Saturday, January 9, 2016

The cultural contribution of companion animals

Phil, photographed by Pierre Mardaga from My Dog's Territory

The number of companion dogs and cats in Australia is declining, a trend that has been documented over the past decade. There are complex reasons for this – increased urban density, the demise of the Aussie backyard (at least anywhere near a city), the increased costs associated with keeping pets, not enough pet-friendly rental properties and so forth. It isn’t necessarily bad that people who live in circumstances that don’t favour the proper care of a companion animal are choosing not to live with one (or two) – in fact, that is a good thing.

But it is a shame that animals are being edged out of our lives.

Normally when this story is told, it is couched in economic terms – a decline in pet numbers means more competition for the pet-dollar, with vets, pet stores, pharmaceutical and pet food companies portrayed as scrabbling with each other for every cent.

When the Sydney Morning Herald’s Paul Sheehan told thestory last week, he pointed out something that many others have missed: the decline in companion animal numbers represents a net cultural loss.

Domestic animals, he points out, contribute so much to our lives. They routinely appear in family photos (especially in this household). They grow up with us. Every second profile picture on any form of social media incorporates a non-human companion. They’re even common subjectsof art. They're a constant reminder (and perhaps reassurance) that the world is more than human. Yet they often don’t get credit for the influence they have. They’re silent partners.

One of the biggest early influences in my life was a stray cat, named Gypsy, who rocked up before I was born and didn’t leave until she died fifteen years later. She was there on my first day of preschool, primary school and high school. She moved house with us. She even introduced me on several occasions to our local vet.

Without Gypsy, who suffered two motor vehicle accidents and wasn’t around to see the advent of decent flea control and premium pet food, my life would not be what it is today. Cat videos on the internet don’t come close to capturing the experience of sharing one’s existence with a cat. And you can’t adequately describe the bond you have with a dog without going there yourself.

We're interested in hearing from others - what is the cultural contribution of companion animals in your life?