Pet Peeve

There’s a chilling scene in P.D. James’s dystopian novel, The Children of Men–a story set in the near future in which the human race is no longer able to produce children–in which a woman is described pushing a stroller down the sidewalk. Inside the stroller, instead of a baby, is a doll.

Our culture here in the United States has not perhaps yet reached such a grotesque nadir of desperate longing. But I believe our increasing sentimentalism, not towards dolls, but towards pets and other animals is one sign that we are approaching such a darkness.

Who hasn’t, for example, received (as I have) a Christmas card with the family’s dog included in the family picture, with the dog even named as a member of the family?

Or noticed the emergence of “puppy play groups”?

Or heard of doggy “weddings”?

Or seen the bumper sticker: “I Love My GrandDogs”?

Or seen someone carrying a picture of his dog in his wallet?

Or seen this story in the March 4, 2012 USA Today about the latest craze for doggy tattoos and other kinds of cutsey-pie pet detailing.

(Let’s not even get into the soul-wringing our culture often expresses towards endangered animal species, while it often turns a blind eye toward the killing of human beings through abortion….)

You may ask: what have I got against dogs and other pets?

Not a thing. I understand, and am all for, the comfort, fun and companionship that pets provide, especially for the lonely and the elderly. And I do not countenance a negligent attitude toward endangered animal species.

I remember that there wasn’t a dry eye in the living room when I read aloud to my family the story from James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small about the old widower who loses his faithful dog. Sorrow at such a loss is a natural and dignified sentiment. Affection for pets is a properly human feeling.

What I have a problem with is the sentimental attitude our culture increasingly is taking toward its pets–in which pets are more and more, like the doll in the pram, substituting for human beings, or means of drawing attention to how cute and affectionate we are.

In one of his stories J.D. Salinger has a character remark that sentimentalism is giving something more tenderness than God gives it.

And God has made pets and other animals to be at our service, including service as companions. But he has not made them to be substitute human beings, or as means of drawing attention to ourselves, as increasingly is happening.

Last weekend on Chris Wallace’s Sunday political chat show on Fox, he named as his “Person of the Week” the head veterinarian at the Washington Zoo. I found the report showing the level of care lavished upon the animals at the zoo (which includes dentistry) to be astonishing. All this, I wondered, for animals destined to remain for the rest of their lives in captivity!

Contrast this with the way veterinarians function in the Yorkshire culture lovingly rendered in All Creatures Great and Small. In this collection of stories animals are certainly shown to be beloved companions. But for the most part, the veterinarians in these stories are devoted to healing animals which serve as the essential means of a farmer’s livelihood.

I don’t say this because I’m against zoos. I simply want to contrast the different attitudes to pets and other animals when they function in a culture, not so much as substitutes for human beings, but as companions and indeed servants.

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