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Animal Crackers

[whitespace] Bridget the toy poodle
Robert Scheer

Pets are good for you--up to a certain point

By Kelly Luker

PERHAPS IT WAS in the stars that the New Age movement and pet ownership would find each other. In their own ways, both manage to scratch an itch that high-tech living and modern society have left behind. "The speed of our culture makes things like unconditional love, tactile sensation and play incredibly valuable," observes Ed Sayres, the former director of the American Humane Association and presently the director of PetSmart Charities, which facilitates Humane Society adoptions through the PetSmart chain of pet stores. "It's not as risk-free to have a human fill those spaces." Angels, spirit guides, goddesses, kitty cats and puppies are, some would venture, pulling double duty for folks more comfortable with furry things or self-help books than humans for bed partners.

The upside to having a pup tucked under the arm and a kitty on the lap is what a growing number of studies point to as positive health benefits. A 1990 study conducted by UCLA School of Public Health professor Judith Siegel found that dog owners went to doctors less and had better morale. Another study indicates that the mere act of petting a cat lowers blood pressure. In response, retirement and nursing homes are relaxing their once-rigid rules about pets on the premises.

One of the foremost experts on how people and pets relate to each other is Alan Beck, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond for Purdue University's School of Veterinary Medicine in Indiana. He has written and lectured extensively on the subject, and co-authored Between Pets and People: The Importance of Animal Companionship.

Beck disagrees that the growing importance of pets has, in fact, diminished our relationships with each other. "It's an assumption that if you're dedicated to animals, you're misanthropic," Beck says. "But pets are more common in families where there are children."

Like Sayres, Beck points out the psychological payoffs of interacting with friends from the shallow end of the gene pool. "What pets provide is they let people be caregivers," he says. "You're providing for and being a nurturer." Beck pauses for a moment.

"You're playing God, in a way."

Unfortunately, we can give the Old Testament Jehovah a run for His money when it comes to being a cruel, vindictive and capricious Higher Power. For every doggie that sleeps on velvet cushions, thousands--or millions--more end up abandoned in shelters if they're lucky; drowned, beaten or discarded by the side of a road if they're not. It is what author and professor Paul Shepherd calls a "paradox of frenetic emotion and casual dismissal [that] reveals our deep disappointment in the pet's ability to do something, be something that we cannot quite identify."

And like the Omnipotent One, we seem to have a hankering to know what's going on with our little ones. Social historian Kasey Grier notes that people have wanted to interpret animal behavior for ages. "But the Victorians were more willing to let their dogs keep their thoughts to themselves," she adds dryly.

Grier explains that pet-keeping in this country has been popular since the early 1800s. "In the 19th century, affection and kindness to animals as a cultural characteristic become popular," Grier explains, adding that pet-keeping also correlates with a rise in middle-class culture.

And although animal self-actualization is relatively new, anthropomorphism has been around for ages. Grier says that both bird-watching and bird-keeping became popular in this country, partially because our forebears thought that birds kept family values.

"The Victorians were into animal families and believed that birds were monogamous," Grier explains, "They 'naturalized' cultural values." Although further study exposed that our feathered friends had family values more akin to Bill Clinton's, they--like our president--remain high in the popularity polls.

Pet-keeping rode the heels of the anti-cruelty movement, which was well in place by the 1820s. And lest anyone think that skewed priorities are the sign of today's decadent society, one might do well to remember that the first organized anti-cruelty group--the ASPCA--was for animals. Abused children didn't get official notice until several years later.

"Once you recognize that animals have feelings, you recognize they have feelings like ours," says Grier. "And if animals have all these feelings, then pet-keeping becomes important."

And promoted. Marketing already smelled a moneymaker more than 150 years ago when the first pet stores began springing up. The tchotchkes--fancy sweaters, jeweled collars--showed up on the scene by 1870. But not even the most wild-eyed speculator would imagine that our furry, finned and feathered companions would engender a $21 billion market by the end of the next century.

Those who didn't wish to Cuisinart their own doggie pâté or whip up special kitty treats shelled out almost $10 billion for prepared food in 1996. And we have moved far, far beyond the jeweled collars and terrier trench coats. The glossy mail-order catalogue In the Company of Dogs features Fisherman Scottish Shetland wool doggie sweaters ($95), sculptural doggie feeders by Kentucky artist Bates Roberts ($58) and a mighty range of Christmas ornaments such as the treetop angel with a dog's head incongruously stuck above the gossamer wings ($37.50). Of particular interest is "My Dog Can Do That," an "interactive board game" that "up to four dogs and their humans can play at any of three levels of skill."

Yet animal experts believe there's a balance between elevating our pets to surrogate children--the mute recipients of obscene overindulgence--or, conversely, relegating them to the scrap heap of disposable intimacy.

"If we get conscious of our relationships with animals--of thinking of how they act and start thinking of acting that way ourselves," Sayres says, "it can be a spiritual thing. [Realizing] this animal is selfless, this animal is patient--these are qualities we could encompass in our own life.

"Obviously, there's people who don't get that," observes Sayres. "They dote and dote and dote, and never examine their obsession about their pet."

Grier thinks the key may be in looking at our companions for what they are. "The trick of the 20th century is accepting animals as animals," she figures, "and then being good stewards for them."

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From the July 23-29, 1998 issue of Metro.

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