Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Animal People

Let me first just say that I love animals. I have 3 cats (4 if you count the one in California). I can't stand animal cruelty. Anyone who puts down a pet because they just don't like it anymore or happen to be moving and can't be bothered to find a new home for it, for example, is someone I would probably throw out of my circle of friends. Pets are a responsibility. They are counting on you.


I used to think it was sort of cute the way that dogs in Japan wore yukatas and had all this special attention and got to go to spas. I thought it was sort of strangely interesting the time I went to the Humane Society in New York with a sick cat and watched a model cradling her dog in a baby harness while he whimpered and she massaged his bow-clad ears and manicured (red polish) toes. I was mildly amused and just a little grossed out by how our neighbor kept referring to her dog and her ex-best friend's dog as "the boys." I don't find this so funny anymore. I find it weird.

Animals are not children.

Animals will not learn to speak your native language. They cannot be recipients of your personal history and family values. You cannot impart your cultural history to them. They will also probably not grow up to rebel and hate you and subject you to a scathing memoir or therapy either. But make no mistake; animals are not children.

But we seem to want to treat them as some hybrid between a stuffed animal come to life and a baby. We get to dump all our nurturing tendencies on them and imagine that they appreciate it. And they will probably never talk back to us. As long as they get another biscuit.

Really, though, does a dog deserve to be dressed up as a ladybug? Or put on some bunny ears (see first photo).

Is this kimono wearing dog aware that he is sitting in the audience of the theater, watching a play while his mistress wears Louis Vuitton monogrammed jeans?

This dog--the photo is not so great, I know--is dressed up as Mickey Mouse, except the ears fell of his head. So, what? Like Nancy Kerrigan, he got to go to Disneyland!?

The dogs don't know they look cute. We are the ones who find them cute.

I once asked a writer friend if he liked animals. His work reflected his unusually challenging and painful childhood. Sometimes emotionally sensitive people become attached to animals (ahem) and I wondered if he was one such person. He immediately became wary and said to me: "In my house, the animals were better treated than the children. And so, no, I have problems with animals."

And when you think about it--the perambulators, the grooming, the outifts--we are often kinder to our pets than to our children. Why do we do this? What are we doing when we do this?

It seems partly to be a facet of modernity and wealth. Japundit noted that the number of dogs in Japan now exceeds the number of children under 10. For the first time in my life, in Japan, I noticed how many fewer children take up space. They aren't there like they used to be. During Golden Weekend, I kept seeing dogs shepherded through the train stations in little doggie perambulators like the one above. As we get richer, we become kinder to our animals--at least the ones that are our pets. We don't like it when the Chinese eat dogs.

One writer for the Japan Times even went so far as to say:
The tininess and cuteness of the dogs, the care lavished on them, and the correspondence of their numerical growth with the decline in the number of babies suggest a kind of substitution at work. Are little dogs the babies of the 21st century?

The same writer has sought out a specific reason for the pet boom.
It boils down, theorizes Chuo University literature professor Masahiro Yamada, to the human longing to be needed, a longing ironically undermined by society's greatest triumphs — freedom and independence. Independence breeds indifference, which is contagious. Only our pets need and love us unconditionally.

In Tokyo, you can now share this unconditional love at a Dog Cafes, a growing trend..

A lot of these cafes seem to have little boutique dog shops attached. Snobbish Babies (a dog cafe in Nakameguro) sold dog-patterned toilet paper.

Inside was a wall of fame of photos of dog clients.

This Harajuku Dog Cafe included tasty treats in shapes meant to appeal to dogs.

Next door you can shop for this year's dog yukata patterns.

Not to be outdone, the cats are getting their own cafes too.

At this cafe, you can order a special set of food set to appeal to your pet. The rice even comes in a little cat-shaped face.

And yet, this sudden adoration of animals, this ability to extend a love for living things beyond the human race doesn't necessarily coincide with a greater love for all living things, as I once cheekily tried to imply that it did. Japan, for example has been badly hit by a rise in child abuse. (Ditto for the US, by the way, though we suffer from far greater class and wealth distinction than the Japanese).

Finally, I want to go out there on a limb and say that I find there to be something insidiously anti-child but very pro-pet about New York City, and other sneeringly "sophisticated" places. I once tried to make this point to someone from another part of the world, who vehemently disagreed with me. It's impossible, she said, to be anti-child. But it isn't. You see it all the time here: people annoyed by baby carriages in the stairwell, annoyed by babies on the train, annoyed by babies in restaurants, by toddlers taking time to go up and down stairs. This is not a child-friendly city. It is a city where personal accomplishment and competition are most important.

It is also, incidentally, a city full of pets.

The challenge I could easily put to myself would be; if you love animals so much, then why aren't you helping the polar bear, the panda and the coral reefs? The pure bred chihuahua does not need another rhinestone necklace. Compassion for all living things is, after all, work.

As a small dog person with an insidious dislike of children (:P) I would just like to say that I agree with everything you've said here.

Priorities seem all out of whack.
I know this is an old post, but I just came across it randomly and thought I'd comment.

I too have noticed this trend. How could I not? I can't walk a block without seeing a dog cradled in a purse or dressed in more bling than a rock star.

I don't have a problem with people who love their pets, but what bothers me is when they love their pets more than people. The usual explanation I hear for this is that animals are more "innocent" and "unconditionally loving" than people. Well, guess what? An animal's "unconditional love" extends as far as the next meal. If you stop feeding your pet, I guarantee it will go elsewhere to get its needs met without one shred of remorse. And if it can't find someone else to feed it, the little "innocent" will sink its teeth into any living thing it can to quench its hunger. Yes, I know there are some pets who endanger their lives for humans, earning them a reputation as loyal to the death. But volunteer firefighters do the same thing every day, and they don't even get a free meal at your table.

So why exactly do we persist in humanizing animals? Because it's easier than forming relationships with actual humans. Humans will disagree with you. They'll call you out if you're a liar or a backstabber or an egomaniac. They'll force you to talk things out and forgive and compromise. They'll make you invest more in your relationships with them than some table scraps and a pat on the head.

But, in return, humans will give so much more--acceptance, loyalty, empathy, generosity, and love based on comprehension of who you are, not just the scent of meat in your refrigerator. Sadly, that doesn't seem like enough of a reward to some pet lovers these days. They'd rather have the shallow but easily won "love" of pets than the deep but hard-won love of humans.
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