated for animal rights, publishing a 1979 statement that read, in part, “We believe in the evolutionary and moral kinship of all animals and we declare our belief that all sentient creatures have rights to life, liberty, and the quest for happiness.”
The group, which ultimately formed the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, also called for an end to “speciesism,” the notion that it was wrong to treat members of one species as morally different from members of another species. So, for example, if it wrong to kill another human being for food, then it is equally wrong to kill a cow or a pig for food. By 1985, “speciesism” had become an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, described as “discrimination against … animal species by human beings, based on an assumption of mankind’s superiority.”
However, the consequence of this line of thinking was that as animal rights were elevated, human rights tended to be degraded. Most members of the Oxford Group, for example, came to advocate for abortion. Peter Singer received his doctorate from Oxford before the Oxford Group was fully organized, but his 1975 book Animal Liberation was an inspiration for the group. Indeed, some call it the “bible” of the movement. Singer later became famous for promoting infanticide, writing that “killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living.”
GIVEN THIS HISTORY, it is perhaps no surprise that, according to Matthew Schmitz, “the Friends of Columbia Heights Dog Park was founded by a Planned Parenthood ‘clinic escort.’” It is also no surprise that using such language as “adoption” and “puppy parents” has become so common. In fact, if the Animal Liberation Front had its way, the use of the word “pet” would be completely eliminated from our language. It prefers the phrase “animal companion.” ALF’s credo says the group “carries out direct action against animal abuse in the form of rescuing animals and causing financial loss to animal exploiters, usually through the damage and destruction of property.” The credo goes on to say, “Because ALF actions may be against the law, activists work anonymously, either in small groups or individually, and do not have any centralized organization or coordination.”
This kind of activism, plus incidents such as the “emotional support peacock” described above, is creating a bit of a cultural backlash. Airlines are cracking down on pet owners, making sure they are in compliance with the rules. Ironically, among those complaining the most about all the animals on planes are the owners of real service dogs, such as Seeing Eye dogs or trained service dogs who travel with combat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It’s becoming a big problem,” Marcie Davis told The New York Times. Davis is an advocate for service dogs, and is in fact the founder of International Assistance Dog Week. But, she said, “I’ve seen people bring on pets and try to pass them off as an emotional support or service dog. It’s not appropriate and it’s not safe.”
Despite such cautions, and aided by a decade of economic growth, the veneration of pets—er, animal companions—seems to be growing unabated. The survey firm Nielsen says annual household spending on pet food among pet owners increased 36 percent between 2007 and 2017.
And the category of greatest growth? So called “human-grade” snacks, including Rachael Ray’s Nutrish brand, which uses high-end ingredients and even sells gluten-free meals for pets.
Because, apparently, some humans don’t like for their animal companions to eat alone.
Warren Cole Smith
Warren is the host of WORLD Radio’s Listening In. He previously served as WORLD's vice president and associate publisher. He currently serves as president of MinistryWatch and has written or co-written several books, including Restoring All Things: God's Audacious Plan to Change the World Through Everyday People. Warren resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.