2010.11.10 Pets are our children

Written by David Green.


Did you ever think about how humans are the only animals on Earth that keep pets? The only ones to make baby-talk to small, furry creatures that haven’t yet learned how to communicate in human-talk?

Actually, there were some wild capuchin monkeys in Brazil observed taking care of a little pet marmoset. It’s a much smaller monkey—quite different from the capuchin in many ways.

There have been many reports of pets among captive animals, but this was unusual because it was in the wilds. Sort of in the wilds. It was in an eco-tourism project where there was a lot of interaction betwixt humans and monkeys.

The capuchins fed their little friend, talked to it, let it ride around on their backs, just like the guy I saw in a parking lot in Toledo last month. He had his little dog wrapped around his neck while he sat in his car.

The marmoset hung around for 14 months and then disappeared.

Hal Herzog, a noted psychologist who studies human/animal relationships, doesn’t buy the pet theory. He thinks it was just a case of adoption.

It’s true that wild chimpanzees play with little animals like the hyrax, a little shrew-like mammal, but before long, the chimps kill their little pal and toss the corpse around like a rag doll. It’s kind of a one-side relationship.

Herzog talks about a study that discovered the importance of eye size. It’s why people want to save the pandas, but don’t give a darn about the world’s largest amphibian—the endangered giant Chinese salamander that Herzog describes as 100-pound, six-foot bag of brown slime...with beady little eyes.

That brings to mind the poor beady-eyed chicken. In the 1930s Americans ate about half a pound of chicken a year. A real rarity. Possum was probably more popular. Now the average is up to 90 pounds annually.

Attitudes change through the centuries. There was a time when Greeks and Romans conducted full-fledged funerals for pets. A couple of hundred years ago, ornamental mice were the popular pet in Japan. Today kids go for giant stag beetles.

There was a time when cat hatred broke out France and torture became a source of amusement. In our current era, you can buy health insurance for your pet.

Herzog has a new book about animals called “Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat.” He really takes readers into the cultural aspects. It’s not just that we don’t eat dog, he said in an NPR interview...

it’s the idea of eating dog is absolutely revolting. Dogs have been brought into our homes. They sleep in our beds, in many case, they eat at the table. We dress them in clothes. You can buy beer for your dog now that’s non-alcoholic, by the way. And so the idea of eating a dog is almost like eating a kid. It would be a form of cannibalism.

Herzog thinks pet-keeping is something learned—something that only humans can learn. Lots of animals fall for the rounded face/big eyes thing that leads us to take care of children, but there are social rules that tell you it’s OK to talk to a parrot and treat it like a child.

However, not everyone learns these rules. An anthropologist in Keyna told Herzog there isn’t even a word for pet in his language. It’s common to have a mongrel guard dog, but it sure isn’t going to come into the house and sleep on your bed.

A survey in Sri Lanka found that 90 percent of the Buddhist homes had pets and only five percent of the Muslim families.

Another study looked at pet-keeping in 60 cultures. Most of them had pets, but some people ended up eating their pets.  Dogs ended up on the dinner plate in more cultures than in those where the pet rules the house. In some cultures, lactating mothers don’t find it unusual to breastfeed pigs, puppies, monkeys and bear cubs.

Reading that sentence should cause me to never again make fun of a guy with a dog around his neck, but it won’t. I’m still amused.

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