COLUMN: "The unspoken deal in pet ownership"

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, April 18, 2010 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. A version of this piece aired on the April 17 episode of “Between You and Me” on 91.7 KAXE.

The unspoken deal in pet ownership
By Aaron J. Brown

“Sammy needs a cheeseburger.”

And I don’t mean just a beef patty. On one impromptu visit to their house, I learned that Sammy, my grandparents’ late dog, needed a full cheeseburger with a bun and the dressings. So did Kato, her – well, I guess you’d call him her stepbrother. These dogs certainly enjoyed many of the same benefits of children in their short (though long in dog years) lifetimes. Heck, grandpa even pulled the camper out west with a Mack truck so the dogs would have access to the full sleeper cab. That’s a luxury not even available to all truckers, much less dogs. And that’s how it is for dogs in my family.

I married into a family that shares a similar love of dogs. Most members of my wife’s family, particularly on her dad’s side, display a reverence for dogs that borders on parental doting. Whether a dog was throwing up or learning new skills (but most likely throwing up) he-dog or she-dog (never “it”) was a central part of the family, sometimes enjoying leeway that a son or daughter would only dream of.

All this reminds me of a questionnaire we filled out while seeking veterinary care for our bird, Beaker, a neurotic cockatiel we owned before we had kids who eventual died from complications related to anxiety. One question read “Do you consider this animal to be a member of your family?” That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

First of all, the use of the word “animal” suggests another option. Maybe this thing in our house is really just some critter rounded up from the woods and made up to be a proper member of society. Maybe we could treat it like a critter, or something that will eventually be eaten. Maybe we should eat it, this critter. Sooner than later! Eventually this logic leads one down the path of considering a pet to be an animal with strictly limited privileges, something to remind the other animals who’s boss.

Second, “member of your family” is another loaded phrase. There are members of my family that aren’t accorded this distinction and yet we did not hesitate to list this mentally ill bird. This was a creature of a common breed probably raised in some trumped up bird mill on the edge of town, a bird who firmly believed that he might die at any moment due to the crushing weight of the world, and eventually did just that.

Maybe what I’m getting at is that by personifying our lovable pets, and they are quite lovable, we earn ourselves a convenient backup to our actual human relationships. If things aren’t going well with our sons or daughters, husbands or wives, mothers or fathers, we can always lavish love on a creature that will love us for our food and petting, two things humans dole out a lot more freely than trust, respect or loyalty. Pets, on the other hand, have nothing but trust, respect and loyalty to give. What THEY want is the lunch meat from the fridge and to scritch that one spot down there, the one right there, no over there, there … that’s the one. In many ways this establishes the perfect symbiotic relationship.

Just tonight I found myself making a nest of blankets for Molly Dog on our couch. It’s all part of the deal. The dog sits next to me when I’m focused on typing. I make the blanket nest for her, she keeps the couch warm and doesn’t give me any guff. The things we do for animals, indeed, but how about the things they do for us?

Aaron J. Brown is a columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Read more at his blog or in his book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”


  1. When I was little, my stoic, tough-skinned German immigrant Teamster father sewed up his own gashed hand with needle and thread rather than go to the doctor, but when our obese basset hound, Hugo, appeared to have signs of heatstorke after a run around the lake, we went straight to the vet ER. One of my best memories ever. (And Hugo was OK).

    Doesn’t every kid love how pets crack the invincible facades of dads?

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