They Eat What We Are: New York Times Magazine ventures into nutrition and pet food (Part 2: My take)
Ah, the New York Times…all the news that’s fit to print…and a Sunday magazine that gives its writers a little room to maneuver around the news—with editorial vigor, if necessary. And that’s my primary objection to the article. The writer stalked this project with a jaundiced eye aimed squarely at the pet-owner relationship.
“The increasing specialization of the pet food industry today may well reflect not just our desire to keep our pets healthy but also our increasing urge to shape them in our own image.”
This quote proves my point. It’s a foregone conclusion, then, that our human goals are to anthropomorphize—not to integrate another species into our homes. It suggests that we pet owners are vainly humanizing and self-identifying—not enhancing our family lives through the stewardship of animals we consider valuable companions. For all the article’s other faults, it’s this message I cannot abide.
Let’s face it. Feeding our pets is the one thing we can accomplish, almost single-handedly, by way of taking control of our pets’ health. Vets (and most owners) don’t always get this—partly because our docs-as-Gods culture has systematically taken healthcare out of the hands of the at-home healthcare provider (you).
Yet there’s every reason in the world why you should care about what your pets eat—and that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with wanting Fluffy to eat your cooking off your tableware so she more resembles a child. After all, raw feeders don’t usually take on turkey necks and beef hearts—they’re just looking to do right by their pets the best they can.
Furthermore, it’s not a stretch to see how the average, increasingly attached pet owner might become suspicious of multinational pet food companies and the one-kibble-for-life mantra. It’s like the industry and owners are two ships headed in opposite directions. One going conglomerate and global, the other headed very locally—so much so that owners are willing to cook food to avoid feeding the lowest quality ingredient-based foods they’ve been blowing their paychecks on until now.
My next criticism deals with the salacious overrepresentation of the “nasty bits” by way of selling this overblown bit of writing to the reader. Primarily, it achieves this by over-dramatizing Dr. Fahey’s “yucky” research with his surgically altered dogs.
Painting nutritionists as reclusive, mad scientist-types holed up in hermetically sealed basements vigorously grinding dogs into a pulp for complete metabolic analysis is slightly irresponsible. But using this kind of setting as foundation for an in-depth discussion of the pet food industry is pandering to the worst sort of shock journalistic tendencies all responsible writers strain to contain.
Nonetheless, I’ll take that bait. Let’s just agree that Dr. Fahey is not the kind of nutritionist you’d call for advice on how to optimize your dog’s diet with home-cooked farmer’s market foods. Rather, he’s the one you call when you have three bucks left in the bank and you want to know how long your dog will live on backyard mulch.
When millions of pet owners across the US stared forlornly at their stash of pet foods, they weren’t worried about whether Fido could live off corn husks. They wanted to know what best to feed them. We’re no longer of the pet generation that looks to feed our pets the fundamentals for a reasonable lifespan and whatever passes for good health in the average Beagle colonial. Instead, we seek to optimize our pets’ health, vigor, longevity and, above all, happiness. That’s a far cry from the good Professor’s research into the cheapest possible carbs required to yield a Ziploc-sized turd.
At least Dr. Pritchard got his five minutes with a real-life clinical look at what vet schools should be doing. Too bad it was apparently too boring to serve as cornerstone for the article. Perhaps the author should have lobbed a call in to Dr. Rebecca Remillard, a well-respected veterinary nutritionist at Angell Memorial in Boston. Dr. Remillard engages in solid research on pet foods, does one-on-one nutrition counseling and writes a website chock-full of carefully devised recipes for pets. Dr. Prichard’s view of the world needn’t have been the only vet’s represented.
Though the pet food industry takes its hits here, a bias which questions the reasons for pet owner “food obsession” pervades the whole piece, thereby implying that the pet food industry is simply responding to the needs of an unreasonably pet and food fixated nation. Ultimately, this tack serves to justify the pet food industry’s severe methods and inanities alike.
Sure, there was a lot of decent info here that makes for better-than-average bathroom reading. But the thrust of the article couldn’t have been more wrongheaded with respect to what really drives pet owner demand for quality foods. Maybe they should have done a little more straight reporting and a little less free association. Perhaps a little less sizzle and a little more meat? In any case, it would have been a much better article had it managed not to insult my own pet relationships with its unbalanced assumptions as to the state of my psyche. In my own image…please.