How Pets Define Human Society

What animals can tell us about religion, economy, culture, and our need to be loved.

Photo Credit: Eric Ward | Unsplash

Animals have hunted alongside us, pulled our carts, provided us comfort, and defined our lifestyle for thousands of years.

It can be argued that the domestication of dogs, cattle, and other animals is the reason we are able to function in our mega-societies rather than those small, nomadic groups that used to dominate human society. Indeed, the relationship between people and our pets has evolved dramatically over the centuries and throughout the various cultures.

Nowadays animals are domesticated for every purpose under the sun: to hunt, to protect us from vermin, to offer companionship, to serve in our military, and even to score us ten thousand likes on Instagram.

Humans and animals are so intimately intertwined, an incredibly defining feature of any society is its view on animals, their functions, and the rights that they deserve. Needless to say, animal rights are more important in some cultures than others. A culture’s attitude toward its pets is a great way to judge its moral values.

“The ability to find one’s next meal is much more important than finding a snuggle-partner.”

And as a culture that likes to perceive itself as a moral beacon of light, the European West has taken the love of animals to the umpteenth degree.

Popular trends include dressing up animals in clothes, feeding them ultra-organic diets, and even referring to them as our own children. The latter is seen as especially alarming to some, since there is a worry that humanizing our “fur-babies” takes away our sensitivity and respect toward the uniquely human experience. Yet despite the West’s corny, “did Fido just say ‘I love you??’” attitude, we are not completely sunshine and rainbows in terms of how we treat our four-legged friends.

As a contrast to pets such as dogs, cats, and gerbils, other cute animals like cows and pigs are comfortably slaughtered for the benefit of their meat.

Big-name companies like Tyson keep their product in truly heinous living conditions, breeding chickens to such an extent that they are too large to even stand and then confining them to the filth of a small, unairconditioned space with hundreds of other chickens. Meanwhile, a puppy can’t get stuck in a pipe without becoming an inspirational trend. Clearly, there are very large cultural factors at play with our pets.

The way a society views its animals says a lot about its deeper values. Is it a culture driven primarily by practicality, which sees its animals as mostly beasts of burden? In other words, does the beast pull the cart? Or is it a culture driven by luxury? In other words, does the beast ride in the passenger seat?

These values are inevitably affected by a society’s economy. Whereas the wealthy United States views animals as deserving a spot at the dinner table, the more impoverished Asia… well, you will understand where I was going with that analogy.

The consuming of dogs and cats is not an urban myth, though most Westerners would gag at the thought.

It is a custom that is most common in China, Thailand, Cambodia, South Korea, Laos, Vietnam, and The Philippines. An estimated thirty million dogs across Asia are used for human consumption, including stolen family pets, and seventeen thousand dog farms are known to exist in China. In the West, this is animal cruelty in the most heinous and deplorable scale. In these Asian countries, it is just another Tyson.

“Animals are negatively impacted by the cultures that champion them most.”

Asia is a continent of extreme poverty, and the ability to find one’s next meal is much more important than finding one’s next snuggle-partner. In this case, the way that animals can diminish the food crisis is valued over companionship. This does not make the wealthier United States any more innocent, however. At least, not through the eyes of India.

For many people in India, our obsession with beef is sacrilegious.

The sacredness of the cow goes down into the furthest reaches of Indian history, back to the founding of Hinduism. What we ourselves would refer to as Taco Tuesday has been revered in texts of a religion that dates back three thousand years.

Instead of being slaughtered by the millions in factory farms, as is the practice in the United States, cows are allowed to wander the Indian streets under the protection of cow-friendly police.

Another dramatic contrast between the United States and India extends to our perceptions toward dogs. While America loves its dogs and could stand to care more for its cows, India loves its cows and could stand to care more for its dogs.

Dogs in such poverty-ridden places as India are often perceived as frightful creatures. This has very good reason behind it, for many of their dogs are aggressive strays that carry infectious diseases. They are certainly not heralded as children.

Similarly in Africa, dogs are not kept as pets in the cuddly, give-mommy-kisses type, at least not on a macro scale. Dogs are domesticated for very practical uses, particularly for cattle-herding and protection from predators. It was this practical partnership that allowed the development of society and culture.

It is needless to say that our animal companions have been helpful over the centuries.

They have evolved with our human culture, just as our culture has evolved by their influence. Yet it is a very controversial debate of how many rights our partners truly deserve in the societies we have created together. Animal rights vary from country to country. Some countries have their rights outlined in their national constitutions while others have no legislation at all.

While animal cruelty in the United States is punishable by a one-thousand-dollar maximum fine as well as probation, in countries such as Iran, which is infamous for its regressive attitudes toward women, there are no such punishments. This relates directly to a culture’s values on the sanctity of life, human as well as non-human. These values are negatively impacted by political repression.

Political repression serves only the regime in power and puts little worth on the lives of others. In order for the rulers of such countries to stay in control, they often resort to politicide and must focus their energies toward warding off counter-movements and keeping the masses politically controlled. Cultural stagnation is exactly what dictators need to hold onto their positions, and so the rights of others (animals included) and social advancement is not on their priority list.

Animals are negatively impacted by cultures that put little worth on life, and this needs no explanation.

However, animals are also negatively impacted by the cultures that champion them most; even what is typically viewed as beneficial for our pets can become harmful.

Though many homeless pets are adopted into loving homes due to a culture’s adoration for animals, this can also be capitalized upon in a very negative way. Overbreeding, as well as inbreeding, are obvious examples of this. Not only do these practices cause dozens of health problems in pets but they cause overpopulation as well. Not everyone gets adopted, and this is especially true in puppy mills.

Despite nearly everyone’s love for pets in the United States, over one million animals are euthanized in U.S. shelters every year.

Whether it is for their own good or not, pets carry too many benefits for us to be sacrificed by any culture. They even provide tremendous health benefits to their owners. Studies have shown that owning pets can help treat heart disease and cancer, and most obviously loneliness. Indeed, we’ve been with our pets for too long to ever live without them.

Every culture utilizes animals for both work and companionship; it is only the emphasis of each that differs throughout. This is directly affected by a society’s economy, religion, culture, and our simple urge to love and be loved. This is a desire that is not dependent on culture. It is the desire that created the common bond between humans and animals that has lasted for thousands of years, and will continue to last for many years more.

Our pets make us happy, in short. And when it comes down to it, it does not matter whether that joy is from the partnership that took down mammoths or the selfie that earned us five thousand likes on Instagram.

I am currently studying for my English BA. My interests center on the human condition, with niches in psychology and cultural studies.