Sunday, July 13, 2008

Pill-Popping Pets

This week’s New York Times Magazine reports on dog owners’ dosing their pets with psychoactive medication, at great expense:

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. Americans forked over $49 billion for pet products and services last year, up $11.5 billion from 2003; other than consumer electronics, pet products are the fastest-growing retail segment. The market expansion is being driven both by more pets and by more spending per pet, especially by affluent baby boomers whose children have graduated from college. A third of the total spending, and the fastest-growing category, is health care, with treatments formerly reserved for people — root canals, chemotherapy, liposuction, mood pills — being administered to pets. “I get asked all the time, ‘What is it with this humanization — do we suddenly love our pets a whole lot more?’ ” says David Lummis, who analyzes the pet industry for the market research firm Packaged Facts. “My theory is that it’s always been there, but it’s been sanctioned now. It’s not just the crazy cat lady. It’s marketers and all of this consumer advertising that have made it O.K. to spend tons of money on your pet.”

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Potent as a marketing trend, humanization has long been scorned as scientific practice by researchers working in the behaviorist tradition of B. F. Skinner. In “Inside the Animal Mind,” George Page summarizes the reasons: “Since we cannot get inside the animal’s mind . . . and since the animal cannot report what’s going on — not in a ‘language’ we can readily understand — all we have left are guesses and speculation fatally tainted by anthropomorphism.” Strict behaviorists focus instead on observable stimulus-response conditioning: for example, a puppy learning to sit to receive a treat. Actions that cannot be explained this way are usually attributed to blind instinct. As such, hard-core Skinnerian philosophy amounts to a perversion of cogito ergo sum: I can’t prove that animals think, therefore they don’t. In dealing with problem pets, veterinarians with a behaviorist bent don’t concern themselves so much with what might be happening inside the brain of the animal or try to correct neurochemical imbalances with drugs. Instead, a compulsive or anxious animal is seen as one that just needs to be better-trained.

Shades of the humanization that leads to the conclusion that dogs are “happier” off-leash. And it points out another pernicious aspect of this policy: these vast sums aren’t being spent by poor people. So as much as off-leash policy exists to benefit white folks because they are more desirable park patrons than black folks, it exists to benefit the haves because they are more desirable than the have-nots.

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Early this morning in a stroll around the park perimeter, we passed 137 pedestrians, of whom 108 were black. All of the half-dozen dog walkers as well as most of the cyclists were white.

About 5 P.M. today, 6 dogs at the dog beach, all but one unleashed, and at least one unleashed dog on Long Meadow. All the owners were white. But no unleashed dogs on the Nethermead.

Friday afternoon around 3:45, 4 dogs at the dog beach, one of them leashed. All the owners were white.

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