Philosophical Research Group

On House Pets and Animal Hospitals
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Author:  brandonj [ Thu May 08, 2008 5:39 am ]
Post subject:  On House Pets and Animal Hospitals

This week, on May 9th, at 6:00pm, the Philosophical Research Group will meet to discuss
Housepets and Animal Hospitals.

Housepets are a great intersection of Nature and Culture, full of yearnings and misperceptions, that begs for some real deep-cutting questions— and, occasionally, some nasty answers.
So, to begin with, I won't pen out an essay on Housepets. Instead, I'll just throw out a barrage of questions, to start the conversation. Essay to follow.

First, is to ask the meanie question of whether the bond between man and pet is a healthy one, whatever that may mean, and for whom. Medicine has made a point lately of extolling the health benefits— the stress-relieving, anti-depressant quality of animal companions— but is the same true the other way? Are pets happier within the confines of domesticity, or is domestication more continuous with slavery and Nature uprooted? Are they happy? Is it sensible to speak of pet happiness? More to the point, is the bond based on delusions, cultural projections onto unfit natural entities?
In this, do we need living beings to project onto— for instance, I am the owner of a large, stuffed lion named Zarathustra, who as far as I can tell, is my ideal pet— no mess, no needs, with all the Sphinxlike calm of a housecat, and all the huggability of a large furry mammal. Furthermore, I've learned that emotive projection works nearly as well, or better, than with normal housecats. Does this mean that inanimate objects or plants can serve just as well, for cathecting, as a locus for our affection and adoration? If so, what would be wrong with such a stress-relieving, anti-depressant delusion?

And speaking of which, we might ask what exactly we get out of pets, what cat owners derive from cats, and dog-owners from dogs. Which way must the affection flow for which personalities? Narcissistic personalities or cathectic personalities? What is happening when we're adoring or admiring our animals, the "cuteness"— is it pure maternal and paternal instincts, or is there an added tension because of its species? Or something else? There is always, in the pet-human relation, an absurdity at its heart. When we, for example, speak to an animal in long meaningful sentences. But, at the same time, we love and nurse this absurdity, and hang pictures on our fridges of animals in human clothing. We invite these creatures into our homes, and then just laugh at them.

Are Animal Hospitals hectic monuments to the human capacity for sympathy? And dog parks: in what ways are we exploiting animal sociability to overcome human inhibition? Or what about pets as mascots, as totem animals, as reflections of human orders? Are animals citizens? Are they our children? What does the domestication of animals tell us about the taming and countering of our own instincts? If it's analogous, if it's repression in the Freudian sense, can there be symptoms? What are they? To what degree are pets ways of smuggling incivility and transgression— "irrationality"— back into the human world, with a buffer against apology?

What about "zoophiliacs" and their insistence on the validity of sexual love between man and animal— how should we speak about love between man and animal? Perversity aside, is this just an intensification of the pet-relation?
What about pets versus other domesticated animals— as love versus economics— and does this dynamic carry over into the world of human relations? And Pet Death: is this the first rite and stop to prepare us for Friend and Family Death?

Historically, I'm curious about the pet relation, how long have their been "toy dogs," or how long have pets enjoyed this position in the human world, how has it changed subtly throughout the ages? And I really want to think about Pet Culture as well— to think of Pet Culture anthropologically, anthropomorphically, since humans have erected a Culture around natural creatures— balls, fire hydrants, dog bowls, scratching posts, pet psychologists, dog parks, pet stores— actually a trip to the pet store would serve us well. We can try to imagine we have discovered Pet Culture, as a civilization, and try to extract sense from it. Again, pets are Nature/Culture straddlers that can help us rewrite our self-conceptions, in the same manner as studying bonobo chimps. Which is why, I've thrown this out, as a topic.

Author:  vladimirz [ Fri May 09, 2008 5:49 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: On House Pets and Animal Hospitals

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Through the FLEXPETZ shared dog ownership concept, members can spend from just a few hours to a number of days with each of our dogs. FLEXPETZ dogs are available in varied breed sizes to ensure compatibility with our member's individual lifestyles and unique circumstances."

Author:  nathanieldavis [ Wed May 14, 2008 3:13 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: On House Pets and Animal Hospitals

I think the house pet serves two major functions for the human: 1) atoning for the frustration and complexity of human relationships, and 2) allaying anxiety over one's own animal nature.

I think firstly of the abusive dominance of the owner whose dog sees him as the center of the world. He commands his dog, "Sit!," while he goes into the store. The poor hound simply waits outside, anxiously awaiting his owner's return, full of anxiety, anxious devotion. The owner swaggers back and the dog nearly collapses with delight. This relation is one of love, a certain kind of love, more similar, however, to slavery than marriage. The owner is surrounded in his daily life by casual friends, co-workers, blasé family -- only in love (with a human) would he encounter such an intense and inspiring devotion. Without such love (indeed, obsessive love on a human level is something quite unfashionable nowadays) he attains this perverse egoistic fulfillment by training an animal to revere him as a god.
(This kind of reaction can never be coaxed from a stuffed animal or houseplant, nor even from a parrot or goldfish... Cats also would provide a different sort of emotional fulfillment -- Which is why I think we'll have to separate out the differences between the varieties of housepet.. with that of a dog being the most problematic, I would say).

It should be obvious that the relationship with a housepet is not an animal relation. An animal relation is more properly found in nature, being chased by a bear, or ignored by a moose. Housepets remain, however, resolutely animal in form and being. The bizarre way in which humans relate to them serves a function that I think is related to the uncertain position that humans hold in the animal kingdom. Humans are, of course, animals. This is a basic fact that is easily forgotten, perhaps due to the anxiety that it's truth causes us. It is all well and good to accept the theory of evolution and proclaim Darwin a genius, but I think the widespread cultural acceptance of the idea of humans-as-animals is not so comprehensive as one might think.
The housepet serves as a miniature of the human, a being plucked from the animal world and endowed with human characteristics. This also responds to a certain loneliness which I think humans have, having no animal relatives anywhere near our level of intelligence/civilization. By 'joining' our human culture, pets make us feel like we aren't what we really are as humans: a bizarre and singular exception to the general laws of nature. The housepet is a perverse response to the need for connection with our animal neighbors on this planet.
(This is also why I don't think pets can be replaces by stuffed animals or plants. Their status as real, living animal is essential to their function.)

Tying these two functions together, the housepet corrects what is wrong with both the animal nature of humanity and the human nature of humanity. In this way the little pup occupies a certain ideal existence: thoroughly connected with its own animal nature -- pissing anywhere, sniffing asses, rolling in the dirt, etc. -- while simultaneously being more capable than many humans of the essential human deed, loving.

Author:  nathanieldavis [ Thu May 15, 2008 2:06 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: On House Pets and Animal Hospitals

... And it seems obvious to me that pet death is a preparation for friend/family death, just as owning a pet is designed to teach a child responsibility. However, one can ask whether this backfires; whether the child-pet relationship will lead the child to be upset/confused/dysfunctional when he or she grows up to encounter that intricacies and subtleties of human relationships. The mild companionship of a cat, the dumb loyalty of a dog may train children to desire unhealthy things from their partners in friendship and romance. The more I think of it the more it seems fucked up that children are trained through animal relationships to learn how to care for other humans. Humans seem unwilling, for some reason, to accept that our capacity to care for one another in a meaningful, compassionate way is exactly what separates us from animals- exactly what animals are incapable of doing.

Author:  brandonj [ Fri May 16, 2008 6:31 am ]
Post subject:  Re: On House Pets and Animal Hospitals

Nathaniel, I wish you had been at the PRG. It was quite comprehensive; not necessarily the deepest cutting, but allowing us to see the many varieties of animal-human relations in a glance, so to speak. You hit upon something that I think was absent though: that pets serve to mediate our frustrations and privations with human relations, rather than just to serve as supplementary affection.

In the discussion, some tried to find and parse the tiny sources of contempt they held for certain kinds of human-pet relations— not real full-blooded contempt, just good-humored contempt. I think you hit upon it, in some ways: that people, in attempting to make dogs and cats children, or dogs and cats friends, at times reach an uncomfortably desperate tone because they are not fulfilling needs in the human world, and so try to negate the animal, the natural, within their pet companions. We all have such frustrations, but there are moments when we feel that their desperations and delusions are being hoisted upon us— when we are asked to play along with the dog-as-child routine or dog-as-equal routine, even if we don't want to. And this creates some weird contempt: this absolute negation of the animal within the pet.

After the PRG, and after some comments by Dan Wyche, I think there was something in me that realized a healthier relation was to acknowledge both the animal and cultural elements within the pet. That pets, by definition are pieces of Nature corralled by Cultural expectation, but nevertheless remain pieces of Nature. That a healthier rapport comes in a shape closer to the sheep dog relation— he is an animal, a work function, and finally a companion. And what the master has is a certain respect for the sheep dog, for all three aspects simultaneously. Doubly so since the hierarchies of canine society would reciprocally acknowledge the master-as-master (which would be different in the human world).

There's a subtler point here, which I think is interesting for many reasons: where man and animal have a point of exchange, or communication, an understanding, without necessarily having a parts in common. That is, that man and animal can intermingle without necessarily mistaking man-for-animal or animal-for-man. It would be what Emily Durkheim called organic solidarity versus mechanical solidarity. That is, we receive something from pets, and vice versa, but we are still different many, many ways. There is a division of labor in the animal kingdom, just s there always has been.

For instance, we mentioned the game of Fetch. This game fulfills dog needs. It also fulfills human needs. But they are not the same needs— however we are both engaged in the same game, and the same grammar. There is here communication— and something that reflects interestingly communication in general. Shared grammars without shared desires. This is also a good approach when asking many other questions about dogs and cats as subjects; about whether dogs and cats are happy or sad, whether they have "rights" or are more like slaves than companions.

I have to go for now— but I want to continue with this line of thought, as well as points on Pet Death.

Author:  cecilia [ Wed May 21, 2008 2:38 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: On House Pets and Animal Hospitals

the topic of animal hospitals in particular inspires a
socially loaded gag reflex. the intrinsic inequity of considerable
economic expenditure on a favored cat or pup while, within a twenty
mile radius, other humans starve to death, is somewhat repugnant.
although the image of an individual pet owner's tearful concern over a
puppy's demise inspires something more like a tug on the heart strings,
the situation is nevertheless indicative of a greater economic
absurdity which plagues our global reality. when the life of
economically privileged pets is worth more than the poor, we must question
our values. when the lives of the privileged pets are given greater
care than those of the working class, we must refuse these laughable
animal hospitals.
Regarding the question of what is good for the animal itself, one need look no further than the wikipedia entry on the "Pet.."
"Animal protection advocates call attention to the pet overpopulation "crisis" in the United States. According to the Humane Society of the United States, 3-4 million dogs and cats are euthanized each year in the country and many more are confined to cages in shelters. This crisis is created by nonneutered animals (spayed/castrated) reproducing and people intentionally breeding animals. A particularly problematic combination of economic hardship combined with a love of animals contributes to this problem in parts of the rural United States.[8] In an average year, a fertile cat can produce three litters of kittens, with up to 4 to 6 kittens in each litter. Based on these numbers, one female cat and her offspring could produce up to 420,000 cats over a seven year period if not spayed or castrated. There are also major overpopulation problems with other pet species, such as birds and rabbits. Local humane societies, SPCAs, and other animal protection organizations urge people to neuter their pets and to adopt animals from animal shelters instead of purchasing them from breeders or pet stores."

Author:  brandonj [ Thu May 22, 2008 8:32 am ]
Post subject:  Re: On House Pets and Animal Hospitals

My feeling on the pet-child relationship, as far as care and empathy and so on, is positive on the whole:
In that such a relation will push and aid a child in the development of a moral sense— a sensitivity to the suffering of others, and a desire for their common happiness, in this case mammalian happiness, real or imagined. Even the young child can learn to see cats and hamsters as somehow distinct from other objects, by a process of ever-widening empathy. A fundamental difference: between beings and objects.
This is wholly good and applicable to animals because our moral sense should be triggered by a fellow creature's capacity to "suffer rather than to reason," in the words of Jeremy Bentham. Animals suffer, and so the extension of sympathy is not really dysfunctional— through our sensitivities, we can lessen they suffering. And personally, we, as adults or as children, grow in our own understanding, moral or otherwise, by identifying with the sufferer.

This tidy little quotation also ties back in nicely with what I said previously about treating animals as subjects, as citizens, as fellow reasoners, able to quibble and barter and enter into human exchange. When we try to identify with them through this sort of subjecthood, we quickly run off the path— but we can see that they suffer, and participate in suffering, just as they participate with us in the game of Fetch— that is, from possibly another angle. It does not matter what suffering means to them, how they would talk about suffering if they could, as slightly dumber, miniature-subjects. We enjoy playing as though they are citizens, but at the end of the day, the doggy dialogue is really for us. But the shared grammar here is the experience of suffering— and so puppy dogs and pussy cats can even help us see other human suffering as that much more abominable— even if we become "squeamish or oversensitive," unable to crush spiders and wasps.

And even in Pet Death, I think that grieving is helpful on our side, in that grief is as much about loss as it is the bare tragedy of the cessation of personality (or, here, the end of subjecthood). The withdrawal of affection from some lost piece of the world applies just the same. A child can better learn to handle this break or laceration in the gentle flow of things, and gets some solid thanatoptic experience out of Pet Death, perhaps an ability even to accept its inevitability.
Even stronger, Pet Death has a shorter cycle than the more prelonged human death— which can be denied for years, nearly a lifetime, until its coming. Pet Death cuts down these hopes; presents Death in a pretty staccato fashion— cars, untreated cancers, old age coming on quick— and I think children probably understand the analogues to our own lives and deaths.

But Cecilia brings up a good point about priority— about animals hospitals erected in the midst of neglected homo sapiens. What we see here, though poignant on the surface, is pet-love supplanting agape for the human community. Though maybe the extension of empathy to further circles of the Animal Kingdom is admirable, it fails to be moral progress when animals and human are switching places in the move. But can there be tragedy in the Animal Kingdom? Or could it be continuous with our other conceptions?
For instance, the recent Disney movie Ratatouille. I felt this left a very uncomfortable lesson (almost radical in a way) for the children of the world— I could not see how children could synthesize this into other moral lessons. The film ends with Man and Rat living harmoniously, while our parents drop traps and poison in the home, and meanwhile keep another rodent cousin, like a hamster or gerbil or rabbit, as a family pet. Obviously some inconsistent ideas of the animal-pet-pest-human grid. Confusion probably of the same order that Charlottes's Web bred about pigs in the previous generation— smarter than dogs, even more babylike, and yet they are neither pets nor associates— they are food, food that screams like a human child when it's being slaughtered.

At the very least, the Pet Concept is not neat or consistent in how and why we love and empathize— and does leave some weird questions for children wondering about suffering within the great-chain-of-Being.

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