Our Tangled Relationship With Animals

Kelly Oliver wrote a very interesting piece in The New York Times last year about the strange ways we deal with the relationship between humans and animals. I wasn’t entirely pleased with the piece as a whole, but there were two things she said that really struck me, and I wanted to expand on them, because I think they are important.

In popular culture, celebrities who take on animal causes are seen as a bit crazy — rich versions of the “crazy cat lady,” or dog-crazy Leona Helmsley. Not coincidentally, they are usually women.

It is very telling that when we frame relationships between humans and pets, we’re usually talking about women specifically. There’s a reason there’s no gender-neutral term for someone who is passionate about animals and deeply attached to specific pets; for that matter, there’s no widely-accepted neutral version of the ‘crazy cat lady.’ The assumption is that women specifically are the ones most interested in pets, and the implication is that this is because women are naturally more sensitive, or weaker, and thus can’t be blamed for their animal follies, after all.

It’s telling that men who love animals, particularly cats, are often considered effeminate. The idea of a man with a cat on his lap seems somewhat ludicrous to some people, because men are big and tough. They don’t have companion animals whom they love and adore and like to spend time with, because that is a womanly activity, not something men do or would feel comfortable with. This is used to marginalise men who have pets they love deeply; express your love, and be reminded that you are not performing your gender correctly.

There’s a certain sinister tone here too because it’s usually single women in these discussions, and some imply (or more than imply) that those women really just want children and are seeking that kind of relationship, even if that’s not what’s going on. People who have cats, for example, may love having a deep relationship with them and consider them members of the family, but they aren’t children. Nor are they romantic partners, which is the other thing people like to claim about people who have complex emotional relationships with their pets; the gross leer at a woman who has a big dog, for example, suggesting that bestiality is the only rational reason to love an animal and decide to give it a place in your home.

The gendered implications behind dismissive attitudes about pet-lovers run very, very deep, and are sometimes missed, even by people who are normally attuned and sensitive to these issues. While some people use ‘crazy cat lady’ self-referentially and in a joking way, as an identification that pokes fun at stereotypes, this is about more than just saying that only women are ‘weak’ enough to be attached to animals. It’s also about pathologising relationships, suggesting that a deep attachment to a pet is evidence of mental illness because of course only crazy people value connections with non-human animals, or think that they can be rich and deep and perhaps even equivalent to those with other humans.

Oliver also noted that:

Despite the proliferation of “cute” pet pictures and anecdotes on the Web, actual displays of affection toward one’s pet or companion animal, or grief expressed over their illness or death, is looked upon with ridicule.

This, too. The idea that people might have deep connections with their pets seems to cause an intense discomfort that leads to marginalising and dismissing the real pain of loss. While people can appreciate non-human animals on an aesthetic level, can enjoy videos of cute kittens tumbling around on the floor or puppies being surprised by someone opening the fridge, they have a harder time dealing with more mature human relationships with their pets. The idea that a kitten is not just the subject of cute YouTube video, but a valued and much loved member of the family who may live for a decade or more, who may become a very important part of the fabric of someone’s life, is utterly unthinkable.

The idea that the loss of a pet might cause deep, intense grief is alienating to many people, and they often feel very self-confident in asserting that alienation. Which means that people grieving pets have nowhere to turn, because there is nowhere they will be respected. There is no socially approved way to process their grief; they are supposed to ‘get over it’ and ‘get another one’ and ‘move on’ rather than continuing to bother people with their pain. The things people say to grieving people are often shocking, but the ones said to people who have lost pets really take the cake in terms of sheer callousness.

Some people love their pets deeply and wholly as themselves. It isn’t about seeking a replacement for children or wanting to compensate for something missing, nor is it some strange sexual relationship. It’s just a relationship, one of many someone may have and want to develop over the course of a lifetime, and it’s not evidence of anything suspect. A love for animals is not evidence of anything other than a love for animals, a desire to treat other living beings with compassion.

Perhaps it means someone is ‘soft,’ but I fail to see how that is a bad thing. Someone willing to share a home with an animal is soft in a way that I think is very good indeed, and it is hardly a character flaw, or an indicator of that person’s gender, mental health status, or anything else.