I was in the checkout line at a home decor store over the weekend and noticed a display of coffee mugs with various quotes and phrases printed on them. One in particular caught my eye: “Pets are people too.” Many of the surrounding mugs also presented pet-themed quips such as, “I’d rather be with my dog,” “My cat doesn’t like you either,” and “Dog Mom.”
I understand these are silly and relatively innocuous coffee mugs, but I couldn’t help but think they are somehow reflective of an unsettling relationship that we as a culture — and the millennial generation, in particular — have developed in recent years with pets and animals.
In his 2013 book “What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster,” Jonathan Last opens by describing the recent apparent phenomenon in which adults, instead of having children, own dogs. Last writes:
The evidence suggests that pets are increasingly treated like actual family members: in 1998 the average dog-owning American household spent $383 on medical care for their dogs; by 2006, that figure had risen to $672. Expenditures on doggie grooming aids more than doubled from $59 to $127. In surveys from 1947 to 1985, fewer than half of Americans reported that they owned a pet. Today American pets outnumber American children by more than four to one.
Let me clarify up front that I don’t have anything against pets or animals. I just watched “Togo” on Disney Plus and cried throughout the whole movie as anyone — or any woman, at least — with a heart would. I think animals are cute and fascinating and that pets can occupy a unique and lovely place in our hearts and homes.
But the real problem to which all of this is pointing isn’t actually a pet problem; it’s an intimacy problem.
Humans Were Created for Intimacy
We’ve all seen and heard study after study revealing America is experiencing a “loneliness epidemic,” and that millennials and Gen Zers have it the worst. The digital age has given the illusion of ubiquitous and instant connectedness but has left people devoid of true intimacy and the social skills to pursue it, leading to declining marriage and birth rates, shockingly low rates of sexual activity, and alarmingly high rates of suicide.
We were created for human connection, and the need for intimacy is one of the most innate aspects of our makeup. The very first thing God did after he created man was to look for a suitable companion for him. But if you recall in the creation story in Genesis 2, God’s first attempt at creating a companion for Adam wasn’t to form Eve; it was to create the animals:
18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” 19 Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. 20 The man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field, but for Adam there was not found a helper suitable for him. [emphasis added]
Those with even the most basic level of biblical knowledge remember the story goes on to say that God then took a rib from Adam and from it created Eve. The contrast of God’s creation and Adam’s experience with the animals and the subsequent formation of Eve is an important look at what does and does not constitute the kind of intimacy for which humans were created: The animals were formed from the ground, from outside man, but Eve was created from inside man. “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23).
Pets Can’t Fix Loneliness
In one of the most profound dissections of the creation story I’ve ever read, “The Beast that Crouches at the Door,” Rabbi David Fohrman writes that one of the core themes of the creation story and the fall of man is the relationship between man and beast. “The temptation of loneliness,” writes Fohrman, “is to seek solace where it ought not to be sought. For Adam, this would mean seeking companionship among the animals. … [T]he animal world, for its part, might be seen as only too happy to oblige.”
Because the first of mankind was alone, and his first attempt to quell his loneliness was to search among the animals, it might follow that the tendency to look to the animal kingdom to fill the aching longing for connection — to seek the intimacy for which we were created — is imprinted in our most ancient primitive instincts.
But as we learned at beginning of all mankind, animals are unsuitable companions to meet humans’ needs for intimacy. True intimacy is a uniquely human trait that can be found only in connection with other humans. Loneliness is a real and painful thing too many people are experiencing, but a pet isn’t the solution. A pet may serve as a distraction from loneliness, but that chasm within will only grow wider and deeper until it is met by another human.
Pets and animals are delightful but only when assigned an appropriate place in our lives. Pets are not people too, dogs are not children, and we should rather be with people than with animals. The mugs are innocent enough, I suppose, but if you’re going to drink from one, I hope you’re at least in the company of another human being when you do.