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The revolution has not been televised

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The Christian Science Monitor recently took a look — a far deeper one than newspapers usually do — at the rising status of dogs in America, and concluded that there’s more behind the trend than a handful of wacky, dog-coddling pet owners.

It’s actually a huge story — one that’s been roundly missed because it has been a gradual shift, a slow evolution, and because the news media tend to be unable to look at dogs as serious subject matter. Instead it gives any pet story the cutesy pie treatment, complete with overused puns and chuckling anchorpeople.

The Christian Science Monitor story, by Stephanie Hanes, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, avoids that trap, and makes an effort to look at the reasons behind the dog’s rise from backyard denizen to full-fledged family member. It opens at Wagtime, the D.C. doggie day care center where around 60 canines show up each day, and whose owner is so busy she’s thinking about starting a waiting list for the full-time, $900-a-month slots.

“For many in the dog world, Schreiber explains, pet day care is no more of a luxury than preschool. Buying high-end dog food feels no more frivolous than serving organic fruits and vegetables; Prozac for the pup no more outrageous than Ritalin for the teenager.”

Wagtime, and all the other lengths Americans are going to for their pets, represent “a widespread cultural trend, a phenomenon that could easily be called America’s pet revolution,” the article says.

The revolution is bolstered by the country’s exploding pet population, which has increased threefold since the 1960s, according to some estimates, and pet industry sales that have grown to $46 billion this year from $17 billion in 1994, according to the American Pet Products Association.

But, the story adds, “… it is the dog that has nuzzled his way to the forefront of our pet revolution. Love him or hate him, Fido is changing American society – in ways municipal and medical, emotional and economic, social and scientific – as never before.

“Dogs and cats have always had jobs. Although a combination of evolutionary traits helped them earn our affection – big eyes that trigger our baby-loving ‘cute’ response, expressions that we easily anthropomorphize, an instinct to relieve themselves away from the living space – they also served a function. They were herders and guarders, mousers and protectors,” the story says. “But now their job has turned social; an emotional bond is the goal.”

“In the past, these animals had practical tasks to perform,”  James Serpell, of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine is quoted as saying. “Now they have social tasks. And they’re very good at it.”

Society is readjusting to catch up with the doggie revolution — for while most people view their pets as family members, most laws still view them as less than that. Legislatures are now working to rework legal codes that consider animals property – a status that creates all sorts of difficulties in divorce cases. Some courts have started to issue protection orders that cover pets; a number of domestic violence shelters allow battered women to bring their dogs.

Hurricane Katrina, the story notes, drove home the importance of social institutions evolving with the animal-human bond. During the New Orleans evacuation, people of all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds refused to leave if it meant abandoning pets, said Stephen Zawistowski of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Later the government and organizations such as the Red Cross changed their pet policies.

“The emotions might have been here all along,” he said. “But this showed the depth to which the sentiments have become part of our culture.”

Comments

Comment from nancy
Time August 5, 2009 at 11:03 am

Here.. Here… Something we’ve known all along!

Comment from Jenifer
Time August 5, 2009 at 11:13 am

Unfortunately what seems to have come right along with this is veterinarians deciding pretty much across the board with the blessing and urging of their professional associations to charge what the traffic will bear for any and all medical treatment of our pets, playing the emotion card and often charging extortionately and above levels for human medicine, a strategy which seems to imply that either the pet owner pays through vast sums of money or the four-legged child dies. To me, in my opinion, this is little more than robbery at gunpoint because more often than not when a pet guardian cannot afford treatment the only recourse is death for the pet. If anyone thinks this is too strong an opinion I would urge reading the forums and blogs on this very topic that has pet guardians all over the US very concerned and really starting to feel toward veterinarians just like they already feel toward used car sales people and lawyers. Not positive emotions, that’s for sure!

Comment from Doug Lent
Time August 5, 2009 at 2:14 pm

Thanks for this great article. The Red Cross hasn’t changed our pet policies. Animals are not permitted in shelters unless they are companion animals such as seeing eye dogs. In the event of a disaster, if you must evacuate, the most important thing you can do to protect your pets is to evacuate them, too. We recommend having a plan for where your pets can go before disaster strikes. You should also have a “to go kit” for your pet that includes extra food, water, medicines, toys, etc in case you need to be separated for up to a week. Also make sure you have extra pictures of your pet just in case they get lost during the confusion.

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