David Grimm, author of Citizen Canine:
David Grimm, author of Citizen Canine recently talked to The Scoop about why our pets are playing markedly different roles in society, and what that reveals about how we view ourselves.
Humans have a long relationship with cats and dogs, going all the way back to ancient civilization. Why is this relationship such a staple of human history?
I think there is something about us, whether it is an emotional void that we have in our lives or something inherent to being human that enables us to form these very strong bonds with other animals. You don’t see that in other species. There are tons of other animals in our lives — we have sheep and chicken and horses. But no two animals have been as widely and deeply embraced as cats and dogs. And it suggests that not only is there something about us, there is also something about them that enables them to see us as family and want to be in our homes and sleep in our beds.
How has the role pets play in society changed more recently?
You can argue that pets have started to obtain a quasi-citizen status. Just the sheer amount of money that we’re spending on these animals makes them a force in society — we’re projected to spend $50 billion on our pets this year, which trumps half of the world’s national economies. And our pets are starting to inhabit the same spaces as us. You see doggie day cares, “barkeries,” dogs in restaurants and on airplanes. There are even 2,500 dogs serving in the U.S. military.
More importantly, on the legal side, while cats and dogs are still technically property, we’ve seen a fuzzing of that line over the last few decades. Pets have become the subjects of custody battles and have, in a few cases, been assigned lawyers. All fifty states now have felony punishments for animal cruelty, and in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Congress passed an act that requires rescue agencies to take pets as well as people in natural disasters.
In the home, our pets have morphed from pets to companions to bona fide family members. When you take all of this together you start to see that it’s not just humans that play an active role in society, it’s also cats and dogs.
How have more recent changes in society affected the way we interact with our pets?
There have been a number of factors that have set us up for a more intense relationship with our pets over the past century. We’ve become a much more industrial society, so we are moving into smaller quarters. Big, extended family units have shrunk to smaller, atomic families. There are now more people living alone than in any other time in history. Also, we had been living with a lot of animals up until about 100 years ago. Even in urban environments there were horses and pigs wandering the streets; people had backyard chickens and cows. Those animals have pretty much disappeared and we’ve lost that connection.
But the most important thing that has happened in the last 20 to 30 years is that we’ve become a technological society. Internet and digital devices are ubiquitous and we have less human interaction — even if we are out with a big group of people, everyone is staring at their phones. All of these things have created a void in our lives and the cat or the dog is that being that always wants to pay attention to you and love you. They’re not going to tune you out for a text message — they’re always there for you. Pets have really started to fill that niche that human beings need to fill, and that’s why we’ve started to see them kind of like people. They’re filling that void that people left behind.
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