So, I recently discovered that Jerry Seinfeld and I used to share one thing in common: we’re both animal ‘likers’. What does that mean? It means we like animals; would never harm one or allow one to be harmed. Over the years, we have had pets and cared for them. But, we’ve never been cuckoo- gaga over one or felt they were as important as actual people. No, there’s no special reason for it. I can’t speak for Seinfeld, but I don’t have any childhood trauma to report or any particular incident that contributed to this mindset. I’m just not hard-wired to get mushy inside when I watch the Discovery Channel or see baby pandas. I also don’t feel an overwhelming need to take pics of every groundhog and bunny I see. I find the cat vids on YouTube freakin’ hilarious and let our cat sleep on my bed a lot, but don’t feel horribly guilty about kicking him off, either. Why? Because I like pets, but I’m not obsessed with them. I may love our cat or my friend’s pets; may enjoy spending time with them, and [yes] sometimes miss their company. But, having grown up with many “animal lovers”, I intuitively know I’m still not one of them. I admit this freely knowing that I’m less likely to find a mate in places like the UK, should I decide to go on the hunt for one there. According to a survey done by UK insurance company Direct Line, 46% of Brits think being an animal lover makes a potential partner more attractive. All good. I’m not a fan of umbrellas or beef Wellington, so I’m ok with selecting a potential mate from the billions that aren’t in that dating pool. Seinfeld used to feel that way, too. Back in the 90s, before he was ever featured in People begging Cesar Millan for training tips for his unruly pooch, he wrote a best-seller called SeinLanguage . In the book, he notes that New York dog owners are proof positive that the human race is an epic fail. Why? Because if aliens are watching and they see “two life forms, one of them’s making a poop, the other’s carrying it for him, who would you assume is in charge?” You gotta admit: he has a point.Once upon a time, our pets [and by that I primarily mean cats and dogs] were our labourers and servants, now the tables have turned and we collectively spend not millions, but billions on their comfort and care and the pet care industry couldn’t be happier.
I. $hopping for Shih Tzus
The numbers don’t lie. In 2013, there were 25.5 million pets in Canada. As of this past April, there are a little over 36 million people living here. Basically, almost three-quarters of the country[ rich or poor] owns a pet. According to the latest survey done by the American Pet Products Association (APPA), 65% of Americans or rather 79.7 million American households have a pet of some sort. These kinds of statistics can easily leave one dazed and confused. After all, one would assume that if a person is struggling to pay their bills than logically they would forgo the additional financial burden that caring for a pet entails, right? Not so. In 2012, Forbes reported that the pet care industry was one of the few American businesses that was recession-proof. Despite the economic downturn, pet ownership did not slow down and pet care expenditures actually went up. That’s right….you heard me.In this case, they increased from $43.2 billion in 2008 to almost $53 billion by the end of 2012. In other words, Americans will tolerate losing their jobs or homes, but not their spot at doggie day-care. Now, what’s unfathomable to me isn’t that someone wouldn’t give up their pet after they lost their home. After all [as a close friend of mine explained], they are erzatz family members that love you unconditionally, which becomes an even greater blessing when dealing with the anxiety that stems from of an increasingly uncertain future. What I find baffling is how someone can decide to take on more financial responsibility when they are barely able to provide for themselves and/or their family. The reality is the odds of me getting a satisfying answer to that are slim to none. Recession or not, shopping for Shih Tzus, snakes or Siamese or any other house pet is big business and it shows no signs of slowing down. According to the figures released by the APPA, the pet products and care industry made $60.2 billion dollars last year and is on schedule to make an estimated $62.7 billion by the end of this fiscal year. To put it another way, kitty litter and puppy pizzle sales alone generate more revenue than…well…Luxembourg did last year, apparently. The biggest area of growth in the industry? Pet services; a sector that includes everything from pet grooming chains to [wait for it…] spas and hotels. The main consumers of these services? Millennials. They are the biggest patrons of pet spas and buyers of expensive organic pet food. According to research done by Petco, one of America’s largest pet products retailers, millennials spend more than boomers do on their pets. 76% of millennials feel no way about splurging on certain items for their pets, while only 50% of boomers would do the same for their’s. Why? Because the newest generation of pet lovers is coming of age in a time when pampering puppies is less taxing on the whole than having a baby or a bad boyfriend.
II. Cuddling with Kitties
Ask around and you will find out that cuddling with kitties is where it’s at for millennials. Personal space is at a premium for them and making a happy home for yourself is much easier with a cute kitten than with an actual person and all their baggage and idiosyncracies. Arguably, house pets can fill that void beautifully by acting as emotional substitutes you can lavish all your attention and affection on, minus the hefty financial and emotional price tag loved ones usually entail. The power dynamic is central to all that. First and foremost, they are not your equal. As my animal-loving friend patiently explained, “pets don’t disagree or talk back much. You control the narrative in a hyper complex world.” Than you have to consider the unconditional love factor. You’re the big kahuna to your dog or cat. They don’t know or care about your prison record, your employment status, your education level or your weight. They are totally dependent on you win, lose or draw, so none of that matters.In a downsized economy where loyalty is in very short supply, the faith pets place in their owners is edifying for the more jaded out there. Incidentally, the emotional connection dog and cat owners talk about having is not just hyperbole. Research indicates when you hold someone’s gaze for a period of time, everything dissipates and you feel a strong connection to them. Dogs and cats are way more comfortable than we are with prolonged eye contact and so it’s easier to bond with them than with actual people. That bonding process is also facilitated by a spike in our oxytocin which is akin to the jump mothers experience when they look at their babies.When Decima did a survey on Canadian pet owners back in 2010, it found that 53% of those interviewed felt animals are more reliable than human beings. Now, think about that for just a moment. Creatures with no ability to differentiate between right or wrong; with no capacity to think critically or reason were deemed more reliable than sentient beings able to do all of that and more. Needless to say, there are those who find this state of affairs rather troubling. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is a popular figure in American media; famous for his unique brand of insight into human behaviour. He’s written 30 books on modern love, marriage, spirituality and relationships and finds the present North American pet obsession worrisome for the following reasons. On the one hand, it’s a “healthy manifestation of affection for all G-d’s creatures.” But, on the other hand, he ‘s concerned it’s a “sign of a lonely generation of men and women, desperate to nurture a creature that gives them the love that is not forthcoming from more traditional sources“. He says the greatest impact pets have on their owners is that they make them feel special. I agree with the good rabbi. At the end of the day, we all just want to feel like we matter to someone: don’t we? But in this narcissistic age,very few people feel they truly do. Why? Because we don’t seem to like ourselves much and we’re all so focused on trying to feel special ourselves that we can’t get past it long enough to try to make someone else feel that way. That produces an awful lot of loneliness for both singles and couples and into that breach step in our pets. The up side of this is that maybe we can finally learn to love and make each other feel special through our pets. At the very least, that’s the best we can hope for.
III. From Animal ‘Liker’ to Animal Lover
Question: how does one make the leap from animal ‘liker’ to animal lover? To tell you the truth…I’m not quite sure. Here’s what I do know. The internet and YouTube are [to my mind] better animal rights advocates than PETA. How’s that? Well, let’s see…I must have combed through hundreds of cute kitty and puppy photos while I prepared this piece and [I have to admit] more than half of them got an “omg…trop cute” out of me. The fact of the matter is, the more I’m exposed to this kind of material, the closer to ‘squishy’ I get. I can assure you that this would suit my friends and family just fine. They’ve been avidly campaigning for my conversion for years now and each has done their part to move me in that direction. I can’t say I’ve been particularly resistant to any of it, except perhaps poop n scoop duty. I just cannot seem to wrap my head around the concept that I’m obligated to walk around and then dispose of doggie doo. Same thing for cats. I’d rather have babies projectile vomit on me repeatedly [and they have] than change the kitty litter or clean up the hairball our cat just coughed up. Don’t ask me why: it’s just this way. But, with every passing year, with every new Kitty Vine or new puppy my friends buy, the line between ‘liking’ and ‘loving’ these funny furry creatures gets more and more blurred. Eventually…I suspect it may well disappear altogether. That would be all right with me. I can think of worse things to love…like SPAM or Donald Trump’s hair…or even Herr Drumpf himself…[shudders]. Well, you get the picture.
So how do you feel about pets? Are you an animal ‘liker’ or animal lover? Tell me all about it!