The Unbearable Sadness of Humanized Pets
Part One of Two
I hope by now we have the category firmly fixed in our minds of something being good in itself and yet verging into sin when used outside of its proper bounds. Wine is good when used as an ornament to joy. It is bad when used as an aid to sleep. Sex is good within the boundary of marriage. It is bad everywhere else. A very human response to the potential misuse of God’s gifts has often just been to prohibit the gift. But this is to fall into the trap of asceticism, who has slain her ten thousands. A biblical response to the potential misuse of God’s gifts is to ensure you're not misusing them, which is much more difficult. Hence its unpopularity.
The reason for this preface is because today’s topic has to do with one such gift. I’m talking about animals. And specifically, the relationship man shares with animals. And more specifically, the relationship man shares with a particular segment of animals — namely the domesticated kind.
Pets. I’m talking about pets.
We need to talk about pets because, rightly or wrongly, we spend a whole lot of money on them, with the global pet care market expected to reach over 400 billion dollars by the year 2028. For context, not only could you lift sub-saharan Africa out of poverty with that kind of money, you could also equip it with rocket thrusters and commission it for deep-space research. Closer to home, we learn that 66% of U.S. households (86.9 million homes) own a pet. In contrast, only 50% of households own a child. This is down from 51% in 2016, which is down from 64% in 1981. Coming as absolutely no surprise, millennials make up the largest percentage of current pet owners (33%), followed by Gen X (25%) and baby boomers (24%).
Though there are many factors precipitating pet expansion, I believe the big one is summed up admirably by Lee Eun-hee, a consumer science professor at Inha University:
“The boom in nation's pet industry follows the ‘pet humanization’ trend, where people consider pets as their families. The trend comes as people are increasingly giving up marriage and childbirth . . . [and] is giving rise to new specialized business fields such as dog salons in the pet industry, and, people are constantly provided with new opportunities to spend money for their pets.”
This isn’t Korea, you say. This is North America, you say. Give me a day and I bet I could round up a hundred people who’ve spent my yearly grocery budget on lambswool coats for their Maltipoo. Give me another day and I’ll find a hundred cats with low-grade Zoloft addictions.
The pets are not okay. Which means the pet-owners are most definitely not okay.
A Brief Theology of Animalia
“And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds—livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.’ And it was so. And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.” (Genesis 1:24–25)
The first thing to say here is that we must approach the animal kingdom like we approach everything else. That is, through the interpretive lens of the Scriptures. Not through secular environmental theory, not through ecocritical studies, not through the ideological wolf-children of climate activists. The Bible, as God’s revelation to humanity, isn’t just our guiding rule for “spiritual matters,” but for all matters everywhere. In Paul’s words, “We take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”
Round those babies up and brand them with a “C.”
It also seems clear from this passage that God created two categories of “good” animals: livestock and wild animals. Wild animals are somewhat of a mixed bag. On the one hand, their “use” to humans is fairly limited. On the other hand, wild animals offer significant theological instruction for humans insofar as they are a sheer demonstration of God’s ingenuity and power. Even if some of them can be tamed, or at least subdued, many will only ever exist as elemental powers, alongside volcanoes and lightning. This seems to be the essence of God’s object lesson in Job 41.
The other category of animals is livestock. We find the goodness of livestock not primarily in their ability to strike awe (though I have met some nobly-inclined Holsteins) but in their capacity for usefulness. Livestock animals not only don’t mind being herded, they get positively paranoid when not being herded. They put on meat incredibly fast, (mostly) aren’t vicious, and are completely fine standing around all day eating earth’s most naturally occurring food supplies: grass. Not only do they provide a ready supply of protein, but, at least historically, a ready supply of cheap labour and sacrifice as well.
Mankind is not “abusing” livestock animals when we use them in these ways, as would be the case for wild animals (there would be something cruel about trying to pasture lions or pelicans). We are using them in the way God intended them to be used — namely, as tools for taking dominion:
“Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” (Genesis 1:26)
Okay, but What about Pets?
Pets, as far as I can tell, are a subcategory of livestock. No, I don’t think this means we should start raising “meat cats.” At least, not yet. But I do think we should still view pets primarily in terms of their usefulness, i.e., in terms of what they can offer in helping us further/preserve dominion.
Let me explain.
Many dogs are fiercely loyal and protective. Assuming they aren’t a decorative poodle, these qualities mean they can be useful for protecting the family/ livestock. Cats are wholly faithless, or whatever the opposite of loyal is, but also decent at keeping “creeping things” under control, so not a total loss. I believe the usefulness of pets dwindles when we start getting down into guinea-pigs, budgies, and Nigerian dwarf frogs. But even here, pets can be “good” in terms of teaching our kids responsibility, and giving them a preview of what it means to care for something, which will hopefully manifest as kids of their own someday.
I also don’t think it’s a stretch to say that pets are “useful” as vehicles of recreation. When I watch our cat enjoying the vapid pleasure of flinging a bell in the air over and over again, I am momentarily — blessedly — lifted out of the moldy corridors of my mind. I am witnessing, in this simple transaction, a dumb beast bringing glory to its Creator. In the enjoyment of a simple creature’s simple pleasure, I find joy. Joy, I believe, which falls into the categorical joys of bread, oil, and wine (Psalm 104:14). Neither is it a stretch for me to imagine the triune God taking pleasure in the spectacle of a Labrador, in ecstasy, edging its way down a grassy hill on its back.
I think we could extend this blessing, in a limited way, to seniors, for whom the routine and regularity of a pet can be a great comfort and stability in their later years. I think there are dangers here as well, however, which I will turn to now.
Man’s Best Friend?
In all of life, it is of utmost importance that we strive to maintain a biblical hierarchy, which in a nutshell looks like: God > Man > Animals. When you try to rearrange or “improve” this hierarchy, as our culture is in the midst of doing, you don’t get peace and equality. You get The Brady Bunch, only written and directed by Rob Zombie. You get abortion, euthanasia, and human suffering.
God said there was nothing, among the whole panoply of fresh-baked creation, that was suitable as a companion for Adam. This is because Adam was a ruler, and all of creation was his subject. It turns out the one thing that would be suitable for man, namely woman, required God doing something fundamentally new.
When we start viewing pets primarily as companions, we are laying aside our rightful crown and donning a propeller beanie. It’s not cute. It’s an abdication of responsibility. It also leads to degregation, not just for the world at large, but for individual human relationships. As we’ve seen in the case of homosexual marriage, one unnatural step is only the first of an extended downward sequence. Which is why I firmly believe the pet-equality movement will eventually, mark my words, become a beastiality movement. God foresaw this exact thing, in fact, which is also why you shouldn’t fold Leviticus 20 into your filing cabinet just yet.
The cure for all of this is simple, if not easy. It is to live according to the creational pattern, which means relating to animals not as equals, but as rulers. Which means it might be time to toss the kitschy “The Cats and Their Housekeeping Staff Reside Here” welcome mat.
One more word on the phenomenon of pets and seniors. As I mentioned before, insofar as pets assist with regularity and routine, they can be a real help and blessing. Despite this, the truth remains that it is not good for man to be alone. Animals are not, ultimately, fitting companions — at any stage of life. Which means that families hoping Fluffy can emotionally provide for Mom and Dad in their absence are fooling themselves.
The great irony in all of this is that pets are actually happier when treated as pets. There is not a shred of doubt in my mind that many of the “emotional disorders” afflicting pets are as a result of humans trying to make them into something they’re not. If you’ve got a second, run through James Harriet’s account of the humanized, criminally-spoiled Pekingese “Tricky Woo.” Listless, overweight, and asthmatic, Tristan’s “cure” is to take her back to his vet practice and let her tear around with the half-mad clinic dogs for a week.
It winds up being the perfect cure. And another example of why following God’s ways leads to flourishing for everyone.
This is Part 1. Tune in next week where we’ll discuss “The Unbearable Sadness of Pet Parenting.”
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