Tag Archives: pets

Pets as Conduits to Health?

As I made my way to one of my regular dog-walking clients yesterday, I caught a story on the radio about a new study out of the Rand Corporation. Contrary to what the authors call “a widely held belief that children’s general and psychological health benefits from owning and/or interacting with pets,” there was no statistically significant difference between the health of children who lived with pet animals and those who lived solely with other humans.

Let’s side-step an interrogation of the study’s assumption that children’s health is a major reason adults adopt cats and dogs. We all have assumptions about the motivations of other people in our culture. For example, my assumption has long been that some parents and guardians see pets as a way to teach their children responsibility, aside from perhaps enjoying the company of companion animals themselves or wishing to reproduce the conditions of their own childhoods for their offspring. I cannot access the full study to see whether the authors cite any sources that back up their particular assumption. A quick glance at the references section indicates both an explosion of scholarship on pet-human relationships and that the authors likely have research to back up the assumption stated above.

Back when I spent a lot of time researching U.S. pet-keeping practices, I don’t recall reading or asking my informants about the reasons they chose to bring pet animals into their homes. This not only seems like a significant oversight on my part, but an intriguing line of research to pursue in the future. At the very least, I’m considering subscribing to Anthrozoös.

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Filed under Animals, Childhood, Contemporary

Why Can’t I Eat My Pet Fish?

This originally appeared in Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?, a monthly Q&A series about U.S. culture featured in my newsletter.

QUANDARY

So, I get why we can’t (won’t) eat our dogs. But what about pet fish?
~from Lesley

ANTHROPOLOGICAL EXPLANATION

Oh, goody! Lesley’s question gives us the opportunity to complicate our understanding of the basic cultural categories that inform our interspecies relationships, and explore what happens When Those Categories Collide…

We can think about animal-human relationships in terms of relative proximity. In the very first issue of this “advice” column, I addressed the idea that non-human animals exist on a continuum of proximity-to-humans. This continuum can be traced using the concept of edibility. Animals that humans consider to be edible (“fair game,” if you’ll indulge me) fall into a particular span on the proximity continuum: they are close enough to humans to be mundane, but not so close that they are emotionally important. In the U.S., the edibility span is where we will find cattle, pigs, and chickens. Different cultures categorize animals differently along the continuum, and for Lesley’s question about pet fish, we’ll stick with mainstream U.S. culture.

Now you might want to have a Dramamine for this next part, because we’re about to take a mobius-trip.

The meanings of animals change with practice—the cultural category a given animal is in depends on how humans interact with them. Conversely, our interactions with animals are bounded, imperfectly, by these categories. Proximity dictates practice, which dictates proximity. It’s a reciprocal loop of mutual influence. It’s also helpful to remember that emotional proximity maps onto physical/categorical proximity, thereby correlating with edibility. (Sea-sick, yet?)

Anyway, the upshot of this is: Pets are animals with whom humans maintain close physical relationships and develop emotional ties. Humans also avoid eating pet animals for supper.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, but what about fish? An excellent question. In the U.S., fish can occupy different categories depending on how humans interact with them: exotic, edible, and pet. It’s the interaction that can transform a fish into friend, foe, food, or instagram subject.

Pet fish occupy a particular position within the pet category because they create an intersection of the exotic and pet categories, neither of which make them edible. Whereas “normal” fish (think tuna, salmon) are categorically edible, pet fish are decidedly not food…unless you’re Otto in A Fish Called Wanda. But the movie understands him to be a psychopath, reinforcing the normative categorical structure of animal-human relationships.

We keep pet fish close to us, so they become like-us to the extent that they become inedible. Exotic pet fish are doubly inedible. But we do not keep pet fish as close to us as we keep, say, a pet dog. Pet fish live out their lives in tanks, whereas pet dogs live out their lives without this extra physical separation. The relationships are different, the interactions are different, and their relative edibility index is correspondingly different, as well.

At the same time, many pet fish are also “exotic” in the sense that they are not typically the types our culture eats. Do you know anyone who keeps a sturgeon in their office? (Don’t answer that.)

In conclusion, because of the ways we interact with them, pet fish simultaneously occupy two inedible categories on the proximity continuum. Take your pick—just don’t fry up that betta for your next dinner party.

 
MISCELLANY

For more background on the history of pet keeping in the U.S., check out Pets in America by Katherine C. Grier.

In 2010, mid-way through writing my MA thesis about the category of cow that’s created in a petting-zoo, I had the fortune to hear Donna Haraway give the keynote address at the Society for Cultural Anthropology’s “Nature Culture” conference. Conference attendees were split into camps: those who believed nature and culture were separate and that categories were useful, and those who believed categories were no longer useful in understanding the interactions among beings. Haraway had recently written a book called When Species Meet, which explores human-animal “encounters” and posits that humans can become “companion species” with other species of animal, “becoming with” one another. After her keynote, John Law was charged with responding. He asked Haraway about fish, positing that dogs are easier to connect with—thereby becoming a companion species—than fish. I believe he said something like, “just look at it!” (Sometimes it’s difficult to break free of one’s cultural categories.) Haraway suggested that one could ratchet-up mediated ways of responding when it comes to human-fish relations. Somehow, there would be a way to create intimacy across the median of diversity. (Underwater, no less!) Law seemed stuck on the problem of “significant otherness.”

Come for the backlash against vegetarians; stay for the Oster eggs puns.

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Reminder
While some thought and research does go into answering these questions, this is largely armchair anthropology, brought to you by someone who left academia in 2010. There’s a very good reason I’m no longer a “real” anthropologist, and it’s called Fieldwork Talking to Strangers.
You can submit your own question about social norms and cultural practices to “Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?” whenever the mood strikes you. The ‘advice’ column welcomes all inquiries, animal-related or not, but cannot guarantee an answer to each submission.

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Filed under Animals, Why Can't I Eat My Dog?

Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?

What follows is the first in an ongoing Q&A series about the strange inner workings of U.S. culture. 

Quandary

Why can’t I eat my dog?

Anthropological Explanation

Many forces conspire against the enterprising individual who fixes a side-long glance upon their household pet and thinks, “In a pinch…” The majority of these dissuasive forces are cultural, and therein lies their strength. There is a logic underpinning our taboo against eating pet animals, and it has to do with our close relationships with them, and the different categories these practices create.

You’ve no doubt noticed that certain animals are more “edible” than others. In the United States, most people think nothing of eating a hamburger, but grow queasy at the thought of horse meat having slipped into their ground beef, and positively livid at the idea that cat meat might grace someone’s plate. The reason is simple: we have a social aversion to mixing up different categories of animals. A taboo, if you will.

For anthropologists, taboos are a “repression of interstitial states produced by the application of discrete conceptual classes on the continuum of experience” (Valeri, p.63).

Animal-human relationships are arranged into these categories on an axis of “closeness.” The closer an animal is to humans in their cultural relationship, the less edible it becomes. Eating is a practice that creates lines of distinction between humans and animals that are not-human enough to become food. Because we have placed dogs firmly in the “pet” category, they cannot also be in the “food” category. This is why pets are taboo as a source of food: humans have formed such close bonds with them that they have become inedible. The inverse is true to a lesser extent: animals that are far from humans (exotic animals and pests) are less edible, but not quite as taboo as those closest to humans on the relationship spectrum.

Different cultures consider different animals close (and therefore inedible). Conversely, some cultures consider the animals Americans tend to think of as pets as a category of creature that is perfectly edible. It all depends on each culture’s relationships and practices with regards to each animal. Last September, a brief story appeared on KPCC about dogs from South Korean meat farms being “rescued” and brought to the United States for adoption. In this case, Americans were imposing their culturally-specific logic of animal-human relationship taxonomy onto a different culture.

Cultural norms constrain our every thought and action, and the taboo against eating the (potential/technical) food source in closest proximity to us is merely one of them. Most Americans–even enthusiastic carnivores!–likely take this comestible constraint as a given. They are “naturally” repulsed by the idea of boiling Fluffy for supper, if they’ve ever allowed themselves to consider it in the first place. (They should be repulsed; everyone knows Fluffy would be much tastier fried.) This blatant assault on American’s gastronomic freedom ensures that our taxonomy of animal-human relationships remains intact.

Originally published in my newsletter. This question sent me down a nostalgic rabbit hole of thesis notes, so count yourselves lucky there’s only one citation: “The Forest of Taboos” by Valerio Valeri.

You can submit your own question about social norms and cultural practices to “Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?” whenever the mood strikes. The ‘advice’ column welcomes all inquiries, animal-related or not, but cannot guarantee an answer to each submission.
Submit your question by May 15 for a chance to win a free book!

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Voicing the Voiceless

Earlier today as I stood in line at checkout, I overheard one of the cashiers at another line ooh over a customer’s baby. “Look at her, she’s like, ‘I just wanna go back to sleep,'” the cashier said.

I thought about how quickly we map our expectations onto other beings, how easily we imbue them with personalities of our own designs. And how we tend to do this for those who can’t “speak” for themselves: babies and animals.

My pets have distinct personalities, but I’m not fooling myself. I know these personalities spring not from them, but from my idea of them. My interpretations of their behaviors. I speak for them in silly voices, attributing reactions and thoughts that they very well may not have.

I’ve caught myself doing the same thing to babies. My friend and I were hanging out with her toddler, and I found myself saying things like, “he’s like, ‘mm, mysterious berries!” or “he says, ‘I dunno about this strange lady.'” How presumptuous of me!

When we speak for animals and for babies, we privilege our interpretation of them over the ways in which they are already communicating with us. They have personalities, but can we recognize them? How much of a being’s personality originates with them, and how much is in the mind of the beholder? This is back to the classic conundrum of intent vs. interpretation, which I tried to suss out a few weeks ago.

And how can we even begin to untangle this when considering cases of pet personality development, much less human personality development? Luckily, I think humans are pretty good at asserting themselves when push comes to shove, outsider interpretations be damned. But until they can do so verbally, they’re at a disadvantage. Those of us who can speak tend to do so for them unless we really check ourselves. Hopefully their development isn’t too much at our mercy.

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NKLA and Participatory Advertising

In the age of the internet, advertisers can rely on consumers to do a lot of work. Because people in this hyper-connected, digital culture are in the habit of constantly looking things up, only to forget them because they can call back that knowledge at will (think wikipedia) less and less information can be provided in advertisements. It is up to the consumer to figure out what’s being sold. What the message is.

To over-simplify a bit, this trend started nearly 100 years ago, when advertisements became less about long-form essays detailing the benefits of a product, and more about images that conveyed the feelings one would get by consuming said products. Now, there’s a type of ad that uses a combined strategy of images and limited accompanying text, relying on consumers to either guess at or go looking for the message and even the very product it’s attached to. These advertisements don’t even have to be about selling something. They can be about conveying an idea; making it “go viral.” It’s propaganda that masquerades as subtle, all the while hoping the masses will whip out their smartphones, find the hidden message on the internet, and hit themselves over the head with it.  Oh, and tell their friends, preferably via tweet. The marketers have passed off their work to us.

Take, for example, the NKLA billboards that popped up in the greater Los Angeles area. These consist of black-and-white photographs of cats and dogs, the letters “NKLA,” and a tiny emoticon-like logo in the bottom corner that suggests a doggie face. That’s it. What the hell are these for? Is it a new clothing line? A rap-group? Soap? Unless the viewer of these ads already knows what they’re supposed to take away from this collection of signifier-less signs, it’s a mystery. And I’d argue it’s designed to be obscure in order to pique the viewer’s interest, igniting a burning curiosity that eventually forces them to take to the interwebs and find out what these billboards and bus-stop ads are supposed to mean. It’s designed to force participation on the part of the view–or in the case of an ad for a product, the potential consumer.

Far be it from me to do the same thing and keep you, my imagined reader, in suspense. It turns out that these “NKLA” ads are for a campaign promoting the idea that no “viable” pet animals be killed in the city of Los Angeles. Here, you don’t even have to go looking. The campaign is backed by a coalition of like-minded organizations, some corporate and some non-profit. What they’re really selling/proposing is an old idea: eugenics. Like Bob Barker used to remind us after every “The Price is Right,” they want us to remember to spay or neuter our pets, and these organizations are mounting an effort to make that easier for people to do. I won’t get into the politics of this or why I find this problematic. For the purposes of this discussion, it’s enough to note that this is not a revolutionary idea that this campaign is trying to promote. Rather, it is the method of promotion and dissemination of this old message that’s somewhat revolutionary. It’s not word of mouth; it’s words from technology.

It is curious that the coalition’s strategy was to rely on viewers to figure out what campaign they were seeing. To do the work to figure out what the message was. Now that is some clever propaganda, and a risky move. Predicting the crowd is not an easy thing to do. And baiting them to do what you want them to do is arguably harder. If not for our digital, internet-connected, give-me-the-info-now culture, this would have no chance of working, of getting the message across. The images would just sit there, not being “read;” not being understood as their makers intended. The message would remain un-conveyed, or at least misinterpreted by the many consumers who were now going to be sorely disappointed the next time they tried to find NKLA’s newest album release.

This type of advertising strategy implicates the viewer–it requires that they participate. It demands their effort and their involvement in the campaign itself. They are part of the advertising team. It is self-directed marketing. Only those with the curiosity bug will exert the effort to get the message. It is self-selected, in a way, as it is more likely that someone with a soft spot for vaguely sad-looking pet animals will be inclined to take the time to find out what those puppies and kitties are trying to tell them. The black-and-white images help set the down-and-out tone, but that only really clicks and becomes part of the message when the viewer looks on the internet and finds out what the ad campaign is “selling”–the idea of a society in which no animals qualifying for the “pet” category have to be killed. (I won’t hold my breath for an “unhappy cows” spin-off.)

It’s all quite clever. And would seem to usher in a new era of marketing methodology.*  The consumer is the partial-producer of the advertisement that encourages them to buy (or in the case of NKLA, buy in to an idea and possibly become involved in either materially realizing it or further disseminating it). The consumer becomes a partial producer of the ad’s message because only after going through the effort of finding the message does the entire campaign gain its layers of meaning. And now, the idea has another follower. Perhaps another member of the movement who is willing to participate even further. Because that viewer searched and found the site and read it and understands. Understands that they now have to decide whether to cruelly say “no” to a campaign that is only trying not to have stray pet animals needlessly die to make room for more stray pet animals. The manipulation is palpable, but is over-ridden by the ostensibly “good” message that is so benign and “right” that no one who took the trouble to find it could possibly, in good conscience, disagree with it. Propaganda’s sneaky that way.

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*Or maybe this strategy has been employed before. It would be worth looking into from a history-of-advertising perspective.

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