Wild at Heart

How Pets Make Us Human

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Whether or not you're a pet owner, you can't have helped noticing the extraordinary amounts of time, money, and affection we Americans lavish on pets. We treat them as surrogate parents, siblings, children, even lovers. When Puss is ailing she is attended by psychics, acupuncturists, chiropractors, and Prozac-dispensing shrinks, and receives treatment ranging from bone grafts to radiation therapy to laser surgery. Lucky Fido lounges on his brass four-poster doggie bed enjoying the most recent selection from the Bone of the Month Club, washed down with a nice bottle of gourmet Thirsty Dog mineral water. However, we also enslave, deform, sterilize, brutalize, abandon, and slaughter household animals by the thousands every day. What can explain these extremes of our feelings and behavior?

Paul Shepard, whose book The Others: How Animals Made Us Human inspired the title of this section and is excerpted in these pages, claims that our schizophrenic treatment of pets may represent an intense longing to reconnect with the wild parts of ourselves, and frustration at our inability to do so. Elsewhere in this section, philosopher Stephen Webb notes that a dog's love can teach us something about the way we should interact with other people; and Tad Friend points out that humans are no less domesticated than cats, dogs, and even polar bears are.

Our connection with pets goes far beyond ordinary ideas of ownership or even companionship: Questions of what it means to be human are, it seems, inseparable from questions about pets. If -- as some therapists seem to think -- ersatz companionship is the only thing we need pets for, couldn't scientists create a pet that would provide this for us... without needing a litter box? Why do politicians use their pets as mouthpieces? How long have people kept pets? How can I tell if I'm ready to have a pet? These questions and more are addressed in the following section. You'll never look at Puss or Fido the same way again.