Updated: Aug 28
I had a conversation with my younger sister recently that kind of startled me. We were discussing the role dogs play in our lives. Both of us have dogs and we both have whippets. It's obvious that we adore our furry little companions. Where it gets interesting, is when we narrowed in on the limits, of our feelings for them.
"Churro is like my child"
My sister loves her dog as much as her long-time partner. She told me, "I love them equally". This is not to diminish her love and care for her partner. She loves him very much and (as far as I can tell) they're in a healthy, loving, long term relationship. The equal standing is because she feels the same level of love, care and value for her dog, as she does for her deep human relationship. As she put it, "Churro is like my child". When she said this, I had to dig deeper; "Do you mean you love him as much, as you would, if you had your own (human) child". She didn't even hesitate and responded, "yes". It was around this point in the conversation that I realised the software running in my mind, and that of my sisters, was very different. All of a sudden, I was not looking at her like a familiar sibling, but more like some alien creature I could never have imagined. I held back the urge to ask her if she was high. I quickly realised that I had no readily available, objective reason to label her thoughts and feelings, as absurd.
"One of them has to die"
I asked my sister what she would do if she had to choose between her dog and her partner; "One of them has to die". She looked like she was under pressure. I thought that this question would clarify the situation. It didn't. She had to really think on it.
Unlike me, my sister does not naturally ask herself these questions. For me it's second nature to figure out my limits by imagining what I would do in extreme and uncomfortable situations. I had gone through these questions and answers in my own head years ago while playing with my little white whippet puppy, 'Cosmos'. I totally fell in love with that little guy, but when I pushed myself to answer the hard questions, I knew that I prioritised, loved and valued people a lot more. Maybe what I felt for Cosmos was 'puppy love'. It's love, but a different kind of love, a measured love.
Eventually it was Churro the whippet that was getting the electric chair. No, not really, she just refused to choose, she couldn't. However, she did concede that the loss of her partner would have a more significant impact on her life. Those practical impacts would lead to greater emotional impacts. I wondered if she said this to try and 'win the argument', but that wasn't the case. It was a calm conversation, and she appeared completely honest. Churro's death would genuinely have a similar impact on her, to that of a (human) loved one.
"What about an ant?"
My next angle involved the hierarchy of living things. We don't watch out for ants when wheeling patients to the emergency department of a hospital. Clearly, it's because we value a human life so much more than that of an ant. The reason we value a human so much more is linked to complexity (among other things). I reasoned that the complexity difference between an ant and a dog, is similar to that of a dog and human. My sister couldn't imagine loving an ant, but if she could, it would be the same situation. The hierarchy of living things apparently had nothing to do with the hierarchy of love, from her perspective.
I had to wonder if this whole dog love business was simply subjective. Maybe it had nothing to do with morality, or anything. Maybe people just have different ideas on how they want to live and feel. I googled around and found that other people were grappling with this same conundrum, and it was as concerning for them as it was for me.
I suspect that people are increasingly replacing human relationships with their pets. I see the attraction; they're so much simpler. They're not judging us and they can't simply leave us. The relationship between us and them is clear - that makes it more comfortable. But do they push us to grow? Do they allow for the same richness of experience that human relationships can? In both cases I think the answer is a clear 'no'. From a wider perspective it looks (to me) like we are choosing to interact with each other less, and seek out familiar comforts more. We seek out echo chambers for our beliefs and stay away from controversial topics for fear of uncomfortable conversations. We can compromise with our dogs, but we don't have to compromise with them for the relationship to function. Additionally, being emotionally open with your dog does not come with the same vulnerability (or potential) that human openness does, and that's where I think the richness of experience comes in.
The consequence of less human-human bonding is a more fractured humanity. I think our potential is directly related to our ability to bond and work constructively. I think that if our emotional bonds are weak, it will have negative downstream consequences for humanity. Don't get me wrong. I think that my whippets have improved my wellbeing and added positive experiences to my life. I just think it's possible that some types of bonding between us and them can be detrimental, and that is occurring on a more frequent basis. The problem I see, is when we replace humans (to some degree) with pets. But hey, maybe I'm wrong. I could be making this into a bigger issue than it really is. I should probably seek comfort. Perhaps I should go cuddle Cosmos.