My ambivalence towards pets is by now well documented. I consider the dog and four cats that reside in my house to be penance for all my past and future sins. They are my hair shirt – quite literally.
I’m at peace with the unlikelihood of my ever being named goodwill ambassador for the SPCA. Worst-case scenario, if I ever become single again, I won’t be able to answer personal ads from women who are nuts about pets and John Cusack films (“Must love Must Love Dogs”).
Yet each time I mention that I’m not an animal lover I feel the need to point out that this does not make me an animal hater. I do not hate pets. I do not neglect or mistreat my family’s pets. I do not push cats off my lap… all the time. I simply think pets are these four-legged jerks who have evolved to take advantage of human sentimentality. But I don’t hate them.
I shouldn’t have to make this distinction but increasingly in our society you are either with pets or against them.
And here’s one reason why: “pet parents.”
My children were watching “Duck Dynasty” the other day. (Do I like “Duck Dynasty”? I do not. Do I hate it? Not even. I simply don’t see the appeal of a show aimed at making the viewer feel simultaneously superior, envious and mostly bored. I’m ambivalent; see how that works? ) As I was leaving the room rolling my eyes, a dog food ad came on that mentioned something about how four out of five pet parents agree that most dogs would be just as content eating juice-soaked meat-tray liners straight out of the trash. Or something like that. I wasn’t really paying attention.
But “pet parents”?
“Pet parents!” I shouted. “We’re ‘pet parents’ now? No, we’re not! We’re pet owners! What’s wrong with ‘pet owners?’”
My children reacted the way they do when they hear the dog scratching at the door: they didn’t.
But as I walked away to shoo a cat from chewing a houseplant, I couldn’t let it go. It gnawed at me like a puppy gnaws a favourite pair of dress shoes. “Pet parent” is wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong!
Most of us obtain our pets through some kind of transaction. Therefore we own our pets. I will grant you that one might “adopt” a pet but this is not the same as adopting a child. I accept “adopt a pet” only because it beats the alternatives, such as “long-term leasing a pet” or “kidnapping a pet.” But unless you or your spouse pushed out that litter, you are not a “pet parent.”
What’s implied by “pet parent” is that domestic animals are our “pet children.” Again, I will grant you “pet companions” and “pet friends” and will concede that pets can provide satisfaction, love and the physical comfort of an empathetic, mobile heating pad. But the only way my pets are like my children is that I provide them food and shelter and they don’t clean up after themselves.
Notice I say they are “like” children. That is not the same as being children. My love is like a red, red rose but my love is not literally a rose, though I am a bit thorny. (And if I keep that up, I may be scanning personal ads sooner than I think.)
So why should I care? It’s just a dumb euphemism. Why disturb my children’s enjoyment of a mediocre reality show with my ranting?
Because “pet parents” is not the natural evolution of language. It is the forced language of lobbyists, the manipulation of marketers – but with significant ramifications. We already spend a ton of dough on Fido – over $48 billion on pet care and services in the U.S. alone. By further humanizing our pets, we’ll spend even more. That’s fine; it’s a dog-treat-dog world. But the implication is that if you don’t do everything you possibly can for your pet children, you are a bad, bad pet parent. And you will be judged.
Worse, though, is the ever-growing suggestion that pets are equal to humans. It’s not a long walk (without a repressive leash) from “pet parent” to “pet police” to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Chihuahua. And from there it’s a short Frisbee throw to publicly shaming scoundrels who are “ambivalent” about pets. Before you know it, the dog will be sitting at the table and pariahs like me will be tied to a tree in the back of the yard, howling at fate and barking at the neighbours.