'Pill-Popping Pets' make the New York Times Magazine (and I wish they hadn't)
At the risk of stealing thunder before you catch the lightning, let me just tell you how the cover story in today’s New York Times Magazine unfolds:
This glossy “Animal Pharm” piece has a mouthful to say on the so-called “modern phenomenon” of using psychoactive pharmaceuticals on our pets, railing at times against their use but more often against the sentiments that provoke humans to apply drugs to their pets’ behavior problems. As in, it’s so sad, this need for a quick fix to the pets we’ve embarrassingly humanized.
Nonetheless, it kind of takes it all back at the end, glibly concluding that maybe—just maybe—pets and humans are not so different in their “requirement” for these medications, given our insalubrious environments, genetic predispositions and penchant for modern confinement.
In some ways I couldn’t have agreed more with the final deduction. Too bad the last few paragraphs came too late, delivered handily off the cuff as cheeky parting shot, instead of interesting entrée to a more thoughtful unraveling of the complex issues involved in pet pharmaceuticals.
Written by one James Vlahos, who sports National Geographic Adventure, Popular Science and Popular Mechanics credentials, “Animal Pharm” got under my skin right off the bat. That’s when it came out swinging the “humanization” cudgel. As in,
“Marketers have a new name for the age-old tendency to view animals as furry versions of ourselves: “humanization,” a trend that is fueling the explosive growth of the pet industry and the rise of modern pet pharma.”
This on page one, no less. It sets up the problem neatly, couched in Madison Avenue mumbo-jumbo, with “humanization” as the obvious explanation for the way we treat our pets in modern society—as if “marketers” have the cat in the bag when it comes to knowing how humans really care about their pets.
Humanization, when we’re talking “blueberry facials” for pets is one way skewed version of reality. More often than not, as you probably well know, most extremely devoted pet owners (the ones likely to seek the services of a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, as described in the article’s examples) are driven by a more complex set of motivations.
Whatever happened to animal companionship out of a sense of deep respect for nature…to taking responsibility for the creatures in our midst…to an interest in and affinity for another species’ unique qualities as they intersect with our own?
Whatever happened to the scientific recognition that human brains are not that different from animal brains?
And how about the knowledge that drugs, though unarguably an unsavory solution for unhappy manifestations of both normal and abnormal pet behavior, are a well-established adjunct to training and behavior modification therapy in veterinary medicine? As an antidote to euthanasia, it sure beats the throwaway approach to the pet behavior problems of years past.
And yet these latter fine points, as presented by Mr. Vlahos, must be viewed through the scrim of pet food industry marketing analyst David Lummis’s version of “humanization.”
So I have to ask: Why does any so-called “human” approach to dealing with our pets always come down to the lowest common denominator, this “humanization” thing? Why does it always degenerate into this tiara-wearing-chihuahua Paris Hiltonization of petdom?
Viewed in this light Mr. Vlahos should also be discussing MRIs, spinal surgery and perhaps even deworming in this article. Viewed thus, ALL of veterinary medicine, as applied to ANY non-working animal, should be painted with that same broad brush of “humanization.” Why single out psychoactive drugs?
And if he must single out these drugs as exemplary of how veterinary medicine (and our culture in general) has lost its way, perhaps he should take square aim at the human medical paradigm in so doing. Instead of harping on veterinary medicine’s complicity in medicating away modern life’s little ills he would do well to explore the underpinnings of this drive to medicate behavior in a more than cursory way.
In the end, this story suffers from the same superficial sauciness that downs most articles of its ilk: As in, it’s so darn cute, all this pill-popping petness I can’t resist taking a poke at our silly, cubicle-addled culture with its irrational need for crated companionship.
And I haven’t even mentioned the photos—oh God!—the horrible fashion magazine shots of pets caricaturized in varying states of emotional discomfort or psychiatric distress. Alone, they’re insulting—to both the animals and those who care for them. Added to the text they soften somewhat, but not enough to absolve them of their incongruous attempt at sardonic kitsch. Here's an example:
The New York Times Magazine can do better than this. Next time they want to write an in-depth piece on pets they should look beyond the generics of a Popular Science writer to the maturing field of pet journalism. After all, veterinary medicine and pet care is no longer the bastion of crazy-cat-lady columnists this article would have you infer comprises the norm.