In Kim McLarin’s monthly column for The Lily, she touches on topics as varied as friendship, midlife, race, parenting, injustice, kindness and the messiness of our shared humanity. You can read her columns the third Monday of each month.
I am on my last dog.
Stella is 11 or 12 now, aging quickly. Her joints are stiff, though the glucosamine helps a little. One eye looks blue from the cloudiness of nuclear sclerosis and her bark is sometimes erratic. Her whiskers are winter white.
We don’t know exactly how old she is because she was a stray when she came to us. Someone found her gallivanting through the streets of Boston and took her to the local animal shelter, where we encountered her. My children were reeling from the death of their beloved Lucy, a dog present in their lives from the day they were born. More keenly they mourned the destruction of their family; their father and I had just divorced. I could not replace the family, but I thought I could replace the dog. We had been looking for a while.
I like animals but I tend not to be sentimental about them. The dogs we had when I was growing up in Memphis lived in a mudroom on the side of the house. We fed them and played with them and loved them but they were pets, not “members of the family.” They never slept on our beds or climbed all over the sofa or even came into the house. My mother, who had grown up on her grandfather’s farm in Mississippi, did not believe in such things and her approach seemed reasonable. She has softened with age — her dog Wesley currently lives like a prince. This amuses my mother’s children.
Stella lives in the house, has her own bed (purchased at Marshalls for $20) and has enjoyed a life of better nutrition and health care and caretaking than probably half of the world’s population, a fact that makes me more guilty than proud. But she gets supermarket dog food and minimal vet visits and homemade dog biscuits, which I make cheap. Until recently I bathed her with the hose; now I take her to the dog wash once a quarter, mostly because she won’t stay outside long enough for the sun to dry her. I love her and treat her well, but I still think of her as the descendant of a wolf we let live in the house. (By the way, I can save you the $200 cost of a doggy DNA test. Your dog is 75 percent wolf and 25 percent human mucking around.)
In 2018, Americans spent over $72 billion on their pets. That’s nearly four times the amount we spent in 2016, about nine times the amount we spend on Head Start, and more than the combined GDP of 13 small Caribbean nations in 2017. And, sure, a lot of that went to food and veterinary bills, which are the baseline requirement owed to a being completely dependent upon you. But millions of that are spent on costumes. This year, Americans spent $490 million dressing up their pets for Halloween.
That’s $490 million dollars to make your dog, who does not want to look like a panda, look like a panda for your amusement for one night.
I wonder about the change in the American attitude toward our pets. That we have become far more sentimental than we used to be, that we have elevated our dogs and cats to a position in our lives and in our psyches and our identities they did not previously hold is undeniable. That some Americans now think of their pets as more human than animal seems to me a marked progression and one worth musing about. I wonder, without judgment but with sincere curiosity, why?
Do we take endless pictures of our cats because we walk around with cameras capable of helping a slug take photos like Ansel Adams and we don’t know what to do with them? Do we call our dogs and cats our “furry babies” (I tried to find the first printed use of this phrase using Merriam-Webster’s Time Traveler but had no luck) because the social pressure against anthropomorphization has eased, or because the social pressure to elevate one’s pet into a personality has become so intense? Are we willing to spend thousands of dollars on medical care to extend the life of even aging animals because we have overcome speciesism — the thinking that one species is more important than another — or because we ourselves do not want to die?
I know what you are thinking: I just love my dog. Yes. We love our dogs and we love the feeling of love, undemanding and uncomplicated. A perfect match.
Anyway, back to Stella.
The children loved her; she was good with them and for them. I tried to chore out her care but eventually, of course, the bulk fell to me. I fed her and walked her and picked up her poop. Two or three times a week she and I hiked the hills near our house, getting the sun and the exercise we both needed. She was high-spirited and high-energy. More than once she decided to go on a walkabout, escaping first the lead, then the fence and once, in the hills, taking off after a deer (yes, I learned better). Lost but always found.
Stella is a midsized dog, about 70 pounds now (a little chunky but she is old). Part Bernese mountain dog, part collie or lab, as best we can guess. Her life expectancy is 10 years, plus or minus. She’s already in the golden zone. Some days she balks at the stairs and lies in her bed like an exhausted old woman. Yesterday we went for a 2-mile hike in the hills and she ran like a pup.
To deny that our animals are mortal is, of course, simply a way of denying our own mortality.
When Stella goes I will grieve, just as I grieved the death of the dog before. That dog, Lucy, had a different room in my heart than the one in which Stella lives. Lucy was my first dog as an adult, my first step into the joys and responsibilities of caring for another, dependent being.
Since then I’ve raised two children. Since then I’ve learned the joys and weight of putting another’s needs and desires constantly before one’s own. I am ready for a little selfishness.
When Stella goes, I will grieve her and miss her and, in her honor, walk the backyard barefoot and sleep in on Saturday morning and not come home right after work. She has been the perfect final dog.