Commentary on Culture | Midrash Blog

March TATB Recap


At the March TATB we discussed, “The Role of Pets in Our Culture.” While different topics have different degrees of depth, and volatility, this topic was on the lighter end of the spectrum, which was fun.  It’s hard to recap a multi-dimensional discussion among 50+ people, but here are some of the interesting points from the evening. 

Our moderator opened the evening with some quotes: 

  • “More than 60 percent of U.S. households have pets, and America grows more pet-friendly every day.” 
  • 1.1% of an average American’s spending is on pets and their things. 
  • Americans spent $56 billion on their pets in 2013.  They spent only $10 billiion on movies.
  • “People are fascinated by pets. We act and spend on them as if they were our children.”

Those figures and quotes make it clear that pets are a major cultural phenomenon in America today.  What’s behind this force, what pros and cons are there, and what does the large and increasing role of pets in our culture say about us?  That’s the ground we covered, in 90 minutes of fun and spirited discussion.

Why do we have pets and place such importance on them?  Observations included that older people “replace” children with pets to have something to continue to care for, and many people have pets for companionship and to receive affection and attention in a world in which both are in scant supply.

What’s behind the trend of increased extravagance toward pets:  doggie spa, bakery, mouthwash, gourmet food and so on?  Some people noted that people find a way to spend money on what’s important to them. Some noted that we want to treat our pets as members of the family with the attendant increase in attention and spending.  Others said the large amounts spent on pets these days constitute a glorious example of the free enterprise system moving people to spend lots of money on what they value.  In a generally prosperous society, people are pampering their pets. 

At this point in the evening, things got rather sticky.  One person said that he is bothered by the attention and money lavished on pets in our culture, when there are humans in the world that get less care and support, and even basic needs met, than many dogs and cats in America. He posited that as ethically abhorrent and spiritually objectionable.  In a discussion full of, well, puppy love, this guy was definitely going against the flow — which is fine, TATB is all about engaging multiple, and provocative, opinions.

Comparing the attention given to pets today to the huge gaping needs of people in our city, and across the world, is one complicated matter.  People spoke to this issue from multiple perspectives, some being more sympathetic to pets and people, and some to the contrary.  This was the difficult, but most interesting, part of the evening, as we were forced to think about what we valued, and where those values come from, and whether we actually live out the values and priorities that we profess. This was heavy, weighty conversation.  But it was good.

It’s fascinating just how hugely popular pets have become in the last few decades in our culture.  They’re getting more attention and more resources, and more humanizing than ever.  In our world of difficult people, endless horrible crimes by humans,  isolating technology – we may be wanting warmth and affection and attention more than ever.  And pets may be one place we look for those things, those normal and natural longings.  I think this is worth thinking about deeply.

But as we heard in different ways at the March TATB, it seems clear that pets have their limits in serving these good purposes.  We havn’t – yet – heard a pet owner tell his/her pet, “You complete me.” We want to be loved, absolutely, and yet I don’t think any animal – or even any human – will ever really complete us. 

 And what if that was the point?  What if our desire for love and connection, and the fact that we can’t find them perfectly in the best pet, or even the best spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend, are both on purpose?  What does that tell us, where does that lead us?