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From Doghouse to Our House
By the time we finally saw Murphy, we’d driven the two hours of highway from our house in Philadelphia to what felt like the last rural place in all of New Jersey. We’d nosed through the town—over a pair of railroad tracks, past a warehouse, down a short road. And we’d gingerly tiptoed past the chain-link fence that held Boss, the massive Saint Bernard at the shotgun-style home opposite the town’s small-scale animal shelter. My wife spotted him first, an oddly undersized example of the same breed running around the muddy melting snow in the kennel’s yard: "It’s Murphy!" she exclaimed.
We’d spotted the pup a few days earlier on Petfinder, the Web site that lets prospective adopters eye hundreds of thousands of potential adoptees from shelters all over the United States. For a long time, we’d visited the site as a diversion, a way to kill time at work staring at snapshots of wet noses and wagging tails and drooling jowls. We’d e-mail links back and forth, each of them attached to a heartbreaking story of how this particular dog was a sweetheart who really needed a place in some family’s happy home. Eventually, we got to thinking that it was about time we became that happy family.
And then we stumbled across the page that featured Murphy, his tongue drooping, his watery eyes staring cluelessly from inside a cage that turned out to be only two hours away. When we arrived that morning, we’d been talking about him long enough to feel like he was already part of our household. The woman who ran the shelter mashed a 100-length cigarette into an old tin of dog food as she led him over. As they got close enough for us to see the matted dreadlocks on Murphy’s back, Boss began growling. "Don’t mind him," the woman said, as the guard dog’s growls turned to angry barks. "Boss don’t like other dogs."
Murphy, though, was another story. He was sweet and cuddly and goofy, exactly as we’d wanted. Of course, we tried to stay skeptical. Knowing little about dogs when we started thinking about getting one, we’d searched for wisdom in a book on how to adopt an animal. Don’t let those heartbreaking shelter stories trick you into getting an animal you can’t handle, it warned. Put them through the paces now, or suffer later. So in the ensuing half hour, we tried the book’s suggested tests as best we could. We put food in front of him and then snatched it away. No growling. A good sign. We put more food in front of him and then pushed his face away as he ate. No nipping. An even better sign. The shelter manager gazed with dismay at this spectacle of anxious yuppiehood: one of us reading reverently from the book, the other vaguely executing its tests on the befuddled dog, neither of us quite sure what to do next.
Following the book’s instructions as if they were holy writ, we asked how Murphy had wound up in the shelter—and then steeled ourselves against what we’d been warned would be a maudlin spiel designed to undercut doubts about a potentially troublesome pooch. The dog, we were told, had been brought to her kennel twice. First he was turned in by someone who the manager suspected hadn’t been able to unload this especially runty runt of his litter: Murphy was eighteen months old and 63 pounds at the time; ordinary male Saint Bernards can weigh in at 180. Next he was returned by a woman who couldn’t housebreak him.
"But she was some kind of backcountry hick," said the shelter manager. "She didn’t even know what she was doing." Ever since, Murphy had been waiting in a cage next to Boss’s yard, staring up at people like us. "Look," she said. "I don’t much care about you, but I do care about him. And if he goes and bites someone, someone like you will put him down, right? Since I don’t want that to happen, I’m telling you: He don’t bite."
The logic was pretty good.
The dog was pretty sweet.
The time was pretty right.
And so we said yes, signing some not quite official-looking paperwork—the adoption document identified the dog as "Murfy"—before forking over one hundred dollars and agreeing to take into our lives a Saint Bernard with fleas and dreadlocks and a stench somewhere between warm bunion and rotten tripe. The shelter manager whipped out a syringe, planted what was purported to be a kennel cough shot into Murfy/Murphy’s snout, and wished us well. We coaxed the dog into the backseat of our Honda, where he promptly fell fast asleep.
As we began the drive home, we felt a bit proud of ourselves. Not for us the fancy breeders sought out by so many in our sweetly gentrified corner of upscale America. Not for us the genetically perfect beagles and bassets and Bernese mountain dogs whose poop is sanctimoniously plucked from city sidewalks in recycled blue New York Times home-delivery bags. We’d gotten a dog, yeah, but we weren’t going to become, like, those people—the ones who shell out for the spa days and agility training and homeopathic medicine for their animals, the ones who laugh it off when their puppies frighten children away from the neighborhood playground, the ones who give up vacations and promotions and transfers in order to save pooches with names like Sonoma and Hamilton and Mordecai from having their lives disrupted. No, not us.
That’s what we were telling ourselves, anyway, when the PetSmart came into view along the edge of the highway. "We should go in—get some food and stuff," said my wife. "It’ll just take a sec." Thus began our unwitting journey into the $41-billion-a-year world of the modern American pet.
It didn’t take long to realize that the line between sober pet owner and spendthrift overindulger wasn’t as clear as I’d imagined.
I started thinking about that very subject an hour or so after Murphy nosed his way into the PetSmart—at around the time the exhausted-looking staff at the in-store grooming salon told us there was no way they could attend to our filthy new pet today; we ought to have made reservations a couple of weeks in advance. My wife, who’d grown up with a dog and had roughed out a budget when we started thinking about adopting one of our own, hadn’t been aware that salon grooming was such a standard piece of contemporary pet owning that chain stores had weeks-long waiting lists. Still, without having to shell out for a wash, we made it out of the store that day for under $200. Murphy had a new bed, a pair of collars, an extend-o-leash that expands up to twenty-five feet, a variety of chew toys—that he’s never used—and other goodies. The spending seemed like basic, ordinary stuff.
But as anyone who’s read one of the dog-owner memoirs that seem to occupy about half of the weekly New York Times best-seller list could confirm, it was no onetime expense. It’s a basic law of pet storytelling: Just as the romantic comedy vixen must wind up with the guy she’d vowed not to marry if he were the last man on earth, so too must the beloved dog stomp and scratch and poop on your very last nerve—and chow down on your shrinking wallet—before weaseling his way into your newly receptive heart. No surprise, then, that four years later Murphy has gone through a variety of ever newer beds (he seemed not to like the old ones) and redesigned collars and leashes (we wanted to try the special ones that are said to keep dogs from pulling too hard) and still more chew toys (we have a PetSmart discount card now and live in the eternal hope of finding one he likes). He also owns Halloween costumes (too adorable to resist), reindeer antlers (ditto), and a picture of himself with Santa (alas, ditto once more).
He has been implanted with a LoJack-style microchip that will help us find him if he gets lost.
His food—or should I say "foods"—comes from that burgeoning market sector known as "superpremium."
He’s stayed at an array of upscale local kennels—sorry, pet hotels—when we’ve gone out of town.
On other trips, when we took him along, he got to stay in our hotel room. One place left a doggie biscuit on his doggie bed and sent up a babysitter when we went out.
Did I mention he’s on antidepressants? The vet diagnosed his anxious howling when left alone as "separation anxiety," and it turned out there was a pill for it.
Or that he has a professional dog walker? In fact, the current one is his second; the first dropped him because she had too many clients.
Or that when we tote up the numbers, he’s proven responsible for an eerily large portion of our social life? Dragging us into the neighborhood park on a daily basis, he’s introduced a wealth of new neighborhood characters into our life. One of them was a cat whom Murphy—to his lasting regret—found shivering in a hollow tree. We brought her home and named her Amelia. And then there were two.
Then we decided to add a human baby to our flock. We’d known this would mean prenatal treatments for my wife. It was a bit of a surprise, though, when other prenatal attention focused on treating Murphy. Worries about how the dog would react to that new child sent us scurrying into the pricey orbit of one of our city’s best-known dog trainers for six weeks of private lessons. Unfortunately, her take on canine behavior was so different from that of the guy whose classes we’d first taken upon adopting Murphy that we went scrambling to the massive pet-care section of our local book superstore, where we have purchased a veritable library of books about how better to raise pets.
In fact, both pets hover around all sorts of other spending decisions, poking their snouts into our deliberations on things like furniture ("I like it, but Amelia would rip it to shreds") and—most painful of all—our purchase of an SUV (between a new baby, a Saint Bernard, and a Honda Civic, something had to give).
Despite all those early vows of pet frugality, I’ve not felt especially strange about any of the choices we have made. At the time, each of them seemed mundane and obvious: A dog needs walking when his owners stay late at work; furniture and cars ought to match a household’s needs; and, particularly with a baby in the mix, it makes eminent sense to work on a large animal’s behavior. I would say that the story of Murphy and us isn’t the story of a couple whose priorities were upended by a heart-meltingly adorable animal but, rather, the tale of a household engaged in what has become the normal way to raise a four-legged member of the family. And yet when I tote it all up, the truth stares at me with its own big, wet eyes: I’ve seen those people, and I’m one of ’em. If you have pets in contemporary America, you probably are, too. Pleased to meet you.
There are an awful lot of stories about pets in the media these days, but nearly all of them fit into two basic categories.
Category number one is that old standard: the tearjerker, the tale of the abused and the abandoned, the victims of indifferent owners or dire shelters or youthful sociopaths or simply the cruel hand of fate. The years I spent researching this book were a big period for such stories. In Pennsylvania, a high-profile political campaign focused national attention on puppy mills, the high-volume, low-standards facilities where dogs are often kept in gruesome conditions as they churn out litter after litter of merchandise for the nation’s pet stores. In Virginia, the indictment and imprisonment of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick on federal dogfighting charges turned into a full-blown media circus as reports detailed the dozens of pit bulls brutalized at Vick’s Bad Newz Kennels. And all across the country, the deaths of hundreds of cats and dogs who ate tainted pet food pulled back the curtain on an ill-regulated multibillion-dollar industry that happened to feature some of the world’s biggest corporate names.
The sob stories stand in dramatic contrast to the second, and possibly even bigger, category of pet reportage: the pampered pet tale, the gape-jawed peek at the animal kingdom’s most coddled critters—and the masseuses, chauffeurs, and pet-set fashionistas who cater to them. Whether they take the form of a local newspaper detailing the opening of, say, Duluth’s first luxury doggie spa, or of a sober national magazine like BusinessWeek dedicating its cover story to the booming U.S. pet industry, the pampered pet tales feature amazement—and hints of disdain—at what many pet owners now see as ho-hum basics of life with an animal. Yet while there’s a small army of activist groups, and no shortage of scholars and reporters, who have dedicated themselves to uncovering the root causes behind the sad and often criminal stories in category one, there’s far less material examining the dramatic cultural and economic changes that underlie the zany stories in category two.
This is a book about those changes. It’s a story about how America’s housepets have worked their way into a new place in the hearts, homes, and wallets of their owners. In a relatively short period of time, the United States has become a land of doggie yoga and kitty acupuncture and frequent-flier miles for traveling pets, a society where your inability to find a pet sitter has become an acceptable excuse to beg off a dinner invitation, a country where political candidates pander to pet owners and dog show champions are feted like Oscar winners. Sure, some tales of pampered pets still have the occasional ability to amaze us. Take hotelier Leona Helmsley’s will, for instance, in which the "Queen of Mean" left $12 million to a lapdog named Trouble while giving nothing to several of her own grandchildren. Such far-fetched stories are part of what scholar James Serpell calls the roi s’amuse tradition of pet tales: The king amuses himself. But for the country’s 70 million non-Helmsley pet-owning households, other examples of everyday luxury, once unimaginable, seem de rigueur. Yesteryear’s table scraps have been replaced by this year’s home-delivered doggie dinners.
What happened? It’s not like the animals have changed much. As any nostalgic pet-owning memoir will illustrate, the party in the relationship that changes is inevitably the human. Historians tell us that we’ve always been suckers for that doggie in the window. But exactly how that love manifests itself, and just who gets to go to the barnyard dance, has evolved dramatically. Compared to our subsistence-farming ancestors, we’re all kings now. So compared to their ancestors, our pets live like princes.
Tales of pet keeping can be traced back to ancient societies. Tales of animal pampering are nearly as old. In China, the Han emperor Ling was so enamored of his pets that he elevated them to the rank of senior officials in his court. Ling’s dogs got the best foods, slept on ornate carpets, and were given personal bodyguards. For most of history, though, ordinary people had to be spectators for such amusements. They always had animals around, of course, like cows or chickens. But for the most part, even the animals who weren’t there to be eaten had work to do, herding sheep or pulling carts. Until recently, few people could afford the variety of animal classified as a pet—the one with no productive job whatsoever.
And so it was up to the blue bloods. Members of the Athenian aristocracy were said to pay twenty times the price of a human slave to buy especially esteemed dogs. In Japan, the seventeenth-century shogun Tsunayoshi so loved dogs that he made it illegal to speak of them in impolite terms; he instituted unpopular new taxes to pay for his own collection of one hundred thousand canine friends. In Uganda, the despotic nineteenth-century king M’Tesa’s love for dogs prompted courtiers to curry favor by keeping their own pets. In Britain, the lapdogs in the entourage of Mary, Queen of Scots were clad in blue velvet suits; she snuck one of her beloved brood to her own execution, where it was discovered after Mary was beheaded. King Charles II, whose passion for dogs was such that he once placed a newspaper ad after one of his pets went missing, became the namesake of his own line of Cavalier spaniels. After the Glorious Revolution placed William and Mary on the throne, the couple sparked a new fancy for pugs from William’s native Holland. The British Empire has waxed and waned over the centuries, but Queen Elizabeth II still travels with her pack of corgis.
The connection between pet keeping and power remained true even as royals gave way to tycoons atop society’s pecking order, and as pets began to prowl the fault lines of class conflict. Nineteenth-century Parisian pet-keeping fashions, with a proliferation of books, coats, collars, bathing outfits, and the like, might have put even contemporary Manhattan’s pet scene to shame: Could fancy doggie day cares compete with wealthy flaneurs walking pet turtles through public arcades? But even as Europe’s newly rich were embracing an ever-changing set of pet-keeping fashions, there were great concerns over the supposedly dangerous animals that belonged to the urban under-class. Moneyed types worried that the blue-collar dogs had picked up what they saw as the violent, unclean customs of their human companions. The solution to this alleged problem: exorbitant animal taxes intended to put the squeeze on proletarian pets. Only rich pet owners would do.
Well-tended animals also became standard upper-crust accoutrements in the new nation across the Atlantic, where all people were supposed to be able to reach the top, and to bring their animals with them. As early as 1899, Thorstein Veblen, the great student of American pageantry and pomposity, sussed the secret meaning of pet ownership for the Gilded Age’s elite: Pets were living emblems of conspicuous consumption. "As he is also an item of expense, and commonly serves no industrial purpose, he holds a well-assured place in men’s regard as a thing of good repute," Veblen wrote in his celebrated Theory of the Leisure Class, the book that brought us the term conspicuous consumption. I’m so rich, the industrial dandy’s logic went, that I can afford to feed—and house, and bathe, and clean the tumbleweeds of shedding fur from—this totally unproductive creature. In an age when many people still forced their children to sing for their supper, or at least work in a factory for it, this was quite a concept.
This is not to say that pet keeping was limited to such consumers, or that it could always be ascribed to such cynical motivations. American pet keeping existed, often in fairly elaborate forms and at spots up and down the social ladder, well before Veblen took on the pet-owning leisure class. The inhabitants of pre-Columbian America hunted or domesticated a variety of animals, but what we now understand as pets came across the Atlantic with the Spaniards. Diaries that predate the Constitution tell of beloved family cats. In the mid-nineteenth century, there was a craze for imported caged birds. By the twentieth century, pets were a way for powerful politicians to make themselves look more down-to-earth—the exact opposite of Veblen’s notion. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Scottie, Fala, was a national celebrity, traveling with him to war conferences and visiting defense plants; the dog’s breeder published his own book in 1942. Presidents ever since have deployed pets the same way—although FDR was probably the only one threatened with congressional investigation over pet pampering, the result of false rumors that he had dispatched a destroyer to retrieve the dog after Fala was accidentally left behind in the Aleutian Islands.
Pet keeping continued to evolve with the country, following each era’s ideas about kindness, domesticity, and comfort. The lapdog in the millionaire’s mansion became the golden retriever in the suburban backyard; the kitten from the litter of your neighbor’s tabby became the kitten you took straight from the SPCA adoption center to the veterinarian’s spaying practice. Everyone knows dogs are supposed to teach you about love and loyalty and fun. But I found something I had never expected when I first glimpsed my dog’s sweet, dopey face: the story of modern America. In the chapters that follow, I travel to diverse corners of our pet kingdom to experience the often surprising ways that pets like Murphy serve as a fun-house-mirror reflection of our changing notions about such universal subjects as family, health, and friendship—and more historically specific topics like bureaucracy, justice, consumerism, and the culture wars.
Maybe the most telling change involved a very small piece of architecture, once ubiquitous, which I saw very little of as I journeyed around the new world of America’s pets, pet owners, and pet businesses: the doghouse. Yes, one firm makes a $5,390 structure modeled after a Swiss chalet. But for the most part, though we still talk of people being sent to the doghouse, the physical structures have disappeared from our landscape. Their occupants have moved indoors, to be with their families, in far bigger doghouses: ours.