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What’s the Use of Pets?

Wildness and domesticity at Global Pet Expo

by Ginger Strand

Published in the September/October 2007 issue of Orion magazine



Photo: Alen MacWeeney/Corbis

As you glide down over central Florida into Orlando International Airport, the Earth glitters up at you as if strewn with diamonds. The lush, landscaped grounds of the airport are ringed, like much of the Sunshine State, with a circlet of man-made lakes.

“All this was once swamp,” the driver of the Mears private van—Florida’s idea of mass transit—tells me. We pass a sign for Boggy Creek Road. “They built canals and retention ponds to drain it and built the airport on top.” We pass a rectangular lake crisscrossed with overhead tracks from which cables tow waterskiers in mechanized circuits. We pass a billboard announcing Shamu’s All-New Show. Traffic slows to a crawl because this is the highway to Disneyland, and the driver switches to unfurling a fairly comprehensive, if unattributed, recap of An Inconvenient Truth. I’m trying to look involved, but I’m eavesdropping on two people behind me who are discussing the Zone Diet for dogs. By the time the driver gets to Florida’s disappearance under rising sea levels—an outcome I can’t bring myself to regret just at this moment—the folks in the back have switched to discussing hip replacement surgery for dogs.

There are two conventions at the Orange County Convention Center this week. One is a whirlpool spa exhibition. The other, the one we are headed to, is Global Pet Expo 2007, an annual trade show sponsored by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA). Here, the makers of food, supplies, vitamins, toys, services, and furniture—yes, furniture—for pets put their wares on display in the hopes that the five-thousand-plus buyers attending will adopt them for their stores.

The U.S. pet industry is booming. The trade-show press conference unleashes the new stats: 63 percent of American households now include a companion animal, a number steadily on the rise. This year, for the first time, Americans are expected to shell out over $40 billion on pets and associated costs, more than double what they spent in 1994. Nothing—not September 11, not recession, not war in Iraq or rising seas lapping at the convention center gates—seems likely to hinder this cash-flow juggernaut. As Bob Vetere, president of the APPMA, puts it, “This industry is unbelievable.”

ON MY EXPLORATORY PASS ON THE EXHIBIT floor, the first booth to catch my eye is a dais decked out like a Roman arena. Corinthian columns are flanked by large flat-screen monitors playing the film Gladiator. The product on display is called Pork Chomps. Before obelisks of digestible pork skins, Russell Crowe gravely salutes the emperor.

Ancient Roman decadence feels oddly appropriate here. With more than twenty-one hundred booths, this is, as the organizers keep declaring with glee, the largest Pet Expo yet in North America. Sprawling across the square-footage of thirteen football fields is an unbelievable assortment of goods only the most affluent society would consider lavishing on animals: designer clothes, jewel-studded collars, high-end pet strollers. Elaborate, if not actually gilded, cages are everywhere. You can buy a mahogany canopy bed for your cat, hang your fish in a framed, wall-mounted aquarium, and dress your dog in fashionable duds—whether your taste runs to hip-hop or haute couture.

It’s hard not to think of Thorstein Veblen, the political economist whose groundbreaking 1899 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, skewered society for its addiction to what he named “conspicuous consumption.” Pets, declared Veblen, were of the class of commodities valued not for real worth but for “honorific” value. Once considered tools for hunting, pest control, and transport, animals had become expensive and useless. Like landscaping and trophy wives, they were nothing more than status symbols.

If Veblen were around today, he wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Burberry and Snoop Dogg have pet clothing lines—which he could read about, as I did, in the trade magazine Pet Style News. (Other canine couture trends for spring: mix-and-match, alligator leather, and animal prints.) Nor would he wonder at pet sunglasses, custom oil-paintings of pets, pet jewelry, or the company called Cain and Able that offers dog spa products: shampoos, soaps, “Paw Rub,” and aromatherapy candles. Their brochure shows a white-robed yellow Lab contemplating a rose-petal-strewn whirlpool tub with patrician calm. A plate of cheese and doggie biscuits and a glass of white wine perch at its edge. Okay, I find myself thinking, cheese, biscuits, robe. But the wine glass? How’s he getting his snout in that?

The notion of conspicuous consumption seems less apt when it comes to pet Advent calendars or edible greeting cards (“The pet can eat it when he’s done,” exclaims Bob Vetere, raising the question, Done what?). Not to mention the scads of products that are less status-seeking than simply upscale: organic foods, wild Alaskan salmon-oil supplements, heated beds, and pet car-seats. These items seem less about showing off than improving pets’ lives. According to the APPMA‘s 2007 survey of pet owners, pets are being treated better all the time. Few live outdoors anymore, almost none are fed on table scraps, and most get elaborate medical and dental care. Even major medical procedures once reserved for humans—chemotherapy, organ transplants—are increasingly performed on pets. Pet insurance is on the rise to cover the costs.

Veblen might be right that we give the dog a designer bone to keep up with the Joneses. But when we give the dog a kidney transplant, surely there are deeper longings involved.

DEBBIE BOHLKER HOLDS OUT a plate of dog biscuits.

“Have one,” she insists. The cofounder of Claudia’s Canine Cuisine has the soft-spoken determination of an Arkansas housewife, which she was before becoming a purveyor of high-end dog treats. Reluctantly, I pick up one of the iced dog biscuits and bite in. It’s like the German pfeffernuesse that turn up around Christmas: hard and mildly ginger-flavored.

“It helps their digestion,” Debbie tells me. “Our treats are all human-grade. We just think our dogs are our children, so we bake for them like they’re our children.”

If there were a Global Pet Expo tag line, it would be PETS: THE NEW KIDS. The dog and cat toys look just like baby toys, and they’re marketed with the same educational claims. The pet playpens and strollers could work for human infants, and the clothing booths with rows of outfits on display resemble nothing so much as those expensive boutiques set up to waylay the wallets of indulgent grandmothers. You can even buy a mini-armoire for your dog’s wardrobe. Debbie Bohlker is far from alone in making human-grade food for animals: many exhibitors boast of USDA-approved kitchens. Fortunately, no one makes me eat kibble.

Cats were not discussed in America’s first general pet reference guide, the 1866 Book of Household Pets, even though almost every household had one. But cats weren’t pets; they were seen, according to pet historian Katherine Grier, as “independent contractors,” housed in exchange for controlling vermin. Today, pets rarely have practical functions. According to the APPMA, the most frequently cited benefit of pet ownership—listed by 93 percent of dog and cat owners alike—is “companionship, love, company, affection.” The second-most-cited benefit is “fun to watch/have in household,” and the third is “like a child/family member.” Seventy-one percent of dog owners consider their pet a member of the family, as do 64 percent of cat owners, 48 percent of bird owners, 40 percent of small animal owners, and 17 percent of reptile owners. Even the scaly and cold-blooded, once brought into the home, can inspire parental affection.

“PETSMART REFERS TO CUSTOMERS AS ‘pet parents,’” Daphna Nachminovitch tells me by phone. “I think it’s a gimmick. And it’s dangerous for people to fall into it, in a way. The main thing to remember is that your dog doesn’t need to go to the movies; he doesn’t need to go to school. He needs your companionship and to be exercised, and not be in his crate for the ten hours you’re at work.”

Daphna is director of the domestic animal and wildlife department at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. There’s a perception that PETA opposes pets: they do not. But when I tell Daphna that Americans will spend more than $40 billion on their pets this year, she is agog. It takes her a moment to express what dismays her about it.

“For the three to four million who are killed every year, that doesn’t mean a thing,” she declares.

I’d been thinking about shelters, too, while cruising Pet Expo. The fact that a significant percentage of the pet population is continually surrendered to shelters suggests that pet mania has little to do with loving animals en masse. Considered in the light of overcrowded shelters and factory farms, the urge to turn pets into children looks less like appreciation for animals than a way of raising just some of them above the class of creature—an apotheosis that can be revoked at will.

I stroll the Pet Expo floor again. With a slight shift of perspective, it’s easy to see all the anthropomorphization as a deep discomfort with the nonhuman. Many of the products on offer suggest a covert dislike of beasts as beasts. We want our pets to be loving, entertaining, and companionable, but we also want them to be clean, quiet, and obedient, to refrain from stinking, shedding, destroying our property, alienating our neighbors, biting our kids, and trashing our homes. Much of what comes with animals—poop, hairballs, hunting, scent-marking, sex—is, well, bestial, and a good percentage of the pet industry seems dedicated to eliminating or coping with these “problems.” There are anti-bark devices, dog diapers, deshedding tools, breath mints, scented collars, fragrance sprays, and treatments for everything from flatulence to eye goop. The more we integrate animals into our domestic lives, it seems, the less we want them to act—and sound and smell—like animals.

On the other hand, there is B.A.R.F.

“If we weren’t feeding them, they would be eating their food raw,” Jackie Hill of Nature’s Variety tells me. Hers is one of a number of companies at Pet Expo featuring raw pet food. There are Wild Kitty, Primal Pet Foods, Natural Balance, Northwest Naturals, and Bravo, all of which offer “biologically appropriate raw food,” a back-to-nature movement saddled with an unfortunate acronym.

“Raw diet is not a new thing,” Jackie tells me. “It’s just come back into how we’re feeding our pets because processed food has failed us. As we’re watching the organic natural trend grow in the human market, we’re seeing the same thing happen in pets.”

It seems the humanizing trend has come full circle—back to paying homage to pets’ animal natures. And the trend encompasses more than raw food. Current theories of animal behavior focus on understanding an animal’s evolutionary heritage. Bookstores are filled with titles like What Is My Cat Thinking? that explain your pet’s actions in terms of its wild forebears, and Cesar Millan, television’s “dog whisperer,” has created a mini-empire explaining pack mentality to overindulgent pet parents who don’t get their dog’s wolfish ways.

But do we want to understand animals’ natural sides in order to respect those natures or to master them? “Domestication means domination,” writes historian Yi-Fu Tuan in his book Dominance and Affection: The Making of Pets. “The two words have the same root sense of mastery over another being—of bringing it into one’s house or domain.” Certainly Millan, whose training gets humans to assume the role of pack leader, is about control. But the very fact of domestication, like gardening or landscape painting, may be just another manifestation of the human desire to impose its will on nature.

At the booth of BowTie Incorporated, publishers of magazines such as Bird Talk, Dog World, Hamsters, and Cat Fancy, I browse a rack of American Kennel Club books about dog breeds. Peering out from each cover are squished noses, ruffled ears, droopy jowls: forget the beak of the finch, the muzzle of the dog is infinitely more varied. The obsession with breed standards is surely a fetishization of human ability to control outcomes and master the wild. Some pet breeds were even created to mimic wild animals. The Bombay cat breed was created as a “parlor panther,” and the Ocicat was bred to resemble an ocelot. “With so many wild spotteds disappearing as their native habitats are destroyed and invaded,” declares the Cat Fanciers’ Association in its Ocicat breed profile, “it is increasingly important that this man-made breed can satisfy people who want something ‘exotic.’” The housecat doesn’t just evoke the wild, he replaces it.

Or supplants it with something better. True wildness makes us feel small, a tiny part of a larger ecosystem; the parlor panther and the toy poodle, the shedless dog and hypoallergenic cat, make us feel like gods. The exuberantly lifelike environments we can build for fish and reptiles put us in the role of intelligent designer, placing ferns and waterfalls, organizing the ocean floor, cueing the rising mist. Sixty-one percent of small animal owners cite “good for children/teach responsibility” as an ownership plus, and 28 percent of aquarists see their fish as “educational.” Pets seem at least partly about teaching kids about nature. Few people ask, teaching them what?

ON DAY TWO OF THE EXPO, I SPEND a lot of time avoiding the booth where a man is parked next to a box of kitty litter. Every time I pass, he’s digging a serving spoon into the box and waving it under some potential buyer’s nose.

“Smell this,” he keeps saying.

His is one of the more interactive exhibits. Oddly, there are very few pets at Pet Expo. The special permit required for live animals was clearly hard to get. The aquariums have fish, and a few of the reptile booths boast lizards or bearded dragons, but other critters are rare. I see a pen with a pair of skittering ferrets, a woman with a two-legged dog, and two playpens of puppies at the giant Purina booth. But most exhibitors, in the absence of real pets, display their wares with simulacra. Stuffed dogs don harnesses, toy cats peer out from carriers, plastic reptiles sun themselves on fake rocks.

An aura of artifice hovers around our pets, too. Animals prowl the margins of modern life: factories have taken over their husbandry; engines now perform their labor. In his 1977 landmark essay “Why Look at Animals,” critic John Berger argued that animals, no longer essential, had become merely “objects of our ever-extending knowledge.” As the real animals were banished, shattering “a relation which was as old as man,” zoo animals, teddy bears, and pets replaced them. These fake animals were unsatisfying, but we filled our lives with them because we missed the real ones. We missed needing them.

In the afternoon I go to a press conference at the Reef One booth. I stand next to an energetic blond man with wire-rimmed glasses.

“Marty Becker,” he announces, holding out a hand. He smiles as if I’m supposed to recognize the name, which I don’t. I shake his hand and then we turn to listen as Reef One director Paul Stevenson announces his company’s donation of spherical biOrb aquariums to autism treatment centers. Watching fish, he explains, can both reduce stress and increase attention spans. Then he hands the mike to Marty Becker, who turns out to be a celebrity-vet, coauthor of the bestselling Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover’s Soul and frequent talking head on Good Morning America.

“We’ve always known that pets made us feel good,” Dr. Marty Becker says. “We just didn’t know that pets were good for us. And there’s an increasing body of research that proves it.”

Becker is referring to studies such as a 1995 report in the American Journal of Cardiology, which found that dog owners had a decreased risk of dying within one year of a heart attack, or a 2001 study in Hypertension, which reported that stressed pet owners had lower blood pressure than stressed people without pets. More recent studies have questioned these results, finding them unconfirmed, inconclusive, and contradictory. The media, however, love the notion that pets might have health benefits. And so do most people. The crowd melts into warm fuzzy applause after Becker speaks. I page through my spiral-bound National Pet Owners Survey as camera strobes strafe Marty. Fifty-seven percent of dog owners, I read, believe their dog is good for their family’s health.

The idea of pets as stress relief feels familiar—yesterday’s moral elevation has become today’s therapeutic relief—but it’s a throwback too. It returns us to an older view of animals, the view that saw them as our tools. Having made our animals useless, we find ourselves trying to manufacture new uses for them. Perhaps it grows out of the longing Berger described: if having them brings us health benefits, our animals become essential again, something more than an accessory carried around like a handbag.

On the plane to Florida, I read dog-owner diarist Jon Katz’s book The New Work of Dogs, in which he profiles a group of needy New Jerseyans—divorced women, workaholic men, lonely elders, an anxious teen, a terminally ill woman—and notes how dogs help each of them cope. Emotional support, Katz writes, is the new work of dogs, and he’s concerned with how it affects the dogs. In asking pets to relieve our neuroses, we might be imposing those neuroses on them. In asking them to help us cope with the ills of our culture, we may simply be passing those ills along.

Now, as Becker floats away in a bubble of good cheer, I think of the previous night’s poolside press reception. Caterers circulated with trays of hors d’oeuvres near a long table offering up swag (full disclosure: I took the dog barrettes shaped like martini glasses). Reception sponsors talked up their products to the free-food-scarfing writers. Balancing a glass of sauvignon blanc, a plate of tortellini, and a skewer of chicken satay, I found myself conversing with a veterinarian who specialized in psychopharmacology.

“You mean like puppy Prozac?” I joked. He fixed me with a tepid stare.

“Most people’s first impulse is mockery,” he said. Then he went on to tell me that over one hundred psychopharmaceuticals are now being prescribed for pets. Prozac, apparently, works great.

WE HUMANS MAY NOT LOOK LIKE ANIMALS, but we are creatures who eat, drink, and die. In the APPMA pet owners’ survey, the most frequently cited drawback to pet ownership is “sadness when they die/die too soon.” The line has a poignancy rarely found in marketing shorthand: when is dying ever not dying too soon? The French call dogs bêtes de chagrin—beasts of sorrow. Not only do we lose them, the loss reminds us that our own lives, too, are marked out in minutes far too few.

Homer’s Odysseus, returning home in disguise, is recognized by his dog Argos. Decrepit and fly-blown, left on a dung pile to die, loyal Argos hears his master’s voice and weakly thumps his tail. Odysseus has to hide a tear—and in that moment, we see how very human he is. The tear is not just for Argos, but for himself, old and decaying too. If we humanize our pets, they animalize us.

BY THE END OF MY SECOND DAY at Global Pet Expo, I’m fried. I retreat to the press lounge to drink coffee and eat free candy. A woman with long blond hair and high, carefully made-up cheekbones sinks down on the chair across from me. We strike up a conversation. She is Connie Wilson, founder and editor in chief of Modern Dog. She hands me a copy of the magazine.

Modern Dog is a sleek, stylish effusion of pet mania. Packed with ads, its fashion spread shows models and dogs wearing the latest styles. There’s a feature on throwing dog parties, another on canine weddings. An ad for dog jewelry declares, “Dogs deserve real diamonds.” I flip through its glossy pages with a sense of dismay.

And then Connie Wilson tells me about her dog, Kaya.

“Having a pet brings you into the present moment, where you can reflect on all things,” she tells me. This doesn’t sound like commodity fetishism. I ask her to say more, and she looks off, thinking.

“When I go out walking with my dog, I find myself just being there. I see the world in a different way. It enables you to take a step back from the craziness of the world and see where you are at that moment. And that in turn makes you look at the big picture.”

There’s an element of enigma in our relations with animals, even the most familiar. The diamond-collared pug being toted in a Louis Vuitton bag is still, in the end, a beast, as inscrutable to humans as a giant squid. Yet a human takes that pug into her home, feeds him, perhaps lets him sleep in her bed. He will never unfold the secrets of his heart; he will die, in some sense, a mystery. That mystery trumps every anthropomorphizing human accessory, every impulse to interpret or explain. It locks us out.

That may be their highest use, in the end. The pug’s diminutive size and bugged-out, injury-prone eyes are signs of years of human tampering, his plaid coat and booties tokens of the human drive to humanize everything. But the love heaped—even lavished in commodity form—on his warm animal body suggests a human attitude toward the nonhuman world that, for once, is not about mastery. Even in its consumerist drift, it short-circuits market logic by giving without a guaranteed return. There must be some real value in that.

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Ginger Strand is the author of the novel Flight. Her nonfiction book, Inventing Niagara, is forthcoming next spring. She lives in New York.

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