By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily
Americans are animal lovers, so much that 95 percent of pet owners view their pets as family members. According to a survey from the American Pet Products Association, less than 15 percent of dogs in America sleep outside at night, and more than 70 percent of dogs are allowed to sleep in a person’s bed, according to another survey. In American society, dogs have become “fur babies” and humans now identify as “pet parents” – which is either a wonderful thing, or a bad thing, depending on your perspective. Animals are no longer simply our companions; they’ve become children in “interspecies families.”
Although some people dress their dogs up in clothes, or bake cakes on dog birthdays, I don’t. These human-dependent dogs provide a great service to their humans, helping them to stay active while providing health benefits, social opportunities, and companionship. I also believe that dogs can help humans in creating a moral character, and in having relationships outside of self. Even though some dog breeds are not meant to survive on their own, there are dogs throughout the world that can survive in the wild, with or without human assistance. I live with a close relative of these dogs: our livestock guardians.
Personally, to consider myself a pet parent would be a disservice to my dogs. I refuse to anthromorphize the dog out of its noble fundamental existence as a dog. We love dogs for what they are; for their character, their enduring loyalty, their unconditional love, their ability to live in the moment, and for their keen instincts – for their basic doggedness. There is a special connection when gazing into the eyes of a dog that is looking directly at you, when you understand that you are looking into the depths to a remarkable soul. That connection rises to higher plane when you and dog then join together to complete a task, with the human doing human things, and the dog doing dog things, all toward the same end, and both KNOWING that we are engaged in an active partnership. This is the reason humankind has had a dog at its side for at least 20,000 years.
I have great love and affection for our dogs, but more importantly, I also have great respect for them – for their work ethic, bravery, intelligence, independence, (all characteristics for which I also curse at times) – and their willingness to demonstrate their affection to a lowly, unworthy beast like me.
Every day I greet sunrise with a check on the guardian dogs, and having a 100-pound canine rush at me with wagging-tail enthusiasm is always a pleasure, no matter how many times its repeated. But usually within about three minutes, the excitement at the sight of me fades and the dogs return to their true calling: watching over their sheep, a lesser species that the dogs devote their lives to protecting. I, the mere mortal, am cast aside – unless and until I join the dogs with the sheep. Then the dogs walk alongside me, slowing to rub their bodies against my legs as they pass, allowing my fingers to caress their toplines from the top of the head to the end of the tail. They move back and forth, from me to the sheep, as we all move forward as one living mass.
These dogs are my working partners. I don’t believe I live in an interspecies family, but I do live and work in an interspecies world – a world that involves daily interactions among a mixture of wild and domestic animals and humans. We aren’t apart from nature; we are all components of one nature. We are all animals.
So don’t call my dog a fur baby. It’s a dog, and I don’t want to reform the dog into a human construct. If we’re evolving closer together, I’d much prefer that humans become more dog-like rather than the reverse.
When our dogs die, they don’t go to a rainbow bridge purgatory to wait for us, their beloved humans. These faithful creatures need not wait for anyone before taking their rightful place in a divine kingdom.
Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email email@example.com.