By all accounts, humans had a tough go in 2021. The pandemic raged on, and the global economy slid around like a drunken elephant on an ice rink. But one lucky dog had an amazing year: Lulu, age 8, of Nashville, Tennessee, inherited a $5 million trust fund after her owner, Bill Dorris, died. Dorris was famous nationwide for owning a comically hideous statue of Confederate general—and Ku Klux Klan leader—Nathan Bedford Forrest. Although devoid of any artistic, moral, or historic merit, and despite being repeatedly vandalized, the sculpture occupied prime real estate and stood visible to astonished drivers on nearby I-65 (after Dorris’s death, the statue was removed, to the joy and relief of all).
Besides a pig-headed reverence for failed rebellions, Dorris had a great passion for his pooch. He was unmarried, childless, and surely had the right to distribute his considerable wealth however he wished. Yet giving millions for the pampering of a border collie rankles in a world where people are forced to live on mountains of trash or crowd-fund their toddler’s cancer treatment. Certainly, Dorris was eccentric, but his elevation of Lulu from pet to heiress is just part of a larger, unsettling cultural movement. Increasingly, Americans’ relationships with their pets are changing. Like Dorris, we are investing more and more of our hearts, and our resources, into our companion animals. Alongside growing division, alienation, and loneliness in the larger human family, people are turning to their pets with ever more intense devotion. I believe this is not entirely a wholesome phenomenon.
No need for pitchforks, pet lovers: Let me establish my credentials! I yield to few when it comes to loving animals. Growing up, our house was a menagerie filled with pets, including two fox terriers, a large mutt from the pound, a cat we adopted off the street, innumerable fish, toads we caught from the front yard drainage ditch, and a cockatiel we named Zuzu after George Bailey’s daughter in It’s A Wonderful Life. When someone makes room in their life for an animal, it’s a testament to their capacity for caring. Bringing a pet into the home teaches everyone in a family how to love a creature that’s both different from themselves, and more vulnerable. It’s noble, and it’s good for the human heart. Conversely, hostility to animals is a giant red flag for narrow-minded selfishness.
But there’s a difference between treating a pet like a member of the family, and considering them quite literally a family member. The blurring of this distinction in recent years has plumbed the depths. “We don't have skin children. We have fur children," Becki Bradford of Indianapolis enthusiastically told USA TODAY in one shuddersome comment. Major corporations are marketing products to “pet parents” and “dog moms.” Of course, every dog has a mother. But she has four legs and a wet nose, not a “Who Rescued Whom?” bumper sticker.
The trend is even clearer when you look at the numbers: American-style capitalism has taught us that love means never having to stop consuming. In 2020, we spent a record $99 billion on our pets. That’s a figure that’s doubled in the last 10 years. A substantial amount of money went to things like chef-created gourmet food, designer clothing, and even luxury birthday parties for animals who science tells us couldn’t care less.
This would be totally harmless, and even a welcome sign that our culture still has a barely beating heart. Except sadly, it’s come at a time when there’s an atrocious lack of investment in people. The National Institute of Health’s 2020 budget for cancer research was a comparatively paltry $6 billion. When it comes to Alzheimer’s disease and other kinds of dementia, the news is even grimmer: scientists had less than $3 billion to study a devastating illness that will eventually afflict 20 percent of us. We are lurching toward the middle of this century, and although everyone agrees paid family leave is important, nobody in the United States can figure out how to pay for it. Research recently found that less than half of American households give any money to charity, the worst showing on record. Figures from the pandemic era aren’t available yet, but it’s safe to bet they’ll be worse.
Philanthropy experts suggest the decline in giving is linked to Americans’ eroding trust in each other. They say the problem is particularly serious among young people, who are more cynical than ever, and, when it comes to charity, a bit Scrooge-like. In many ways, a pet is the perfect remedy for that kind of alienated suffering. The old saying goes, “If you want to make a friend in Washington, D.C., get a dog,” and it’s as though Millennials have taken similar advice to include the whole rotten world. An animal can’t lie to you, turn on you, or let you down. Dogs might bite, and cats might scratch, but there’s really no such thing as a “bad” pet, just a poorly trained or mistreated one. In contrast, every day we uncover fresh evidence that bad people are spread across the world like a thick layer of spoiled cream cheese.
Most of all, a companion animal may appear to be the perfect solution for a culture that’s lost confidence in itself. How many of us fear we don’t have what it takes to commit to a partner for a lifetime? How risky does parenting seem? At a time when it’s all too easy to be divorced, dumped, or ghosted by loved ones, a pet offers a more secure outlet for caring: one you can track with a microchip implant. In contrast to so-called “skin children,” there’s no chance they’ll grow up to resent you—even justifiably—or write melodramatic memoirs about your exaggerated short-comings.
Pope Francis recently grabbed headlines when he remarked on this phenomenon, which is by no means limited to the United States. “Many couples do not have children because they do not want to, or they have just one because they do not want any more, but they have two dogs, two cats,” he said. “Yes, dogs and cats take the place of children . . . And this denial of fatherhood or motherhood diminishes us, it takes away our humanity.”
Cue a cycle of social media outrage, which overlooked the actual context of the Pope’s comments: An urgent appeal for couples to consider (human!) adoption and fostering. “We should not be afraid to choose the path of adoption, to take the ‘risk’ of welcoming,” he said in the same audience. “It is a risk, yes: having a child is always a risk, either naturally or by adoption. But it is riskier not to have them. It is riskier to deny fatherhood or to deny motherhood, be it real or spiritual. A man or a woman who do not voluntarily develop a sense of fatherhood or motherhood are lacking something fundamental, something important.”
Notably, roughly 100,000 children in the U.S. foster care system are currently waiting for adoption. About 20,000 of them age out of the system every year without ever finding a permanent family. Needless to say, these young adults don’t need the massive resources of time and money that a newborn baby—or puppy, for that matter—demands. Mostly, they just need someone willing to commit to caring about them.
Lavishing our pets with love and rescuing animals from shelters are good things. But hopefully we can all agree there’s a serious cultural misalignment when a boutique like Bitch New York exists, even as grandchildren are forced to fundraise to help their grandmas pay for chemotherapy.
In this matter, as in many other respects, it would perhaps do us good to take the late first lady Barbara Bush as a role model. Mrs. Bush had a lifelong love affair with her husband, and with her dogs. She even co-authored multiple books with her beloved pooches. Millie Bush Bark Park in Houston, Texas, named after one of the first lady’s most famous pets, has been ranked the top dog park in the country. Nevertheless, Mrs. Bush maintained a healthy appreciation for humanity, even as she rubbed shoulders with the desperate characters who frequent international politics.
“I value all people more than dogs,” she said in her memoirs. “I may sometimes like the dog better, but people are and should be more important.”