New Worlds: Fluffy and Fido and Friends

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

I mentioned before that there’s a difference between domesticating an animal and taming one — you can theoretically tame a great many creatures that are not domesticated at all.

One of the consequences of this is, people have made some amazingly stupid decisions about what to keep as a pet.

For most of you, the word “pet” probably summons to mind a cat or a dog. With good reason: in the United States, over 38% of households have at least one dog, and over 25% of households have at least one cat. (I can’t easily track down how much those two groups overlap, i.e. have both cats and dogs.) Sidestepping the eternal debates about the relative merits and demerits of those two species, we’ve found that both of them make good companions. They’re small enough not to eat us out of house and home (. . . mostly; my neighbor’s Newfoundland might be an argument to the contrary), they have nice fur we can stroke (. . . mostly; Sphynxes, the hairless cats, are definitely an argument to the contrary), and they’re fun to play with, whether that involves throwing a ball or dangling a feather wand. They can be housebroken, which is very convenient. They often tolerate obnoxious behavior from small children, because there are some semi-universal mammalian traits that announce “I’m not fully grown yet!” — and that goes both ways, given what we humans put up with from puppies and kittens.

Just because those species hugely dominate the pet world of the United States, though, doesn’t mean they’re the whole story. Birds come in a distant third place here, at slightly less than 3% of households. Perhaps their non-mammalian nature counts against them in our hearts? Reptiles like snakes, lizards, and turtles are also present, but uncommon; fish may outnumber them both by a lot, but the American Veterinary Medical Association reports the statistics for “companion animals” (dogs, cats, birds, and oddly, horses) differently from the others, so it’s hard to say how prevalent they are. Back on the mammalian side, there are a fair number of rabbits — I’m told they’re fun and affectionate pets, if you can keep them from chewing through everything in sight — and about a tenth as many ferrets. What’s contained in the category of “other mammals”? One presumes rats and mice, gerbils and hamsters and guinea pigs; rodents are fairly easy to keep in cages, and therefore may be permitted in places where animals that have free run of the residence are not.

But let’s go back to those companion horses for a moment. They’re comparatively rare, showing up in less than 1% of households; horses tend to be expensive to keep. In the statistics for specialty animals, though, you also find “pet livestock” and “pet poultry.” How are they defining the “pet” part of those categories? The report doesn’t say. I know a surprising number of people who keep chickens, some of whom do it for the eggs those chickens lay, some of whom do it just because it seems like fun. Do both categories count as pets, or only the ones that are non-productive? Plenty of farm families have stories about their favorite cows or pigs or sheep . . . which doesn’t necessarily save those cows and pigs and sheep from the chopping block when it’s time to acquire some meat for dinner. Do the goats employed in goat yoga count as livestock, working animals, pets, or something else entirely?

That’s the shallow end of the pet pool, where the decision to keep such an animal as a pet may be viewed as a little unusual, but not too bizarre. The mid-level waters are the category of “exotic pets” — which is extremely blurry, its boundaries often poorly defined even in law.

Reptiles may be included under the “exotic” header, despite their prevalence; so are the much less common arachnids and insects. As mammals, we tend to find those creatures alien, and don’t often gravitate toward them as pets. (Are you going to cuddle a beetle? Play fetch with a tarantula?) Some people find them fascinating, though, and see no reason why they’re any weirder than pet fish. Then you have the animals that are being exported from their home countries, like sugar gliders, coatis, and chinchillas. In some cases this trade compounds the threat posed by habitat loss, endangering the survival of their species, and many of them — however cute or cool-looking — honestly make bad pets, suffering ill health in captivity. But not everything that’s an exotic pet to the Western world is seen as such closer to home; the binturong or “bear cat” is sometimes kept as a pet by Malaysian people, in its native range.

And then there’s the deep end of the pet pool. Have you ever seen stories on the news about someone being found with a Siberian tiger in their apartment? There are some truly priceless idiots out there who believe that if they raise a wild animal from infancy, that makes it a pet. Often these stories end with someone being hurt or killed. Great cats seem to be a frequent star in such tales, but primates also show up a lot, especially when somebody doesn’t realize there’s a distinction between monkeys (who have sometimes been kept successfully as pets) and apes. Ever notice that all the chimpanzees you see in movies tend to have pale faces, but the ones you see in wildlife documentaries are darker? That’s because juvenile chimps are lighter-skinned, and fairly tractable. Once they reach adulthood, both of those things change. There was a tragic incident in 2009 where a pet chimpanzee named Travis horrifically mauled a woman; I won’t subject you to the details here, but if you want to understand how bad an idea that was, you can look it up.

Why do we do this? On the dog-and-cat level of pet ownership, it’s actually good for us: there are numerous studies showing physical and psychological benefits to having a creature you can take care of, who returns your care with affection. That’s why an increasing number of hospitals and nursing homes are arranging for pets to visit their wards. I suspect, though I don’t know for sure, that these benefits are more distinct with nice furry mammals than with iguanas or parakeets — but for the right sort of person, maybe those are therapeutic, too. And if you’re writing about a sentient reptilian or avian species, they might well find more to love in a creature like themselves.

But when it comes to exotic pets, it’s often more about prestige. Pet monkeys and the like have often been associated with the aristocracy or the eccentric rich, at least in the West. (If anyone has statistics for pet ownership in regions where monkeys are found, let me know!) They’re more expensive to get and maintain, and having an unusual pet confers a status of its own, as other people want to see it. When that pet is dangerous . . . then you’re showing off how badass you are, as you wrestle playfully with your living room leopard.

Right up until the point where that leopard rips your throat out. Or dies of neglect, as happens all too often.

But there’s another blurry line here, between “animal being kept as a pet” and “animal being kept.” That latter description takes us in the direction of zoos and menageries — more on those next week!

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Fluffy and Fido and Friends — 10 Comments

  1. I’d be interested if someone has a good source of data on this, but I believe that widespread pet ownership is a relatively modern phenomenon. Until at least the twentieth century, how many people had the resources to feed an animal whose purpose was solely companionship? I think it was a relatively aristocratic idea (eg ladies’ lapdogs, or ‘hunting dogs’ which had the run of the mansion and were treated like pets.)

    This is not to say that people couldn’t have emotional relationships with working animals, be that someone’s riding horse or their sheepdog, but I am not sure that they would have conceptualised the relationship in the same way a modern person would.

    • I suspect that’s true, simply on economic grounds. But stats would be difficult to gather, especially since “pet” isn’t a clear-cut category; as you say, hunting dogs could be companionable but also have a task to perform sometimes.

    • People did often have a more lasseiz faire attitude toward pets in the past (think about how common it was in 50s media to “put the cat out” for the night, and how weird that would be today), but I think the difference is that we have such excess wealth now that it can make sense to remove pets from the economic sphere. As Marie points out, the line between a working animal and a companion is much more stark now than it would have been in the past (life was a lot more work generally). Animals would, like anyone else, be expected to participate in their own maintenance in a way we don’t expect our cats and dogs to do today. If your pet kills and eats a rat, that’s a bonus or a hassle, but not a helpful part of your livelihood. This is true of children as well, who would have materially participated in the economic life of the family in the past in a way they don’t in “standard” western culture.

      Also, for the first dogs anyway, it would have been impossible for them to be “useful” to humans in the way they became later. It’s possible those early people had the foresight to predict that usefulness – or maybe they just thought dogs were cute. Dogs were domesticated at least twice after all.

      • I’d never thought about that, re: putting the cat out.

        Child labor will definitely be a topic some day.

        Also, for the first dogs anyway, it would have been impossible for them to be “useful” to humans in the way they became later.

        They wouldn’t have had the full range of uses they’ve got now, no — but they were definitely useful. The usual theory of wolf domestication is that human fed them so they would stay around and act as guards.

  2. When my brother was in a nursing home last autumn an alpaca dressed up for Halloween came to visit. He was a great hit and put up with a lot of clumsy mauling by recovering stroke patients. But at the end of the hour he was leading his handler toward the door, politely saying he’d had enough.

    • Awwww! I hadn’t heard of alpacas being used for that purpose. And yeah, the animals that do this work have to be sweet-tempered and tolerant of people who may not be able to handle them appropriately, or may not know how.

    • It’s not just “nursing homes” and not really all that new. Military mental-health inpatient facilities have been using “non-working” dogs (that is, breeds other than the stereotypical “military working dog” like an Alsatian/German Shepherd) since before the 1960s in attempting to reach what we now call PTSD sufferers, and it extended to the more-nursing-home-like environments by the 1980s.

      Some of this is probably because one need not worry about a therapy animal betraying secrets. The episode “General Hospital” of Blackadder Goes Forth plays it for laughs, but it was a very real concern and very real problem.

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  4. I probably don’t need to mention the “Tiger King” frenzy going on right now — idiots collecting lions and tigers. Grrrr.