Why Are Our Pets Our Pets?

A food-for-thought experiment

Photo by Christopher Carson on Unsplash

Imagine a world just like our own in every way except one: twenty thousand years ago, humankind domesticated wild boars.

Over the course of several thousand years, these boars grew to respond and even love humans. They learned to read our faces and obey certain commands. The boars would dance around ancient campfires with their pack, snorting to make the children laugh, but always willing to fight for their human companions in a predator threatened them. The boars learned to sit, to stay, and to fetch.

As time passed, these pigs began to drop their teeth and grew smaller in size. Their appearance became cuddlier and their fur became slick and glossy. Any groups of nomadic humans wouldn’t be complete with a couple of pigs around to protect them. Fathers passed down piglets as presents for their children to joyfully rear, and mothers would mourn the deaths of the family pig when it reached old age.

The pigs were intelligent, more intelligent than the humans in their toddler years. They could sniff out unripe berries and respond to dozens of commands. They could fetch game or stand guard or dig holes. Anything their master asked.

Imagine that boars, these pigs, became man’s best friend.

By the seventh century, humans began tinkering with the pigs’ breeding, creating their own special breeds. There were pigs with floppy ears and pigs with small ears. Pigs with skin the color of beautiful speckled black and pigs with golden hairs on their haunches. In aristocratic British estates, leaner, long-haired pigs were highly favored. The Spaniards were enamored with tiny pigs — so small that even adults of their breed could be held by children. A family pig was considered a sign of great wealth and fortune.

By the modern era, pigs are a mainstay of popular culture. When Dorothy is transported to Oz, she carries a beautiful black-and-white pig named Toto with her. Sunny and Bo, two rambunctious little piggies, chase each other’s curly tails on the White House lawn. When Elle Woods goes to Harvard, she takes an adorable little piglet with her in her handbag, all dressed up in pink fur of course.

There are pig finstagram accounts and pig actors in movies. There is an entire industry that specializes in creating little piggie outfits for pet-owners. We run into house fires to save our pig pets. We name them cute names like ‘Snout’ and ‘Fi-Fi’ and ‘Buddy’. We hold funerals for our sweet companions after they pass.

One day, as you step into a pet store, you are greeted by the most delightful pig on display. She’s entirely pastel pink — this gorgeous hue that accents her shiny black eyes, with ears that dangles all the way down to her button-sized snout. You immediately obsessing over what to name her.

You pick her up and she nuzzles your cheek right away, attuned to human emotion from birth. You’re sold.

As you take home your new beloved pet, you stop by a food truck, famished from a day out. You order a dog sandwich, smeared with mustard, and topped with a whole-grain bun.

You sit on the curb and rub your fingers through the pig’s fur. It feels as soft as felt. Suddenly, inspiration hits. Sadie! That’s what you’ll name her!

You rub Sadie behind the ears, determined to give this adorable piglet the best home she could ever imagine.

Content, you take a bite of the dog meat sandwich. Delicious.

There is no real reason why we eat pigs and love dogs

The story may disturb you. Eating dogs is a horrid thing to think about. I completely agree. But it’s important to illustrate something in society you may not have thought about before: why we eat the species we eat.

This mentality is called carnism, coined by Melanie Joy. It is when a society predestines a species fate: to the butcher or to our homes. It varies culture to culture. Some East Asian countries eat dogs and some Indian culture revere cows — there is no human biological component that determines why we love one and eat the other.

The reason we eat pigs and love dogs is a matter of cultural upbringing. It’s not because of their intelligence (both species have high intelligences) nor their ability to feel pain (pigs and dogs both yelp when we accidentally step on their tail).

Some people believe pigs to be gross animals. This too is a matter of upbringing. Yes, pigs roll around in the dirt but dogs have plenty of unsavory habits — I cannot tell you the number of disgusting items I have had to pull out of my dog’s mouth. In the latter case, we grow to care for these animals, so we forgive anything that might stand in our way.

It’s a matter of chance why you love Fido and eat Babe.

“We send one species to the butcher and give our love and kindness to another apparently for no reason other than because it’s the way things are. When our attitudes and behaviors towards animals are so inconsistent, and this inconsistency is so unexamined, we can safely say we have been fed absurdities. It is absurd that we eat pigs and love dogs and don’t even know why.” — Melanie Joy, “ Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows”

This story may make you feel a bit uncomfortable. That’s fine. You were raised to think in very different ways than this story. But I urge you to think rigorously about the food you put on the dinner table.

Think why. Why would you cry if your dog gets hit by a car but savor the taste of steak? Why would you rescue your cat from a burning building but eat a hot dog without a second thought?

Is it worth it?

Writer Björn Jóhann grew up in a carnist family, but stopped eating meat at the age of ten — and he’s never going back!

A queer, herbivorous, leftist Viking. I write about society, justice, and popular media. UChicago grad. Based in Iceland.

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