Reigning cats and dogs
As pet ownership booms, a troubling question rears its head: who owns whom?
There is a range of theories about how Homo sapiens came to rule the planet. Opposable thumbs, cranial size, altruism and cooking all played a part, but central to the naked ape’s success was its ability to dominate other species. Bovids, equids and, in particular, canids, were put to work by H. sapiens; felids always took a slightly different view of the matter, but were indulged for their rodent-catching talents.
As humanity has got richer, animals’ roles have changed. People need their services less than before. Fewer wolves and bandits meant less demand for dogs for protection; the internal combustion engine made horses redundant; modern sanitation kept rats in check and made cats less useful. No longer necessities, domestic animals became luxuries. Petkeeping seems to kick in en masse when household incomes rise above roughly $5,000. It is booming.
The trend is not a new one. Archaeologists have found 10,000-year-old graves in which dogs and people are buried together. Some cultures— such as in Scandinavia, where canines have long been both working dogs and companions— have kept pets for millennia. But these days the pet-keeping urge has spread even to parts of the world which have no tradition of snuggling up on a comfy chair with a furry creature.
In parts of Asia where people used to regard the best place for man’s best friend as not the sofa but the stewing-pot, along with some onions and a pinch of seasoning, and where cats were made into tonics, norms are changing fast. The South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, has a rescue dog, and the mayor of Seoul has promised to shut down dog butchers. China, where dogs were once rounded up and slaughtered on the ground that keeping pets was bourgeois, has gone mad for cutesy breeds like Pomeranians, whose wolfish ancestors would have swallowed them whole for elevenses. Traditionalists attending the annual dogmeat festival in Guangxi now find themselves under attack by packs of snarling animal-lovers.