This November, our nation stops to honor an important historical milestone. No, not the 397th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving on November 22. Nor is it the honoring of those who have served on Veterans Day, on November 11. I’m speaking, of course, of “National Cook For Your Pets Day” on November 1.
It comes on the heels of another highlight of our increasingly pet-filled calendar—the second Wednesday of October was “National Pet Obesity Awareness Day.” These annual events, like so many others (e.g. “National Dress Up Your Pet Day,” “Pet Dental Health Month”), remind us that we are a nation with a problem. Our addiction? Pets. Consider this article an intervention for the greater health and well-being of our pet-plagued land.
I know something about picking a fight with the more ebullient pet-owners of these United States. Almost a year ago I wrote a review for The Federalist of a book about Marine veteran and purple heart recipient Craig Grossi, who rescued a dog he had encountered while serving in Afghanistan. I lauded Grossi, who tells a harrowing tale of courage, sacrifice, and suffering during his time abroad, and his subsequent return to the country.
I even recognized the important role that the dog, Fred, played in Grossi’s mental health recovery, and that of many other veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Yet, I warned, the book plays into a greater narrative of American obsession with our pets, an obsession that often comes at the expense of far more important matters, like the many “stray” Afghan orphans, of whom approximately a quarter of a million remain in that war-ravaged country.
The response from many readers was not just negative, but astonishing in their abrasiveness and hatred for the human race. One reader asserted, “I would rather feed one stray dog than a BILLION Afghan orphans.” Another declared “There are animals whose lives are worth more than a worthless human’s life.”
One presumes, of course, these commenters don’t believe their own lives are worth less than an animal’s, but rather, those of people they either don’t know or don’t like. How could humans express such animosity for their own species? I’ve certainly never met any animal with such self-hatred.
Other comments provide part of the answer. One reads: “The older I get, the more dissatisfied I become about people and the more I take solace in my dogs.” Another, even more philosophically, observes, “A dog never judges. A dog never leaves. A dog is always there, giving his/her best to even the most undeserving owner. A dog will risk his/her life for the owner, without hesitation.”
Others claimed that “dogs are also innocent and pure,” and that they “love unconditionally.” As someone who has owned two dogs beginning when I was ten years old, I can appreciate these sentiments, even if they evince a confusion about both animals and humans, as well as concepts of innocence, purity, and love.
Animals Have Their Limits
Although my dogs, and many others, typically do demonstrate signs of innocence, this isn’t always the case. Last December, a woman in my home state of Virginia was mauled to death by her two pet dogs, which news reports classified as pit bulls. Close to five million Americans are bitten by dogs every year—most of these are minor, though some require medical attention. Twenty to thirty people die annually from such bites.
So far this year, most of the fatalities from dog attacks have been children. A small part of my own ear is missing from when my first dog bit my ear when I was about 12 years old. My father, a former U.S. Army medic, had to superglue part of my ear back on.
It’s also true that dogs—and other animals, for that matter—can show a strong degree of loyalty and affection not only to their owners, but even to random passerby. But is this really love? Since the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, many philosophers have argued that no animal besides humans properly possesses intellect and will.
Indeed, these two qualities are what separate the human species from the rest of the animal kingdom. Humans are not driven solely by instinct but can use their intellect and will to overcome all manner of desires—to overindulge in food, to attack people they don’t like, and to engage in harmful sexual behavior. Animals can only be trained to avoid these things by some sort of external stimuli of reward or threat, not by conscience or reason, as we humans can.
Moreover, animals “love” their owners because they feed and take care of them. But this, properly understood, is not really “love.” Love is a uniquely human capacity to give of one’s self, particularly when there is no reward, and especially when some higher-order non-material good drives our decisions, usually requiring sacrifice or suffering.
We humans are able to treat even the worst offenses from other humans with humility and forgiveness, something animals cannot do. We transcend our more “animalistic” tendencies for violence or fleeing by exhibiting the cardinal virtues of courage, prudence, temperance, and justice. Even the most faithful dog isn’t properly courageous in the human sense; it’s simply following its instincts or training.
The More We Elevate Animals, We Become Less Human
Yet Americans have increasingly obscured the difference between ourselves and our pets. I saw a bumper sticker recently that read: “The more people I meet, the more I like my Great Dane.” Many owners view their pets as children. A coworker recent told me that he and his wife had bought a dog, and that this was essentially the same thing as having a child. (As a father of three, I respectfully disagree.)
In 2017, Americans spent a record $69.5 billion on their pets (up from $63 billion in 2016), which includes food, supplies, and medical care, among other things. “Emotional support” animals are becoming ubiquitous, and the source of many hilarious news stories and memes. One famous passenger even tried to bring an “emotional support pig” on board a flight.
This is humorous, except when it’s not. We are devoting huge amounts of time and money to animals, while the needs of many Americans, often in our neighborhoods or communities, go unnoticed. In my own suburban community in Northern Virginia, many residents have dogs or other pets that require owners’ already limited resources. Yet my local community center for underprivileged children can never find enough volunteers to help at-risk kids with their homework or provide them mentoring.
Dogs are pampered, while impoverished children, often living in broken homes, are ignored. The reason for this imbalance demonstrates the degree of our addiction. We love the affirmation of our pets, while eschewing the hard work of getting to know and helping our neighbors, however flawed they may be.
People demand far more from us—more time, more sacrifices, and more emotional and intellectual commitment. Pets don’t debate us or fail at their promised commitments; they don’t make commitments. They don’t mock or insult us, tell us they love us then cheat on us, or screw us over. Nor do they require a significant change in our lifestyle.
Alternatively, pets don’t give us the same kind of deep and lasting intellectual and emotional bonds, become mature and responsible contributors to society, or provide for us when we are too old to take care of ourselves. Nor do they give us opportunities to exemplify human virtues in the same way we can with other humans. Human relationships are riskier, but the rewards are greater.
Moreover, humans alone, in their possession of intellect and will, are created in the image of God. By virtue of this divine imprint, we have an inestimable value that cannot be lost, no matter the degree of our foolishness or wickedness. As Jesus declared, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Luke 12:6-7).
As I asserted in my original article, a single orphan is worth more than every single last dog in this world. This is not to say that animals don’t matter. I love dogs, and when my kids are old enough to take care of a pet dog, I hope to own another, and treat it with the dignity deserving of any of God’s creatures. But to argue that such an animal has equal (or more) value than a person is not only callous and irrational, it undermines our very humanity.
Speaking of which, many Americans celebrate another holiday on November 1 that should elicit far more of our attention than one celebrating cooking for our pets. All Saints Day is the day many Christians honor deceased saints, both known and unknown. Every human who has gone to heaven, many of whom have demonstrated remarkable degrees of sacrifice and charity, is remembered on this day.
The saints are the “most human” of us all, possessing the qualities and virtues that most distinguish us from the rest of the earth’s animals. We need to not only honor their memory but also emulate their lives of love. This November 1, instead of cooking some special meal for your pet, give that time, energy, and money to another human soul who truly needs an act of love. As Christ exhorts us, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:45).