by Chaya Grossberg
I’ve been allergic to cats and dogs my whole life, a hand-me-down from my father, but as a kid I “had” myself newts, a frog, even a free roaming turtle once, that my mom’s boyfriend saved in the middle of the road near our summer home in Pennsylvania. The turtle would get stinky and I’d bathe her in the bathtub, and one day she wandered off back into the wild where she came from, back where she could get run over by a car if she meandered into the road, but where at least while she was alive she could breathe fresh air all day and bathe herself in fresh water streams surrounded by beautiful wild greenery and rocks rather than scampering around on our carpet. And she could eat insects, smaller animals and wild greenery rather than whatever denatured human made food we were feeding her. She was free in the open air, no longer a “pet.” no longer subject to humanity and our strangeness.
My newts and frog, on the other hand, lived in small tanks in my bedroom in Brooklyn. I bought them at the pet store, inspired by my friend Emilie who had newts before me. Having never had the common privilege of being part of the dog or cat owners club, I was excited that I could at least join the pet club in a small way and see what everyone else was so intoxicated over with “their” animals.
My newts and frog died quickly though, some of them while I was at summer camp and other family members didn’t care for them properly or maybe they died of utter lack of purpose. After all, their purpose was to be cute and slimy for me, right? And I wasn’t even there to watch them dart around their shoe box sized tank. Under those conditions I would have likely gone on hunger strike too, refusing to eat the nasty food from the pet store, especially if no one was cleaning my tank so I was swimming in a foot by half foot container of my own feces.
Sure, I was an irresponsible kid who knew nothing of pet care besides what the “pet store” told me and my parents weren’t pet people either. There were joyful moments with the newts when I’d bring them out of a cage and let them crawl around on a large towel I laid out on my bedroom floor and invite my little brother in to play with them with me (and make sure they didn’t escape the towel). Or ask him to watch them for me. There was bonding with these small creatures, and with my brother over them. So I do understand some of the joys of developing a “relationship” with a specific animal by domesticating it, owning it and keeping it as your property.
Still I have a firm conviction that relationships should be based on mutual choice and that no part of the relationship should be any more dependent on the other than is necessary and should not be the legal property of the other. I do not believe animals should be bred to be the property and pets of human beings. I think it’s about as cute as it would be if my parents castrated me at puberty and kept me a child forever so I would never stop needing them. Sure, that might cause me to act quite cute and like an adorable child for my entire life, but there would be something inherently disgusting about it.
Or what if I was castrated, kept a child for life and put into a cage with an elephant? I’m sure I would bond with that elephant since the nature of mammals is to love one another, but I would be trapped in a world that wasn’t my own.
When I walk down the streets here in a suburb of Portland, Oregon, I rarely see a house that doesn’t have both a dog and a cat, which sometimes causes me to wonder how it is that my thinking and feeling on this topic is so vastly different than most members of my own species. Is it like everything else humans are doing to destroy the ecosystems? We are putting our immediate desires and addictions above the care of the whole? Perhaps it bothers me so much (and I have a feeling all of my pet owning friends will hate me for this) because pets meet a certain emotional desire people have that seems unfair. Why must each person have their animals in an institution of legal ownership? Why must animals be kept in houses and on leashes and eating yucky “pet” food. “Pet” is not a type of animal, it’s something humans have created, in large part for a false sense of emotional and even physical security. I certainly respect many people who “own” these beings as pets, yet I never ever feel even slightly okay when I look at a pet. I always feel something intrinsic has been stolen from that being and something of its wild, free spirit has been lost in pet hood. And in some cases, all of it. It makes me very sad, just like it does to see anybody inhibited from their true nature.
From Jason Godesky: The academic discussion of domestication often involves terms that serve to white-wash its effects, such as “neoteny.” Neoteny is defined as the retention of juvenile characteristics in adult animals, and it does occur in the animal kingdom naturally, where it offers an ecological advantage. But neoteny is also a trait almost universally found in domesticated animals. It is selected for by human breeders to create greater docility. Such is the normal terminology, which makes the process seem benign enough. But if we strip away the white-wash, then we can also say that domestication was a eugenics program to warp animal bodies, to retard their growth, and to trap them in ever more childlike bodies. Wild wolf cubs wag their tails and bark often, but they outgrow this behavior as they grow older into mature adults. Any dog owner can recognize the “neoteny” in that comparison. A dog is an eternal cub, incapable of ever fully growing up. A dog’s floppy ears are another neotenous trait. Particularly in behavior, such neoteny has been observed in wolves—but only among captive wolf packs, as signs of abject submission, where the normal egalitarianism of the wild pack is replaced with patterns of hierarchy and constant struggles for dominance. To strip away the academic white-wash, the behavior of the domesticated dog reveals a life of groveling submission. The least neotenous breed of dog, the basenji, is bred in Africa as a hunting companion—as an equal, “neither needing nor appreciating a great deal of human attention or nurturing,” as Wikipedia puts it.
I know there will be many counter arguments since about 60% of Americans have pets, but being that this stealing of the spirit of so many animals saddens me each day, and I often feel so alone in that feeling, I must share these thoughts. Sometimes we must risk being unpopular for the sake of speaking up. For if I didn’t, I’d be robbing myself of some of my freedom and, in essence, being a pet to human culture. A “good girl!” a “good dog!”
I am not suggesting everyone should free their pets into the wild, letting them die because they’ve been bred out of being able to take care of themselves without us. I don’t have a solution to this yet except to raise human consciousness, perhaps open a few eyes and hearts, and validate the few who already feel as I do.
There was a time I was the only one I knew who felt upset about psychiatric pharmaceuticals…so maybe this will lead somewhere good too.
And isn’t psychiatrization an extreme form of human domestication? Both being a pet and a psychiatric patient make the being more docile, less smart and easier to control, in most cases. Yet both are also done in the name of love and care.
There’s a beautiful song I once heard at a bonfire that was sung for a woman who was seriously injured and it went,
“I know the woman and
I knew the child and
I had the same dreams
of being free and wild.
I’m gonna keep on singing,
gonna keep on dancing,
gonna keep on believing
’til her spirit is restored.”
The memory of that song still brings tears to my eyes, though I can’t find the lyrics or a recording of it anywhere.
Respectful comments only. This is a sensitive topic to me; any disrespectful comments will be deleted.