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Let me be clear (said in Obama voice): I loathe the term fur baby. And I start to scratch my imaginary hives when I see “Who rescued Who?” bumper stickers, because:

  1. OMG whom.
  2. Let’s see. Were you living abandoned in a cage until the day a dog walked through the doors of the shelter, made eye contact with you and then whispered to his partner, “She’s got a face only a mother could love, let’s keep her?” No? Was it the other way around?

Then you rescued the dog. That was the order of the transaction. The bumper sticker rhetorical question has been definitively answered.

I am allergic to this.

I am allergic to this.

I’m a dog owner and animal lover so I get it, trust me, but some things are just too much. I’m thinking of the woman at my old dog park who used to wheel her perfectly able dogs over in a stroller and then place them — fully clothed — into the dog pen. There is no sight more bizarre than two dogs in onesies, cowering by their stroller and wanting to get back in because they have no idea how to interact with other members of their species.

I may be devoted to my dog, but I know where the boundaries lie; notably, I am a human and he is not. So imagine my surprise when I read this and found myself reacting in passionate defense of pet parents, both as a term and as a lifestyle.

The post (“Pets Are Not Children, So Stop Calling Them That”) takes an admittedly obnoxious term (pet parent) and conflates it, out of nowhere, with a perceived crisis of confusion in which pet parents literally do not know that their dogs are not human beings. Lest you think I am exaggerating, here are some quotes:

That people with pets now refer to themselves as “mom” and “dad” seems benign at first, a playful, innocent co-option meant to convey the deep love they feel for their animals. And if that was it, I wouldn’t be alarmed. I’ve had pets, and I appreciate how having one can be one of life’s great joys, an emotional and enriching experience of intimate connection with another being. But scroll through your feeds and look at how pets are treated, presented, and understood today. There’s no longer any sarcasm in a bumper sticker that says, “My Child Has Four Paws.” When people call themselves pet “parents,” they’re not just being playful. They sincerely believe that what they’re doing is parenthood.

That escalated quickly. The author continues:

I have two children, and when I meet people with pets who equate their experience to mine, I don’t know how to react. I should be able to say, “Please don’t equate your pet with my children,” but something stops me; it now feels rude, practically reactionary, to insist on the difference.

Now, I sincerely doubt that people routinely approach this individual, out of nowhere, exclaiming, “I see you have two kids! I have a dog! Same thing, basically!” Rather, I suspect he or she is blowing some awkward conversational moments a little out of proportion.

Is it possible that this person was having a conversation with a pet-owning non-parent who was just trying to find some common ground? I’ve been there, listening to a new parent talk about getting up in the middle of the night and saying something sympathetic like “I remember when I was potty training my dog and how tired I was just getting up even one time a night. You must be exhausted.” I don’t think it’s the same thing at all, but I also have literally nothing else to contribute to the conversation. This is what humans do, sometimes clumsily: they try to relate to each other. Could it be that this author has just droned on about her children a few too many times, leaving a hapless pet owner desperate for a way to shoe-horn himself back into the conversation?

These things are not the same.

These things are not the same.

These are mildly offensive points thus far, but here’s where Wallace takes a hard left turn into Total Condescension Land and never comes back.

Here’s what I want to say: Your pet had a parent, and that parent was not a human being. That parent was another animal who, if it had the chance, would have taught your pet everything it needs to know about being the animal it is. Mostly how to find food, where to find shelter, and what to avoid that might kill it. What you have to teach your pet is how to relate to the human world (mostly how not to eat shoes, hump legs, or ruin carpets). This is the paradox at the heart of having a pet: We love them because they aren’t human, then spend their lives treating them like people.

Here is where I should stop and make a confession. In public, I refer to myself as a dog owner. But at home, we throw the terms Mom and Dad around like confetti — bring Mom your toy, ask Dad to get you dinner, etc. It’s funny, it’s playful, and frankly, it feels less bizarre than using first names. Know what else it is? Totally freaking harmless. Unless, of course, you’re on Team Grouchypants.

Are we coming to the point where the fundamental differences between pets and children are no longer understood, or worse, actively denied? Given the attention paid to pets today, I fear active denial is well under way (explore any pet “parent” hashtag to see for yourself). We now prefer the simulation to reality, where having a pet is like playing with a living doll, a chance to enjoy the activity and ritual of parenthood without any of the purpose, consequences, or hard work.

I never thought I would be springing to the defense of the fur mommies and daddies of the world [shudder], but I’ll take them any day over someone who thinks that calling yourself a “pet parent” signals a fundamental denial of the difference between pets and humans.

The dog-stroller-pushing individual I mentioned earlier is one outlying owner of the hundreds (thousands?) I have met over the past nine years of pet ownership. Most of us are pretty clear on the difference between pets and humans. I could call around to local daycares and preschools and ask if a confused pet owner has ever tried to enroll a dog he thought was a toddler, but I think I know what the answer would be. Such things do not happen. Sure, there are pet owners who go overboard — in extreme cases, maybe even at the expense of their dog’s proper socialization — but the phenomenon is far from crisis level. I think we can all stop clutching our pearl collars and take our dogs (or children) for a nice, relaxing walk.

I’m actively looking for signs of the Apocalypse, but people posting dog pictures on Instagram is not one of them. There are some overly coddled pups out there, but there are far worse vices than loving an animal to an embarrassing degree. And so, in the matter of Haters v. Pet Parents, this court finds Pet Parents Not Guilty. Go give your fur baby a big old hug from mommy.

Lauren Layman

Lauren lives in DC and knows the name of every dog on her block, but none of the humans.

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