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The Animals Among Us
How Pets Make Us Human
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Historically, we relied on our pets to herd livestock, guard homes, and catch pests. But most of us don’t need animals to do these things anymore. Pets have never been less necessary. And yet, pet ownership has never been more common than it is today: half of American households contain a cat, a dog, or both. Why are pets still around?
In The Animals Among Us, John Bradshaw, one of the world’s leading authorities on the relationship between humans and animals, argues that pet ownership is actually an intrinsic part of human nature. He explains how our empathy with animals evolved into a desire for pets, why we still welcome them into our families, and why we mourn them so deeply when they die.
Drawing on the latest research in biology and psychology, as well as fields as diverse as robotics and musicology, The Animals Among Us is a surprising and affectionate history of humanity’s best friends.
WHY KEEP PETS? Such a question will never have occurred to some people: there has always been a dog at home, or a cat, or maybe rabbits or guinea pigs. So many households in the West include pets nowadays that it's salutary to note that a mere two centuries ago, when domestic animals were everywhere, pet keeping was almost exclusively the prerogative of the rich. Of course, increasing affluence has allowed many more people to keep animals as companions, but that alone cannot explain the massive surge in pet ownership in the last century. Survey after survey shows that people feel deep emotional attachment to their pets and think of them as "one of the family."
Where does this passion come from? I believe that it stems from deep within our nature and provides insight into what makes us human. Many of the "Stone Age" tribes whose way of life survived into the twentieth century kept animals as companions. A capacity to regard animals as friends and not merely as food may therefore be as ancient as our species. It has never become universal, however: lots of people feel no attachment to animals or inclination to keep them as pets. Any theory as to why pets are such an important part of many people's lives must take account of that fact.
I CAME TO WRITE this book as a scientist as much as an animal enthusiast. Indeed, I started life as something of a pet agnostic. My father didn't like cats or dogs, so there were no pets in my childhood, apart from those I encountered when visiting relatives and neighbors. As a biologist in the making, I saw pets mainly as interesting and accessible animals, not all that different from the birds that visited the feeders in our garden or the deer that we'd sometimes disturb on family walks in the countryside where we lived (we'd inherited the tradition of walking—with or without a dog—from my mother's family). My wife, who had grown up with dogs, cats, and, at one point, an unintended greenhouse full of rabbits, introduced me to the joys of greetings from a wet nose and wagging tail—not to mention what still feels like the privilege of sharing a home with a purring but undoubtedly independent felid.
As I became a professional biologist, I initially studied animals, not people—and certainly not the relationship between the two. Even when studying dog and cat behavior, I found myself somewhat professionally isolated. Back in the 1980s, the study of any kind of domestic animal, let alone the ultimate artificialities that are pet dogs and cats, was deeply unfashionable. A brief flurry of interest in their biology in the 1960s, when veterinarians like Dr. Michael Fox established some of the basics—such as the need to expose domestic dogs to the right kind of contact with people during their "socialization period"—had quickly died away. The current surge of interest in dog behavior would have been unimaginable in the early stages of my career.
I was initially drawn into studying dogs, and then cats, because I was researching the ways that animals of all kinds use scent to communicate. Theirs is a world of smelly information to which we humans, with perhaps the least sensitive noses of any mammal, are oblivious. I soon became fascinated by the behavior of both cat and dog, and not just the part governed by scent. I came to recognize in it an enthralling compromise between their wild origins as canid and felid and the requirements of their modern domestic lifestyles. And I became increasingly aware that their behavior could not be divorced from how their owners behaved and thought about them.
It soon dawned on me that, although I might think about cats and dogs as mammals while at work, at home neither I nor anyone else viewed our pets in this way. Most owners treat these animals as little people, talking to them as if they understand what is being said. I seemed to do this as much as anyone else, despite being well aware that such comprehension was almost certainly impossible.
Once I began to think about pets in their domestic context, it followed that more than just their physical surroundings and the various purposes we have put them to down the ages have shaped the dogs and cats of today. The workings of our own brains have indirectly molded them, and now that we have largely liberated them from their former utilitarian roles, these influences are becoming ever more paramount. Their cuteness attracts us (well, most of us) instinctively: the features that kittens and puppies, and to a lesser extent adult cats and some dogs, share with human babies seem to trigger our protective and caring side. Our brains also perceive intention in almost anything that moves, and thus without a moment's reflection we automatically ascribe all kinds of humanlike emotions and intentions to our animals. Some of these are probably reasonably accurate; others are wildly imaginative. Generally the errors don't matter, but sometimes they do, as when our pets fall short of the often unrealistic expectations we have of them. I eventually concluded that we simply can never understand the behavior of pet animals without factoring in the workings of the human mind.
This realization kindled my interest in what the few academics with any interest in the subject back in the 1980s referred to as the "human-animal bond." I began to attend conferences that included the topic of pet ownership. At a workshop on the day after one such conference—as it happened, also my fortieth birthday—I and the six other academics present coined the term "anthrozoology" to sum up what we all did and to give a distinctive title to the society we founded a year later, the International Society for Anthrozoology (not that we could take credit for creating this word from scratch: we had adapted it from the title of an academic journal, Anthrozoös, which had published its first issue three years previously). The word stuck, and now, a quarter century on, students can earn a qualification in anthrozoology from universities all around the world. The field mainly brings together various types of scientists—biologists, veterinarians, medical researchers, psychologists, social scientists, and anthropologists—to study the personal relationships that people have with animals and, to a lesser extent, that animals have with people. Thus anthrozoology has focused most on those types of animals that serve widely as companions: dogs, cats, horses, aquarium fish, leisure horses, and so on. (A parallel movement, sometimes referred to as human-animal studies, has grown up among those interested in more philosophical approaches, such as ethics, political science, history, geography, and literature. There is, unfortunately, not much dialogue between the two camps.)1
In some senses, I've been writing this book for more than twenty years. The more I studied pets and their owners, the more intrigued I became. Despite sometimes suffering due to our misunderstanding of their requirements, cats and dogs were obviously benefitting from their relationships with people—there are far more of them in the world today than there are of the wild ancestors from which they emerged thousands of years ago. Yet, somewhat paradoxically, their numbers actually grew just as their usefulness to us disappeared. Only a few dogs still herd sheep or help with hunting; most owners find their cat's once valued hunting prowess appalling. Pets' hold on their owners seems to run deeper than mere fashion. So, using as wide a range of sources as I could find, in addition to as much original research as I could fit in around my studies of cat and dog welfare, I set out to examine what science has to say about humans' fascination with animals and why we took them into our homes. This book is the result.
IN THIS BOOK, I have resisted following the growing practice in the United States of referring to pets as "companions," and throughout I refer to "owners" rather than "guardians" or "parents," labels preferred by some authorities. Perhaps I'm old-fashioned, but to me, pet "ownership" implies responsibility and certainly does not suggest a right to treat an animal like the inanimate sort of possession. I have a concern that the term "guardian" implies a legal status that arises from some mental deficiency in the animal—hardly an appropriate way to characterize the relationship between pet and owner. "Caregiver"—another suggestion I've seen—seems too impersonal and transient, more appropriate for those devoted souls who look after pets in rehoming facilities. "Pet parent" is simply too anthropomorphic for me to stomach: for a biologist like myself, the term "parent" indicates (though not exclusively) a genetic relationship between mother or father and offspring. In this book I also occasionally but unashamedly refer to a (singular) pet as "it," but only when I don't know whether the animal I'm referring to is male or female: I mean no disrespect by this. I just find "he or she" and "him or her" unnecessarily clumsy.1
Many ethicists regard the term "pet" as derogatory, preferring the more neutral "companion animal." True, the word "pet" has other meanings: in the sixteenth century it referred to the subject of any favored relationship, be it with an animal or another person, and even today in the northeast of England, "pet" still crops up in conversation as a (slightly condescending?) term of endearment directed at women and children—as in "How're you doing today, pet?" However, it's not clear, at least to me, what advantage persuading the general public to refrain from using the word "pet" (even if that were possible) would bring.2
ONCE UPON A TIME there were three little pigs. One lived in Connecticut, one in Des Moines, and one in the Bismarck Mountains of New Guinea. Unlike those in the children's tale, all three were real. None ever built its own house or had any kind of altercation with a wolf. The humans around each thought it special and fed and treated it well. We might regard all three, in their way, as pets, but each was also something else.
The pig from Connecticut attained brief notoriety the day before Thanksgiving 2014, when it (with its owner, aspiring model Rachel Boerner) was ejected from a US Airways flight before takeoff for "disruptive behavior" (the pig had pooped in the aisle). The other passengers wondered why the airline had ever allowed a full-grown potbellied pig on an airplane in the first place. A company representative clarified that the airline had mistakenly cleared the pig for takeoff as an "emotional support animal" (a somewhat nebulous concept since most pet owners would claim that their animals provide them with "emotional support"). Whatever the ins and outs, this was a seventy-pound pig on a leash, not a toy dog in a handbag. Nonetheless, the animal's owner clearly regarded it as her inseparable companion.1
The pig from Des Moines—a $900 "therapy piglet" named Stuart—lived with a six-year-old boy rendered completely blind and partially deaf by a genetic disorder. The boy's mother, hoping that the company of an animal would comfort her son, first tried a dog but found that its hair made her son gag. Stuart, however, was an instant success—as reported on KCCI News, the boy spontaneously wrapped his arms around the piglet on their first meeting, and thereafter they were firm friends.2
The New Guinea piggy served as both treasured companion and then ceremonial meal. Among the Maring people of the Bismarck Mountains, the family unit comprises both humans and pigs. Women care for both piglets and human infants, carrying porcine infants everywhere, sometimes swaddled in banana leaves to prevent them from struggling. The women train the growing piglets to follow them wherever they go. For their first nine months, the piglets live cheek by jowl with the household's children, after which they move into their own stalls within the family hut. During the day, while the women tend the gardens that provide the Maring with much of their food, the pigs scavenge in the forest, walking home to the village in the evening with the children. As their number increases, the pigs find it harder to obtain all the food they need by foraging, and so the women supplement their diet with sweet potatoes grown in the gardens.3
Eventually the number of pigs becomes a problem, and the women start to complain. Because the soil is poor, their gardens only produce for two or three years, after which the women must clear a new patch of forest. Each is inevitably farther from the village than the last, so the women spend more and more time traveling and less time growing food. The hungry pigs may then roam as far as the neighboring settlements and cause damage there.
At this point the men decide that the time is right to hold a kaiko, an extended festival that involves the sacrifice and consumption of most of the pigs. The villagers ritualistically club them to death, one by one, and then roast them, consuming vast amounts of pork over several weeks in ceremonies designed to reestablish family ties, build allegiances with neighboring tribes, and arrange marriages for the unattached. After the feasting, the few remaining female pigs form the nucleus of the next generation, and so the cycle begins again, culminating some ten to fifteen years later in the next kaiko.4
These three pigs, equally well cared for during their lives and all companions in their way, enjoy three distinct kinds of relationships with humans. In the West, the pig that becomes a pet is highly unlikely to end up on the dinner table; yet in New Guinea this is the norm. Historically, people would have considered the idea that an animal could have therapeutic powers outrageous. And yet, in the past few decades, particularly in the West, many pet owners have come to believe just that.
However different the stories of these three pigs and their people, collectively they show that some aspect of human nature enables us to develop personal relationships with members of other species. True, the supermarket shelves demonstrate that we can treat animals as commodities when necessary, but most of us also relate to (other) animals as individuals. We surround ourselves with their pictures—the Internet, if not entirely made of cats, would certainly be a less salubrious place without them—and many of us cannot resist touching cats and dogs, even if they're unknown to us. We seem to have a profound need to reconnect with the hands-on involvement with animals that was a part of the everyday lives of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
Today we relate to animals much differently than our forebears did. Our thinking about animals has changed dramatically over the past century or so. Nowadays, we accord many kinds of animals with "rights." Companion animals—especially dogs and cats—are more popular than ever. Over the past forty years, the idea has emerged, seemingly from nowhere, that having an animal in the home is part of a healthy lifestyle. We view pets as the antidote to the stresses of modern urban living, as a palliative for the loneliness that comes with the demise of the extended family, as "cotherapists" for all manner of disabilities. I find the speed and enthusiasm with which we have embraced these ideas—to the point where few question them, even though the science underpinning them is equivocal at best—more fascinating than the ideas themselves. Something in human nature seemingly encourages us to accept these assertions, as if pets deserve immunity from the skepticism that usually greets claims of hitherto untapped healing powers. We don't simply feel the urge to keep pets; we seem to want to believe that they provide some kind of elixir that will allow us to lead more fulfilling lives.
OVER THE PAST half century or so, our relationships with animals have become more complex and thus more difficult to disentangle. With the exception of a small number of animals kept by aristocrats solely for the purpose of companionship, domestic animals generally filled a practical role first and then, occasionally, an emotional one as well. Horses transported; cats moused. Dogs have served many functions, including hunting, herding, and guarding, thereby earning more opportunities to form bonds with individual people than any other species. A few species provide only a modicum of companionship or at least aesthetic pleasure: aquarium fish have remained popular, but cage birds—once among the most popular household pets and now the province of specialists—have all but disappeared. (One theory holds that with the invention of the radio, the housebound no longer needed them to fill the silence. Others point more cynically to the parallel increase in the popularity of indoor cats.)5
Some animals continue to straddle the line between utility and pure companionship. In many rural areas, animals kept primarily as pets often have some practical use—consider the weekend gundog. And some that are primarily useful—for example, farm cats—are often objects of considerable affection. I once knew a retired shepherd whose relationship with his dogs was, on the surface, utilitarian in the extreme—he never even named his succession of collies, referring to each as "my dog" (he communicated with them in the traditional way, purely with whistles). However he was clearly devoted to his final dog, which he had kept after hanging up his crook for the last time. He walked her past my house three times every day, in rain, hail, and snow. Bert, on whose Oxfordshire farm I made my first studies of farm cat colonies, clearly had a soft spot for his eighty-odd felines, although he used but a single name—"Ginge"—for all of them.
In general, however, the line between companion and domestic animals has become more sharply defined in recent decades. Nowadays in the West we distinguish sharply between those animals on which we impose for our consumption and those that are purely our friends. Whereas the Maring eventually eat their "pet" pigs, the pig owner prevented from flying home on Thanksgiving would most likely recoil from the thought of her pet as a source of bacon.
Traditionally, however abhorrent Western pet owners today may find it, both cats and dogs were bred not for their company but for their fur and meat. For dogs at least, such uses go back a long way. In central Europe in around 6,000 BCE, the custom of burying dogs alongside their masters had been established for hundreds of years, but other communities nearby were routinely killing and eating dogs, as evidenced by broken long bones and skulls. During the Middle Ages, the English prized cat-skin coats and, as evidenced by cut marks on cat bones recovered from rubbish pits, deliberately culled cats for this purpose as soon as they were fully grown, at about one year old. As recently as fifteen years ago, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimated that Chinese producers were sending as many as 2 million cat and dog pelts annually to European (and American) fur markets, although many of them likely ended up in Russia, where consumers are less fastidious. South Korea has a long dog-eating tradition and kills over a million canines each year for food; one can stop into a popular chain of dog-meat restaurants, buy dog meat "candy," or even purchase a range of cosmetics derived from dog by-products. Koreans have less affinity for cats but do make a tonic for rheumatism and neuralgia by rendering a cat in a pressure cooker and blending the resulting broth with herbs. The inclusion of cats and dogs in their diet remains popular with many South Koreans, who may perceive strident calls from the West to give up this "barbaric" practice as an attack on their cultural identity.6
In Western society today, pets do not get eaten. When someone becomes fond of an animal destined for the dinner table, translocating it into the "pet" category, the consequences can be considerable. In the United Kingdom, during World War II and the years of meat rationing that followed, the government encouraged households to keep rabbits for the pot. In the words of one wartime child, written some seventy years later, "I grew fond of one rabbit, a beautiful white Angora with pink ears and eyes. But like all the others, once it was fat enough, it was killed and strung up to eat. I have never been able to eat meat since those days and have been vegetarian ever since."7 Even in parts of the world where dogs and cats are eaten, owners do seem to distinguish between those raised as pets and those bred for the pot.
AT A TIME in history when our need for cats and dogs as working animals has declined sharply, our urge to keep them is actually growing. Dogs and then cats are far and away the most popular household pets. Almost a quarter of households in the United Kingdom and over a third in the United States have one or more dogs, and cats share a roof with 30 percent of US families and about 17 percent of UK families. Rabbits, cage birds, guinea pigs, hamsters, and assorted reptiles make up most of the other animals kept in British and American homes. Many horses, poultry, and other livestock kept outdoors may also be regarded as companions. In Japan, insects such as stag beetles, crickets, and fireflies, collectively known as mushi, are popular with children, especially boys. If we include fish, the United Kingdom has roughly as many animal companions as humans; the United States has about three for every four people.8
Pet keeping has metamorphosed from a pastime of the leisured classes into an integral part of the lifestyle of people from all social strata. Consumerization makes the practice easier, because products specifically designed for a pet's needs are now readily available 24/7. Advertisements for pet food and other products, while targeting pet owners, inevitably feature desirable animals that must also boost the overall image of pet keeping.
With globalization, Western-style pet keeping has spread into the Far East, where it is rapidly replacing local traditions. In Korea, dogs and cats (mainly Western breeds) have become popular pets since the 1980s, spawning a pet-products industry that culminated in the 2003 opening of Mega Pet, an eleven-story pet department store near Seoul. In China, while some dogs are still bred for their meat, imports from the West, such as poodles and many toy breeds, make popular pets for city dwellers: the days when Chairman Mao denounced pet keeping as a bourgeois indulgence seem to have passed, perhaps forever. In big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, pet dogs have become so popular that the law restricts owners to one per household and bans large breeds. There are rumors that some owners keep large dogs exclusively indoors—almost certainly compromising their welfare—simply to avoid their detection by police.9
The money that owners spend on their pets has reached staggering proportions. Whereas dogs and cats once lived on household scraps, nowadays a multimillion-dollar industry has grown up to service their needs. In 2014 UK owners forked out around £6 billion on their pets, much of this on food but over a third on veterinary services that barely existed half a century ago, when veterinary surgeons primarily worked with livestock. In the same year, US owners spent an estimated $60 billion, up 5 percent from the previous year. The latest pet-food trends track those in human food—gluten-free, low-sugar, reduced-calorie—reflecting not simply the genuine issue that many of today's pets are obese but also their owners' belief that their pets should eat as well as they do. Meanwhile, as campaigners against global hunger point out, a similar amount of money, if distributed fairly, could potentially feed every malnourished person in the world.10
BECAUSE OUR RELATIONSHIP to our domestic animals has changed over the past couple of hundred years, the term "pet" may require some clarification. Merriam-Webster's defines a pet as "a domesticated animal kept for pleasure rather than utility." For my purposes, this distinction is somewhat restricting since it rules out animals taken from the wild and tamed (and hence not, technically speaking, "domesticated"). Furthermore, while we can usefully apply the term to millions of animals in the West today, five hundred years ago it would only have pertained to, literally, a few thousand animals kept by aristocratic ladies.
We must rule out one misconception: that "pet" describes a role and not a type of animal. Nowadays many cats and dogs living in the West are companions pure and simple, and some of their previously useful attributes have become something of an embarrassment to their owners. The dog that barks at the gate and harasses those who try to enter the front yard performs a ritual once (in some locations, still) valuable to its owners. Sheepdogs may persist in trying to herd, switching their attention to children or cyclists unless trained not to. Cats' hunting instincts, so prized until quite recently, now inspire their owners with horror and many wildlife enthusiasts, keen to blame them (usually mistakenly) for declining numbers of songbirds and small mammals, with rampant disapproval.
For the purposes of this book, an operational definition of "pet" may be the simplest. A pet is an animal that lives in the home (so not AIBO or other robotic "pet"), is self-mobile (not a house plant, however decorative), and is either constrained from leaving the premises (hamster, gerbil, snake) or voluntarily returns there (dog, cat). From an animal rights—and sometimes welfare—perspective, the latter may be an important distinction, but it is difficult to draw a hard-and-fast line, in terms of the emotional bond experienced by the owner, between a pet that lives in a cage and one that doesn't. The indoor-only cat—increasingly common in Western cities—highlights the arbitrary nature of such a distinction. Should we classify the indoor-outdoor cat with the dog, while putting the indoor-only cat into the same bag as the boa constrictor? Such distinctions seem misdirected. More important is the emotional complexity of the relationship, which is arguably richer with dogs and cats than with other species. Thus I will focus largely on these two species—or rather, their owners—for the remainder of this book.
DOGS AND CATS are so commonplace that it is easy to lose sight of the differences between them and also of the many changes that both have undergone over the past 10,000 years.
- "If you're comfortable with your own animality, The Animals Among Us can be your bestiary and breviary. I found Bradshaw's arguments about the domestication of animals and the origins of pet-keeping perfectly convincing; and his conclusion--that we have now co-evolved long enough with dogs, and to some extent with cats, for it to constitute an effective symbiosis --rather comforting."—Will Self, Guardian (UK), Book of the Day
- "Bradshaw is a pioneer.... His answer...is richly, empathetically and affectionately respectful of the human-animal bond.... Readers may be less interested in themselves as pet owners, yet this is actually a bolder and more important book."—Sunday Times (UK)
- "Bradshaw knows how to produce a well-written and accessible tome.... In one of the best and most thought-provoking parts of his book, [he] dissects the practice of anthropomorphism as a typically human attempt to understand the animals with which we live so intimately. He raises important questions about the greater significance of keeping pets and their benefits."—New Scientist
- "Bradshaw's...gentle warmth and intelligence make the book enjoyable. A sound introduction to a relatively new area of study, both for those who share their households with animals and those who never would."—Kirkus
"A marvelous achievement, both scientifically accurate and delightfully accessible. If you like animals, have pets, or are simply curious how and why people and other species interact, you'll learn a lot from this book, and will have a great deal of fun doing so!"
—David P. Barash, professor of psychology emeritus, University of Washington
"In The Animals Among Us, John Bradshaw integrates findings from the fields of anthropology, history, animal behavior, and evolutionary psychology to answer a fundamental mystery -- why do we love pets? Beautifully written by a pioneer in the study of human-animal relationships, this book is an intellectual treat that challenges the way we look at the animals in our lives."
—Hal Herzog, author of, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard To Think Straight About Animals
"The Animals Among Us reminds us that despite the unprecedented assault by humankind on free-ranging nonhuman animals during the present epoch called the Anthropocene, most humans are inherently attracted to other animals, especially the companions with whom we share our homes and hearts. Best-selling author John Bradshaw rightly argues that when we lose other animals, we lose parts of ourselves. As innate 'biophiliacs,' the chemistry we share with household companions makes us human, and this attraction can help serve to bridge the empathy gap so that we will then extend kindness and compassion to other animals with whom we're less familiar."
—Marc Bekoff, author of, Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do
"I read everything John Bradshaw writes. He is the professor you always wish you'd had: knowledgeable yet approachable, engaged and engaging. If you are in any way interested in the underpinnings of the human-animal relationship, this is the book for your bookshelf."
—Alexandra Horowitz, author of, Inside a dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know
"What good are pets? John Bradshaw's affectionate investigation puts your favorite ideas to the test of science. We might not get the health benefits that were once thought important, but there are plenty of other reasons to love Fido. The Animals Among Us is a fond testament to our companion animals and our extraordinary relationships with them."
—Richard Wrangham, author of, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human
- "Backed up by impeccable research...[an] excellent book.... Bradshaw provides a convincing case that our fascination with the interior lives of animals was an essential part of our evolutionary development."—The New Statesman (UK)
- "[John Bradshaw's] new book is unlikely to disappoint many of his fans as he brings a light touch and endearing personal details to what is actually a systematic and detailed account of the origin and nature of human-animal interaction and emotional bonding."—Financial Times
- On Sale
- Oct 31, 2017
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Basic Books