Our culture has, for better or worse, become obsessed with our pets. There are many women who seem to have replaced children with dogs and cats as a way to assuage their maternal instinct. And even many families that have children spend a very sizable chunk of their time and money owning and/or fostering dogs and cats. It seems as if it is a growth industry too. From what I understand people are breeding mutts just to provide fodder for the foster dog market and you have to admit that’s sort of madness. After all the aim of fostering all these dogs is to eliminate the surplus dog problem. If you’re breeding dogs specifically for this group of people to adopt then you’ve ensured that there will never be an end to the problem. Neat trick!
I will be the first to admit that dogs are a remarkable part of life. A good family dog is a part of the family and can also provide benefits. Their talents as burglar alarm and deterrent are undeniable. In the rural area their scent around the property deters some dangerous creatures. But it is primarily their companionship that makes them unique. A dog that you’ve raised from a puppy truly does assume that you are his parent and takes your family as his. There is an amazing bond there. And it goes both ways. The death of a dog creates a remarkably strong feeling of bereavement. If you are present at the death, such as when a veterinarian administers a lethal injection, the actual moment of death is a shock to you, especially the first time you experience it. I guess it has something to do with the child/parent nature of the relationship between a dog and its owner. It is the responsibility we feel for these creatures that depend on us to make sense of the human world they live in.
This came up today because Camera Girl has a menagerie of pets that she shares with our two-year-old granddaughter when she visits us. So, the two dogs and the parakeets and finches and the fish and the hermit crab and the rabbit and the guinea pig and the hamster each has its place in the affections of this little girl and if one of them dies it will be necessary for us to explain and sympathize with her feelings about the loss. And of course, as grandparents we have to clear all this information with the parents to make sure we respect their wishes on how death is explained to a little child.
Well, yesterday the five-year-old guinea pig, “Baby” died. So, this morning I went out to the pet cemetery that I maintain and found a spot for Baby and dug the grave. And this is a bit of work even for a small animal like a guinea pig because the ground out there is more rocks than soil. But all was prepared and services were read and flowers were placed on the grave and all the solemnities were observed. After all Camera Girl is a very warm hearted pet owner.
When the little girl comes back next week, we’ll tell her, as requested by her parents, that Baby went back to live with her mother who needed her. And hopefully she will transfer her displaced affections to Petey the rabbit and Jelly Bean the hamster without too much sadness. Knowing Camera Girl, I am sure that additional living creatures will be added to the zoo to bolster our head count. We have standards to maintain.
Eventually that little girl will learn about death and it will probably be because her own dog will die. Hopefully that will be when she’s already eight or ten years old and can somewhat understand the concept of death. And probably either before or after that loss her parents will have added another dog to the house to continue that role in her life.
But the point of this whole essay is that Americans are transferring their affection and time to their pets because we have become almost completely isolated from each other. And not just because of the pandemic although that is the ultra-example of the problem. We don’t get together as communities, we don’t know our neighbors and we even lose touch with our family. We’re isolated within the boxes we live in and now most of the younger people don’t even talk to each other at home. They sit with their faces buried in their phones and text. Walking their dogs may be the only thing that drags them out of their houses and maybe their only interactions with strangers is at the dog park.
So pets may be the clearest indication that we’ve become alienated from humanity at almost every level. If these people didn’t get to pet their dog or cat at night as they wait to fall asleep they might be almost completely isolated from another living thing.