Pets have become an intrinsic part of our family structure. As Nathan Winograd says, in the past decades they have moved from the barnyard, to the backyard, to our bedrooms. Yet it seems as if the pets are taking on a new role in society: becoming our children. We are pet moms and dads, they are our kids, our fur babies. We care for them as if they are our human children.
This becomes quite obvious as you look at the market trends when it comes to pets. They have become a gargantuan business and the money we invest in our pets is staggering.
According to the 2015-2016 APPA Survey, pet ownership in the US is as follows:
|Number of households with pets||79.7 million|
|Percentage of households with a pet||
|Pet-owning households with more that 1 pet||
|Estimated number of pet dogs and cats||163.6 million|
|Average amount spent on veterinary care per year, per pet (cat or dog)||
In 1994 spending on pets was $17 billion, which rose to $60.28 billion in 2015 and is projected to be at $62.75 billion in 2016. Forbes has published guidelines on how to market different brands to pet owners.
Relationships with pets can outlast relationships with spouses and significant others. From the Millennials who are contemplating becoming first-time pet owners to the Baby Boomers who are spending more as their pets age and then deciding whether to get new or ‘replacement’ pets, the animals play a strong part in the American family culture.
In my line of work, I witness people talking about their pets as if they are children. Actually, more than once I have thought people were talking about children until they showed me pictures of their ‘babies’. When I’m out and about I observe people who have dressed their pets (dogs in particular) in baby clothes and are toting them around in purses, backpacks or even pushed in strollers. People and their pets wear matching outfits and have matching jewelry. Pet services now include more than basic care and grooming: there are spa dates, birthday parties for pets, bachelor and bachelorette parties and weddings. While researching for this post, I even found one Hollywood pet party business that offers gay dog weddings.
But are our pets our children?
Our Relationship With The Animals In Our Lives
Don’t get me wrong – I can comprehend where people are coming from as they participate in these activities with and for their pets. I’m a single pet mom, my boys bring great joy and laughter into my life. We are family in the deepest sense of the word. I’m the one who leaves a 5 page very detailed list for the pet-sitter when I’m gone for 3 days. As I tell my boys all the time, I love them to the moon and back.
When we examine our basic contemporary culture, the relationship with the animals in our lives is often under-rated or entirely dismissed by the Joe & Sally Plumbers of the world. “It’s just a dog/cat/bird/horse/etc, get over it” is what we frequently hear. The fact that true family can and is created with non-human species is simply beyond comprehension to so many folks.
Our culture does not contain a lexicon that defines, much less embraces, the relationship between humans and non-human species. The closest words we have to describe that relationship are the words used in describing healthy parent/child relationships. To honor the relationship we have with our pets, and to hope to give that relationship integrity in the eyes of those who don’t understand what it’s like to be so closely bonded with a non-human soul, we are forced to use the same words that are used to convey the depth and profundity relationship between parent and child. There are no other choices.
The inadequacy of our languaging forces us to find the words as best we can to describe that deep relationship with our animal pals. Even the word ‘love’ is lacking in its denotation of relationship. As I am learning in my Shamanic studies with Kelley Harrell, when the same word ‘love’ is used to describe how I feel about ice cream, my new bra, my family and friends and the animals in my life, what does that mean? How can one word, ‘love’, be used to describe how I feel about such different areas in my life – my new bra and Max, Billy and Raven?
But Are Our Pets Our Children?
No. Our pets our not our children.
Brandice Schnabel, clinical therapist and modern shaman says:
Claiming motherhood over an animal does a disservice to both the animal and the human in that dynamic. An animal had its own mother, also may be a mother, and companionship with a human is something else entirely, regardless of how wonderful, meaningful, and impactful that relationship may be.Animal companionship is incredibly important, potentially sacred, and denying that relationship a parenting label is not about diminishing the relationship, but about honoring what it really is, honoring a more equal footing between the two companions, and honoring human motherhood. No one benefits from pretending otherwise, even those who may feel better doing so. There’s an even better feeling waiting on the other side of fully realizing one’s own role in this life, celebrating one’s animal companion for what that being can bring into a life that nothing else can (even children!), and allowing human mothers their role as well.
I learned very early on in my animal communication journey that dogs always know where their teeth are, cats always know where their claws are and horses always know now to aim a well-executed kick. They are a different species, they operate within the framework of that species. My dog Max is a million times better at being a dog than I will ever be. Regardless of how much I love him, how much I learn about the Canine family, I will still experience that knowledge through the lens of a human being, not as a dog.
It is indeed true that we and the animals share a common reality. We all physically exist on Mother Earth, we share senses, feelings, the need to care for ourselves and our families. We breathe the same air and we transverse the same planet, whether that is on ground, by air or in water. Yet you and I take in those experiences from the human perspective, a buffalo takes them in from a buffalo perspective, my dog Max takes those experiences in from the canine perspective.
Our ultimate goal with animals is to be in relationship with them, and not to come from a place of power over them. When we remake a member of another species into the image of a human child, we are doing a disservice to all. We are, whether we are conscious of it or not, thoughtlessly forcing them to be something they are not so that we may feel complete in who we want to be and the acceptance for which we are inherently searching.
The bottom line is that just because we’re the humans we are not entitled to coerce our way of being onto other species. My horse Shiloh reminded me of this on so many occasions: “Just because you’re human and it’s your idea, that doesn’t always constitute a good idea.” (And he was so right!)
It does not create right relationship with our animal kin when we force them to be something they’re not: for instance, when they are forced to take the place of human children. What if the animal in your life is here to be your teacher? What if the animal in your life is here to mother/father you? Our traditional role with animals has needed to change for a long while, and thankfully it is starting to change; but that change does not mean we are changing them into our furry, scaled, winged children. That change means that we are beginning to accept our co-partenship with other sentient souls and speices as a way to co-exist together, sharing the wisdom together which is innate to each species.
Here’s To New Beginnings,