2016-06-30
(RNS) My mother was a gold mine of practical advice. She used to warn us, "There are two things for which you will never be forgiven--criticizing people's children or their pets."

She included the latter category because of her hunch that the measure of a person's loss could be found in the size of emotional investment in his or her dog or cat. If this is true, the misery of America may be the subtext of a recent story in The New York Times.

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The story sounded like something out of the civil rights era: a crowd of 500 people chanting as they banged on the windows of a meeting to restrict what they considered their rights.

This was not, however, about the franchise to vote but rather about forbidding dogs from running free on national park land. Their rumbling demand was not "Freedom Now" but "No leashes! No leashes!"

It would be easy to poke gentle fun at this saga of the social ascent of American dogs to a position in which they "get braces for their teeth and antidepressants for anxiety and attend the church of their owner's choice," as the newspaper put it.

So, too, were there not the hint of an emotional chasm beneath their protests, one could lampoon and dismiss claims that "ordinances banning certain breeds of animals are the equivalent of racial profiling of dogs."

Enormous emotional demands are made on dogs by the "three-fourths of pet owners (who) consider their animals akin to children" and the majority of surveyed women who "said they relied more on their dogs or cats for affection than on their husbands."

These reports constitute what social scientists term "unobtrusive measures," indicators that incidentally tell us a truth that they are not designed to measure.

Thus a checkbook tells, better than we could, what we did, where we were, and what our priorities may be.

What does the person tell us by saying, "My dog is my family member, my dog sleeps in bed with me, my dog is my therapy"? It takes no psychological sophistication to sense the loneliness and isolation beneath this individual's investment in a pit bull she defends against bad press.

The famous essay "Bowling Alone" that touched a national nerve by tracking the solitary pursuit of that diversion could be matched by "Walking the Pet Alone," so poignant a sight in so many cities.

What explains this turning to what people refer to now as "animal companions" for the supportive responses normally associated with friendship and love?

Instead of criticizing these pet lovers, we may understand them, as we do previous generations, in terms of the major external event of their childhood that shaped their responses for the rest of their lives. Depression children, raised when saving was the sacrament of everyday life, remain frugal, market researchers tell us, avoid debt, and still find it difficult to buy things for themselves.

In this generation, however, we have an unintended measure of the after-effects of the sexual revolution/no-fault divorce era on its children. Depression babies have grown old permanently wary of buying what they cannot immediately pay for, and sexual revolution/no-fault divorce babies have come of age permanently wary of the impermanence of human relationships and the emptiness of sex outside them.

This generation also grew up as the institutions that are supposed to sustain a culture--its universities, its government, and its churches--lost faith in themselves.

Today's pet-loving cohort came of age as the law became the substitute authority in all things.

Americans pledged their allegiance more to the law than the flag.

The background was the adversarial lawsuit, often connected with their parents' failed marriages, their custody, and the division of what they once called home but the court called common property. In short, the ruins of marriage, which many fear to enter lest they re-create the scenes they witnessed in their own parents' contentious relationships.

It is touching, indeed, to compare them (as they do themselves) to their grandparents, who feared debt but loved each other. They recognize that, almost perversely, they love debt but fear each other.

These stories of animal rights tell us about the emotional wrongs that many adults suffered growing up in a world falling apart. They invest in their dogs and cats--ever there, never talking back, never borrowing money--what fear of being hurt keeps them from investing in each other. Such staggering expectations on animals tell of their staggering disappointments with humans. This is not sentimentality but their spoiled inheritance that leaves them on high alert against heartbreak.



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