Unconditional Love: Is devotion to pets a cultural universal?

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If the number of cute animal memes on the internet is a fair benchmark, then the human love of pets is a powerful and global phenomenon. For many pet owners, their furry (or scaly) domestic companions transcend any simple categorization of non-human animal. Indeed, research shows that it is a growing global trend for pet owners to consider their animals to be full members of their families; to dote upon them as they would children or romantic partners, both emotionally and financially; and to thereby develop strong bonds of dependency, love, and support.

Gray and Young (2011) conducted a broad cross-cultural study of human–pet dynamics around the world utilizing the Probability Sample Files, a stratified random sample of 60 culturally, linguistically, and geographically diverse societies represented in eHRAF World Cultures. Their study revealed that “dogs, birds, and cats were the most common pets, followed by horses, other hoofed mammals such as water buffalo, rodents, nonhuman primates, and pigs” (ibid. 23). The authors suggest various reasons that peoples around the world keep pets, including rearing the animals for food, training them for assistance with hunting or labor needs, or keeping them as playful companions for children. Attitudes and sentiments towards the domesticated animals vary, with many societies attaching spiritual meaning to their birds, cats, or dogs that “illustrate the ways in which pets may be woven into the broader belief system of a society” .

Regardless of the reasons for domestication, the emotional connection between pets and their owners is worthy of cross-cultural attention. For example, it has been discovered that dogs are able to read emotional cues from the faces of their owners and to respond accordingly. Other recent studies have shown that people tend to have more compassion for animals who are suffering than for adult humans in similar circumstances, treating the hurt dogs akin to helpless infants who need protection. Based on global data, researchers in this telling social experiment concluded that, by and large, subjects “did not view their dogs as animals, but rather as ‘fur babies’ or family members alongside human children”.

Archaeological and ethnographic evidence

As to the origins of human-pet relationships, anthropologists suggest that our propensity for keeping pets, as well as our finely honed empathy for their emotional state, stems from the process of animal domestication in early human history, beginning with dogs and continuing to horses, sheep, goats, and other

Evidence of ancient burials from eHRAF Archaeology supports recognition of a longstanding bond between humans and animals far back into prehistory. For example, in ancient Egypt (5000-2000 BCE), Rice finds that, “amongst the graves at Helwan are examples of the burials of dogs and donkeys; as these do not seem to be the subject of cult or religious observance, it may be that they were family pets, since the Egyptians always kept animals about them, as members of their households” (1990: 131). Similarly, on the other side of the world, the purposeful interment of animals in prehistoric settlements is known throughout the American Southwest and northern Mexico. According to Woosley and McIntyre, at the Wind Mountain site in New Mexico dating back to 2000-600 BP, the animals buried included dogs, bears, turkey, golden eagles, hawks, mourning doves, and scarlet macaws (1996: 281).

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