Our Pets, Ourselves
Sociologist Leslie Irvine is the author of If You Tame Me: Understanding Our Connection With Animals. As a shelter volunteer, she gives a special focus to the evolving nature of pet ownership and the psychology behind selecting and adopting a pet.
The title is drawn from The Little Prince, a children’s book that includes a passage about a lonely prince who meets a fox and tries to entice him to play. The fox says he can’t play because he isn’t tamed; when the little prince asks what “tame” means, the fox answers that taming means “to create ties.”
“If you tame me,” the fox explains, “we’ll need each other. You’ll be the only boy in the world for me. I’ll be the only fox in the world for you.”
Irvine spoke recently with Associate Editor Carrie Allan.
Animal Sheltering: What was it about this passage that made you want to use it for your title?
Leslie Irvine: Well, I just wanted to communicate a sense of the responsibility we have to animals, and it seemed like the fox was doing that in a very poetic and touching way, saying, “If you do this, if you tame me, everything’s going to change.”
AS: I’ve tried to explain to people why I love that passage and sometimes they get thrown off by the word “tame” because it sounds like domination.
LI: Yes, I agree. I have in mind a much softer definition. It’s more, “If you start caring for me, everything’s going to change.”
AS: Where did your interest in animals come from?
LI: I’ve been studying issues of human selfhood and identity for 14 years, so when I finished the first book [Codependent Forevermore: The Invention of Self in a Twelve Step Group], I made a mental list of what I wanted to spend the next few years of my life studying, and it was a very short list. It was animals, and another possibility was art. But I was already involved at the shelter at that time, and I thought, “Well, I’ve got this huge opportunity right in front of me.” I got involved at the Humane Society of Boulder Valley in 1998, and I began volunteering in the veterinary clinic, and then I started walking dogs, and then I just became one of those volunteers who was on the “Just Ask” list—you know, “If you have any questions, just call one of these people.” So I do foster care, I’ve done special events, I do adoption counseling, I do just about anything. So I wanted to study that.
AS: You looked at shelter staff before you looked at adopters, right?
LI: I watched the people who work at the service desk first. In those days we had adoptions and surrenders taking place at the same desk; they now have two separate areas for that. And I just was struck by the different things that the workers had to cope with in the course of a day. I thought, this is really interesting sociologically—you could be coming from doing an adoption counseling with this family that’s just thrilled to dealing with someone who’s sobbing and crying. So I thought, well, there’s really a lot here.
AS: When did you first get interested in animals?
LI: I grew up wanting an animal so badly, wanting a dog or a cat. I wanted a bird so badly that I used to chase robins around with a salt shaker because of that myth about salting a robin’s tail. So my parents got me a canary when I was four or five years old, and the bird lived to a ripe old age, and then we got a poodle who was just a wonderful companion. And along the way I had the encounter with the baby elephant in the petting zoo that I talk about in the introduction of the book, and that was really fundamental. It made me feel like this creature, who had such a different way of being in this world, could communicate with me in some way.
AS: You talk about people’s desire for and enjoyment of animals in the context of both zoos and pet ownership. What are the differences between those social structures?
LI: I haven’t studied zoos, so I’m relying only on what other people have said and on my own experiences in zoos. But with a zoo you really get a sense of something you couldn’t bring home, the “exotic.” Something you really cannot share everyday life with. But when you go into a shelter, you’re actually engaging in that exercise of, “Well, what would it be like if I had this dog or that cat?” And you can get much closer to them. I think you would feel some responsibility going into a shelter that you would never feel going into a zoo.
AS: What are some of the ways that our relationships with pets have changed over the past century? What do those changes say about our changing notion of self?
LI: I think we’re giving ourselves permission to give animals a lot more credit than we used to, in terms of the research on emotions. There’s a trend—I’d like to see it get much bigger—for people to give animals more credit for having feelings and thoughts than we have before. But there’s still reluctance, even in the academic setting. My book is considered a very controversial book because you can talk in a private setting about your animals and their personalities, but if you talk in an academic setting, you’re just “anthropomorphizing.”
AS: I was going to ask you about the anthropomorphism issue. I read an article recently in which the author basically says that without anthropomorphic thinking, our relationships with our pets would be meaningless.
LI: I have thoughts in a number of different directions about that. First of all, anthropomorphism is not only something we do when we talk about animals. If we say, “I know how you feel,” then we’re imposing our own experience on another human being; we do it all the time with other people. Yet it seems to be some horrible error when we do it with animals, just because they can’t speak. ... Still, I think there are limits to what we can intuit, so what we can do is be very careful about specifying that we’ve come to these conclusions after careful systematic observation. I’d call it critical or interpretive anthropomorphism, where it’s not just “Oh, the dog is smiling,” but you draw conclusions based on sustained careful observations. And sometimes anthropomorphism can lead to misunderstanding. Animals, like human beings, are really sensitive, so we could be projecting our own emotions in some cases. Like if we’re very tense, then the animal can pick up on that, and then we go talking about how neurotic the animal is when the animal’s just reflecting our own emotional state. So I think it’s absolutely true that if it’s unchecked, it can lead to mistaken assumptions and can be detrimental to the animal.
AS: It bothers me that the word “anthropomorphism” is applied when you say something like, “That animal is happy.” To me, it’s always seemed a little arrogant to assume all emotions are solely the sphere of human beings.
LI: Yeah, that’s a good point. It’s like saying we’re the center of the universe. I mean, if you object to the word “happiness,” then let’s call it something else, but let’s acknowledge that the animal’s feeling it.
AS: Early in the book you discuss the difference of relationship implied by the term “pet” and the term “companion animal.” Can you talk a little bit about that?
LI: I think in the strictest sense—and I know there are lots of people who use the words interchangeably and who don’t have political problems with them—but I think the term “pet,” at least in the purest sense, really connotes the kind of relationship where I buy an animal purely for my own pleasures and needs and desires. And I think “companionship,” at least in its ideal form, is a little bit more of a two-way relationship. It’s like the animal is going to have these characteristics regardless of what I want and I learn to accept that the way I would in any other human friend.
AS: In relation to that, since you’re in Boulder, I wanted to ask you about the use of the word “guardian,” since Boulder was the first place to codify the use of that word.
LI: In principle I like the change and I would much rather be the “guardian” than the “owner” of an animal. However, if you go to the Boulder website where the laws are actually spelled out, it says in parentheses that “guardian” means “owner.” So on one level I can see that it could be argued that it doesn’t really change anything. However, I know that language is very powerful and we’ve seen it have lots of impact on other areas of inequality like gender and race. So, at this point it’s maybe too soon to tell and maybe we just haven’t given it enough emphasis, but I think if you change the words you use, you do gradually change the meanings of things.
AS: You talk about people visiting shelter animals in the context of window- shopping, and you discuss the idea that window-shopping is imaginative— people are imagining what their lives would be like with that object, that piece of clothing, that animal. Do you think that even the initial act of visiting a shelter, as opposed to a pet store, is part of that construction of the self?
LI: Oh, yes. Absolutely. I think the people who choose to go to the shelter are the good people. And so they’re wanting to do the right thing and to frame themselves doing the right thing by choosing a particular kind of animal, a homeless animal, to visit and look for.
AS: It’s interesting to me that some of the people who come to the shelter have made this self-construction as people who want to come help, and yet they often make the kind of statement you talk about in your book—the “I could never do what you do” statement to shelter staff.
LI: I think they’re constructing the shelter worker’s experience as somehow vastly different emotionally from their own. The visitors are just constructing themselves as much more sensitive than the people who work there.
AS: It seems like a hierarchy. On one tier you have the people who won’t go to shelters at all, then you have the ones who’ll visit but can’t imagine working there, and then you have the shelter workers doing the hardest work.
LI: It definitely is. The shelter workers shield the rest of the world from seeing the consequences of their irresponsibility.
AS: We talk a lot about unrealistic expectations when people adopt an animal, in terms of what they think the animal will be like. But when I was reading the part about window-shopping for different selves, I started wondering how many problems are caused by people’s unrealistic expectations of themselves—like if someone sees an animal who seems to give access to a version of someone they want to be. It’s a little like buying a dress that’s too small in the hope you’ll fit into it soon.
LI: I’m glad you brought that up. You see that all the time: People overestimate the amount of time and effort they’ll put into the animal, the amount of exercise they’re willing to provide, how much money they’re able to spend. You know, they adopt a border collie thinking it’ll be fun to get into agility or something like that.
AS: You characterized adopters in three categories: “the planners,” “the impartial,” and “the smitten.” Can you talk a little about the characteristics of each group?
LI: The planners are the ones who have done all the research beforehand and they have in mind a particular kind of animal that they want to adopt, and usually it’s a specific kind of behavior or temperament they want, sometimes a particular kind of appearance. Like the runners want an energetic running dog. And sometimes they have in mind a purebred, but not always. And they go to the shelter looking for that particular dog. They can be smitten along the way, but they’re usually much more systematic. The impartial just go to the shelter wanting—well, like my mom wanted a nice dog who could get along with other dogs and she didn’t care at all what it looked like or how old it was. And then the smitten, it’s just the kind of almost magical relationship, the love at first sight. It could be the most different animal from your preferences— you know, “I really love poodles, but I fell in love with this old collie.”
AS: Well, you’ve been at the shelter since 1998 and you’ve been watching these people and seeing these certain patterns. Do you now have a sense for which groups tend to be the best adopters?
LI: I have to say first of all that I don’t really know for sure. But my impression is that the impartial are the best.
AS: Are the planners less so because they have a set vision of what their life with the pet will be like?
LI: Yeah, I think it has a lot to do with the issue of expectations you brought up. And then those animals don’t turn out to be exactly as they’ve imagined and so they’re disappointed.
AS: Do you have some examples of that?
LI: A lot of people don’t realize how much energy kittens have—and the adolescents. They’re imagining a cat is going to sleep on their bed and everything and they’re not prepared for the nocturnal crazies.
AS: At the end of the book, after you’ve discussed the need for people to recognize animal selves, you begin to talk about how going down this path is the beginning of the end of pet ownership. Can you say why that is? Is it something you see happening in our lifetime?
LI: No, I don’t think it will happen in our lifetime. And what I wrote in the book, I wrote as someone who’s going to go home to seven animals I love. I can’t imagine my life without them. But I think that once we start recognizing that animals have selves and self-interests, it will become harder and harder to breed millions of them just for us to have as companions. And I think that it’s doubly awful now, when we’re still euthanizing so many millions of animals a year. It’s a lot like it was with slavery: The more you recognize that beings have selves, that they’re more like you than you thought, the harder it will become to keep them for your own use, whether that use is food or the pleasure of a pet. But I think that’s a long way off. My main goal is to try to get people thinking about these things, thinking about our relationships with animals, and to hopefully in that way get them to treat animals better.