On Privilege and Pets

A few weeks ago we took Chara to the Paw Pet Resort for some water therapy. The vet had recommended both the location and the activity to us to help strengthen her muscles and stabilize her joints, and so we wanted to make sure we followed through. (Now, a disclaimer before I get into this all–while I care a lot about social justice, I haven’t been formally educated in how to talk about and write about these issues. If anything I write is offensive, I’d love some constructive criticism explaining why, and how I could do better in the future.)

Enjoying her pool time, lucky little rascal.

Enjoying her pool time, lucky little rascal.

We pulled up to a large, sprawling building, with an overhang at the front doors like you’d see on a fancy hotel–as if some concierge was going to step out, take our bags, and park our car. Inside, dog statues dominated the floor, and soothing music trickled like water over rocks in the background. A smiling white lady talked to another smiling white lady behind the counter. When Chara put her front paws on the counter to say hi, they gave her a biscuit.

Now, just in case you hadn’t noticed yet, I’m a huge dog lover. I fully believe that it’s our responsibility as pet owners to do everything in our power to make our pets as happy and healthy as possible. Even beyond that, I don’t see humans as having more rights to fancy resorts than other species do just because we have opposable thumbs and languages (eventually I’ll write about this whole set of animal equality beliefs I hold–but not now). But still, walking into that doggie resort felt… uncomfortable.

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I guess it wasn’t so much the fact that the resort existed for dogs, and more that it felt like the people who brought their dogs there were unaware how lucky they were to be able to do so. Because I mean, you clearly are doing pretty well if you can afford to bring your dog to a place where they have daily swims, doggy massages, and scheduled socialization time. You don’t bring your dog to a resort if you’re worried about your drinking water or scrambling to put food on the table.

As we walked through those doors, I was suddenly acutely aware of how me and Jordan looked–a young white couple, him with his hipster beard and flannel with a Patagonia vest draped over top, and me with my skinny jeans and Bean boots, a fleece squashed under my own Patagonia vest. I imagine we looked the very picture of the bourgeois dog owner. It made me feel gross.

Couple-a soon to be dog owning yuppies.

Note the vest and matching wool sweaters. Ugh.

I don’t want to be the kind of person who goes through life unaware of how the family and skin they were born into affects the way they navigate the world. More specifically, I do not want to be someone who walks her dog into a doggie resort and pays for a thirty minute swim without giving it a second thought.

Checking out the pool cover. Notice the fake palm tree in the corner.

Checking out the pool cover. Notice the fake palm tree in the corner.

All this thinking got me thinking. Owning a pet is almost always a privilege. It means that you can afford to spend time and money on a being that is totally dependent on you. It also means you were raised in an environment where you had the ability to spend time learning to love dogs and other animals–which probably means that your basic needs were being taken care of (not to say that you can’t love animals if you aren’t well fed and cared for, because I just don’t think that’s true–we see examples all of the time of people in less than ideal situations devoting themselves to animals and doing it wonderfully). How different is my life from my neighbor’s life, who comes from circumstances where dogs are more likely to steal your food or chase you than roll over for a belly rub? (Every time me and Chara meet her in the hallway she screams and runs right back into her apartment). In that light, is my lack of fear of dogs an expression of privilege? Or is it something a little less sinister, and simply an expression of culture?

Then, even if you grow up loving dogs (whether it be culture or privilege), there are levels of care that you can give your pet depending on your beliefs and your ability. You can range from the type of dog owner who has a farm dog that gets his bowl filled up with kibble once a day and sleeps in the barn, or you can be the sort of owner that takes Rosco for three walks a day, purchases premium dog food, frequents doggy boutiques, purifies his drinking water, and takes him for weekly groomings. Is one type better than the other?

You know you're on the yuppie end of the scale when your dog wears your hats.

You know you’re on the yuppie end of the scale when your dog wears your hats.

I’m definitely on the yuppy dog owner end of the scale, something that mildly embarrasses me. I brush Chara’s teeth almost daily, take her for three walks a day, and spend huge chunks of time training her. She has her own plush bed, she gets fed top quality food, her nails are trimmed weekly, and we’ve invested in expensive training classes. Is it okay for me to wield my privilege like that?

And then there are those people who have dogs and love them but can’t afford the same level of care. We’ve spent roughly $3,000 on Chara in one year with all her medical issues, and we’ll probably tack on another $1000 by the time she turns one year old. Throughout her whole rocky illness, I have been so, so glad that we’re able to afford the vet bills. If we couldn’t, we would probably be facing some really difficult decisions, like whether or not her quality of life is good enough without getting the care that she needs.

Spoiled rotten.

Spoiled rotten.

Now, I’m not saying that we’re particularly rich. We’re not. In fact, by most standards we’re financially poor. But we have supportive friends and family to fall back on if things get tight, we have expensive educations that give us good job opportunities, and we’re young and white–which alters the way the world sees us. Those things, even if they may not always be visible in clear lines, allow us to value our dog the way we do. They allow us to bring her to pet resorts for swim sessions and buy her fancy dog food. (And again, I’m not saying you can’t do these things if you aren’t white and well-educated, but my day’s observation of the Paw pointed to a very specific population frequenting the doggy resort. Why is that? What are the cultural factors going on in our system that lead middle-class white people to spend so much time on their pets? Also note that we’re in Minnesota, which isn’t known for its diversity. That could also be a factor in my observation).

I want to be aware of the way these factors of race and class affect my life, because I don’t believe things like the color of my skin and the family I was born into should change how I get treated. By being cognizant of the advantages I have, I hope that I can work to even the playing field by promoting equality. Ultimately, I want to make it so everyone has the chance to love an animal as much as I love my dog.

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What do you think about all this? Is owning a dog an expression of privilege? What about loving other animals? And how do we work to make it so that having a pet and taking proper care of it isn’t only something that is available to those with money? As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

2 thoughts on “On Privilege and Pets

  1. roachvanessa says:

    This is a topic I’ve actually thought quite a lot about since moving to St Kitts. There’s this weird juxtaposition of (mostly young, mostly white, mostly affluent, mostly American) veterinary students living in the midst of Caribbean culture and values. In Kittitian culture, at least traditionally, dogs guard the house and cats catch vermin. They stay outside, they do their jobs, they’re “owned” but free to wander and they’re mostly fed table scraps. Vet students, as you can imagine, are quite the opposite. Our pets are on flea, tick, heartworm and helminth preventatives (often given to us as free samples) and they get taken to the teaching hospital at the mere suggestion of illness. They sleep in our beds and get fed the best quality food we can find. Who’s right? Who’s better? How does financial ability play into all this? I haven’t really made up my mind about it all but it’s fascinating to see the differences culture plays.

    • sbuckleit says:

      That’s a fascinating example! It really is so tricky. It’s hard to separate the lines of where culture is dictating how animals are valued, and where socio-economic factors are coming into play. I feel like understanding this is important to helping prevent things like the mistreatment of animals, and yet it’s already such a complex subject that I don’t know where you’d begin!

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