Consuming Pethood: Pets as Family
A mobile billboard is rolling around Indianapolis Indiana until April 20th pleading for help finding Boomer, a poodle thieved from the car of his owner Eddie Williams. Williams purchased the billboard to circulate through the city for five days offering a $1500 reward for the return of Boomer, no questions asked. The billboard rental cost $1950, in addition to the cost of hiring a private investigator to assist, but Williams dismissed the cost, indicating “I don’t care about the money. What I care about is Boomer.” Williams is a truck driver who travels with his dog, and he said that “He’s not a dog to me he’s a little human. My little human, and he’s my travelling companion.”
The lengths Williams has gone to secure Boomer just a week before Lost Dog Awareness Day probably do not surprise many other pet owners. Boomer is simply one of many pets granted a status that places them firmly alongside humans while illuminating the philosophical complexities of human and natural relationships, childhood, public health, and consumer culture. Boomer and his peers are distinctive if not unique material things quite unlike prosaic commodities, cast as anthropomorphized “family members” endowed with nearly all of the fundamental characteristics we associate with humans.
Domesticated cats, dogs, and other animals have long ago assumed a status distinct from other material things. Historian Keith Thomas traces the roots of what we recognize as pet ownership—admitting the animal into the house, granting it a name, refusing to consume its flesh—to the 16th century. Many of our contemporary notions of pethood took full form in the 19th century, and in the Victorian world Katherine Grier argues that pets were often viewed as disciplinary mechanisms, with animals like dogs believed to teach boys how to be sensitive adults.
Few material dimensions of pethood confirm their unique status more than pet cemeteries. Pet burials with systematic ritual and mortuary preparation reach into antiquity, and scattered burials of pets occurred in the 19th century. Soldier’s dogs began to be buried at Edinburgh Castle as early as 1840, but the earliest pet burial grounds were not established until the late 19th century. In 1881 a corner of London’s Hyde Park became the final resting place for a single dog, Cherry, and Cherry was followed until 1915 by a host of roughly 300 dogs and cats alongside a few birds and at least one monkey. In Paris the Cemetery of the Dogs and other Domestic Animals (Cimetière des Chiens et Autres Animaux Domestiques) was established in 1899. Classed as a Historical Monument in 1987, the Art Nouveau cemetery includes the remains of Rin Tin Tin, who had been rescued in France during World War I.
The first American claim to a pet cemetery is perhaps New York’s Hartsdale Pet Cemetery. Established in 1896, the cemetery today holds more than 80,000 animals ranging from dogs to lion cubs enshrined beneath modest markers as well as monumental memorials. A 1917 dog mausoleum constructed for Mrs. M.F. Walsh holds “My Little True Love Hearts, Who Would Lick the Hand That Had no Food to Offer,” and the 1923 War Dog Memorial commemorates military dogs lost in World War I. Hartsdale and the pet cemeteries that emerged in the early 20th century were predominately the resting places for the pets of wealthy urbanites. The Clara-Glenn Pet Cemetery in Atlantic City opened in 1918 and now serves as the final resting place for more than 3000 animals; the Los Angeles Pet Cemetery was established in 1928 and holds over 40,000 animals; and Aspin Hill Memorial Park was established in 1921 in Silver Spring, Maryland and is the final resting place of seven of J. Edgar Hoover’s dogs, beginning with the burial of his dog Spee De Bozo in 1934.
Pet cemeteries make a variety of claims for pets as family members with human attributes and kinship status, if not immortal souls. The appearance of photographs on pet grave markers came as early as 1935 at Hartsdale, but Stanley Brandes found that such images became much more common in about 1990, a pattern that Richard Chalfen has also noted in Japan. These images on grave markers seem to underscore pets’ increasingly firm status as anthropomorphized “family members.” Brandes argues that post-World War II markers tend to include many more kinship references: e.g., Brandes notes Hartland markers that refer to the deceased as the “Third Member of the Family”; “Beloved Member of Our Family”; and “All My Love/Until We Meet Again/Mommy.” Brandes makes a strong case that the increase in religious symbols on markers since the 1980’s also mirrors an increasingly prevalent belief that pets possess a religious essence if not souls, which does not seem to be part of the symbolism on most pet markers before World War II. In January, a retired Virginia police officer spoke in support of a state bill that would allow joint human/pet burials, invoking all of these themes of kinship and faith. He and his wife did not have children, and he told the Washington Post that “It was either adopting some human babies or adopting some doggie babies, and we chose the dogs. Our dogs are our family. We’re all created by God. And there’s no reason that we cannot be together at our final resting place.”
A massive industry now supports pet ownership, including commodities from chains to invisible fences to identification chips; grooming services; medications; pet insurance; and cemeteries. Observers sometimes reduce pet ownership to misplaced expense, singling out the lavish comforts that can an affluent pet owner can provide their fortunate animal. Bitch New York, for instance, sells dog apparel, accessories, and furnishings such as astounding dog houses costing as much as $10,000. For cat owners, A Hidden Hollow makes enormous indoor cat trees. In addition to pet cemetery spaces, the pet mortuary goods sold to grieving human companions include pine caskets, a broad range of pet memorials, pet cremation urns, and pet cremation jewelry.
Approached alongside the everyday material needs of people, these expenses appear at best absurd and selfish, but the caricature of the indulgent wealthy pet owner risks ignoring the intense emotional investment people have in their relationship with pets; this is precisely the point made by Eddie Williams as he openly ignored the expense of finding Boomer. Pets are certainly a distinctive consumer good, but the legion of handmade dog houses and individual pet burials in American backyards reflects that mass marketed materiality has not determined how we view the material dimensions of pethood. However, pets are increasingly firmly situated in a consumer culture that stresses humans’ moral responsibility to their pets, a responsibility that extends to a host of commodities that are often cast as essential to a devoted “family member’s” life and death. The American Pet Products Association estimates that the moral responsibility to animal companions will produce $58.51 billion dollars in expenditures in 2014 (pet food, at $22.6 billion, is the largest of those expenses).
Nevertheless, human commitment to animal companions certainly extends well beyond expenses alone or the emotions we may have for other material things. A Massachusetts pet cemetery proprietor, for instance, indicates that many families will leave material tokens in their pets graves, ranging from dog biscuits to “locks of hair or even a McDonald’s hamburger.” A host of virtual pet cemeteries have extended companions’ memorialization to the web, but for many people a virtual memorial is not a sufficient show of devotion, with increasingly more pet owners pressing to spend their eternal rest with their animal companions. About 700 cremated human remains had been buried alongside their pets at Hartsdale since the 1920’s. The state briefly intervened in 2011, but in 2013 the deceased were again allowed to be cremated and buried alongside their pets in New York’s pet cemeteries (most American pet cemeteries appear to permit human/animal internments). Hermitage Pennsylvania’s Hillcrest Memorial Park People and Pet Garden offers the option of being buried in the same lot with your pet (or in adjacent lots for those with multiple pets); the Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium, Maryland offers cremation benches that will hold both human and pet remains; Standing Rock Cemetery in Kent, Ohio granted access to joint human/pet burials in 2012 but a year later the section remained empty; and Jefferson Memorial Cemetery in Pittsburgh allows joint internments in its Garden of Faithful Friends.
Eddie Williams’ heartbroken devotion to his poodle clearly is not unique or perhaps even unusual. While much of pethood appears governed or significantly shaped by consumer culture, there remains a genuine human devotion to animal companions that is reflected in the scores of tattered lost dog signs on American telephone poles. Clearly many pet owners see their animals as trusted companions for at least portions of their owners’ lives, and most have embraced the notion of family and approach their pets’ mortality with codes of dignity much like those we grant to people.
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Katherine C. Grier
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Eddie Williams and Boomer sign image from WTHR
Hartsdale Cemetery gates image from Natalie Maynor (flickr)
Hartsdale markers image from Bitch Cakes (flickr)
Our Baby Precious marker image from Adam Schweigert
Pets Rest Cemetery image from cactusbones (flickr)
War Dog Memorial image from JMReidy