In a piece for Racked late last year, Kyle Chayka wrote about the ‘fast, furry rise‘ of pets on Instagram (and other social media), discussing the growing number of celebrity pets who captivate the internet, but, more critically, the smaller numbers among those ranks who turn into money generating machines for their handlers, instead of just public favourites. Lots of public figures post pictures of their animals and people like seeing them, and some animals even have a small following on sites like Facebook and Instagram. Some guardians, however, leverage that fame into serious money, and I’m going to be honest, it makes me feel deeply uncomfortable and creepy as I see a slew of co-branded products, stressed and unhappy animals forced to weather conferences and events like SXSW, and advertising editorials featuring furry, and sometimes feathered, spokesanimals.
The tradition of animal-as-celebrity isn’t new and people have been profiting from famous animals for centuries. However, there are a lot more famous animals than there ever used to be, and the way they’re treated is growing troubling. It’s not the crude capitalism: The calendars, the book deals (seriously?), the pet toys, the movies (again, seriously?), the assorted cluttered crap available for sale at a premium because it bears an animal’s endorsement or face. People are going to buy what they’re going to buy and if they relish the thought of purchasing cat toys or socks or whatever made with slave labour just because they’re associated with an Instagram-famous cat, well, that’s their choice as consumers.
But I am thinking specifically about the handling of the animals themselves. Celebrity animals are often subjected to grueling publicity tours that would be hard on humans, and even worse for stressed, confused animals that aren’t volunteering for the spotlight. I see that appearances of Instagram-famous creatures are a growing trend at events in the tech and entertainment industry — meet Grumpy Cat! Pet Lil Bub! In addition to these meet and greet opportunities, which put animals in the incredibly stressful and dismal position of being handled by scores or hundreds of people a day under bright, loud, chaotic conditions, animals are also expected to show up for photo ops and events.
Animals are not like human celebrities. They don’t volunteer for their place as famous public figures and they’re not capable of dealing with the high stress of being on tour. When cats huddle in their beds, they’re not curled up being cute or demonstrating their trademark ‘grumpiness.’ They are stressed and unhappy and freaking out. When dogs are moving around uneasily and ‘grinning,’ it’s because they’re edgy and nervous, which isn’t just bad for them: It’s also bad for the people around them, who are at increased risk of being bitted by an anxious dog. The mannerisms animals use to express discomfort are often the same ones humans think are ‘cute’ or ‘adorable’ and as a consequence people ignore signs of strain and plunge right ahead with exploiting their animals.
Maybe all of these pet guardians genuinely love the animals they work with — they certainly start that way, maybe sharing a few pictures with friends, seeing them attract more interest, creating a social media presence as a joke or to satisfy a clamouring public, but the situation quickly spins out of control. When tens of thousands of followers rack up, product endorsements and ads, often vaguely pitched, start appearing in feeds, with many followers unaware that these are paid placements, and that in fact sometimes they net a lot of money, and that’s before revenue from direct advertising dollars. That spills into branded merchandise, which spawns a slew of products, which leads to huge profits for people who are basically sitting back and letting their animals do the work, and often doing it in an exploitative and gross way.
I post cat pictures all the time, so I can safely say that this isn’t about sharing fun pictures now and then, or even accepting a few gifts on their behalf (for the record, no company has ever sent Loki and Leila anything). This is about treating an animal like a piece of property instead of a living thing, and using her as a monetising engine. It’s about packing up animals that really aren’t equipped to travel and dragging them back and forth across the country to ‘meet fans’ in long, exhausting, stressful receiving lines. It’s about subjecting animals to miserable days of long filming and photography, all for…money? Like really?
I cannot be the only one who thinks it’s more than a bit strange to see people monetising the pets they claim to love, and I can’t be the only one who is concerned in particular about activities that look like they’re putting the health and safety of animals at risk. It’s one thing to use your animal to peddle merchandise while she sits safely at home in her bed. It’s another to force your animal to be the public spokescat, or dog, or rabbit, or hedgehog, or pig, of an advertising campaign for a product or service. We’re often assured that people care deeply about the safety of animals when they make public appearances, but I’m not so convinced when I consider how much money is on the line. We’re talking hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, and with that kind of money at stake, the being behind the juggernaut becomes rather unimportant — to the point that after animals pass away, their handlers are even maintaining posthumous social media presences, milking the last little bit out of their ‘beloved’ pets.
Image: Grumpy Cat at Toy Fair 2014, Ricky Brigante, Flickr