Pets in America
By Katherine C. Grier
The University of North Carolina Press, 377 pages, illus., $34.95
September is Responsible Dog Ownership Month according to the American Kennel Club. We can assume that the term “responsible” modifies the owner, not necessarily the dog. But when conditions are right, the two often go hand-in-leash.
We have elevated the importance of pets in our lives. Polling results indicate that most pet owners today consider their animals to be additional members of the family. No expenditure is seemingly spared, as evidenced by sprawling pet supply retail stores and the proliferation of pet health care insurance.
For a historical perspective of pet ownership, encompassing the evolution of responsibility and ethical treatment, Katherine C. Grier’s book “Pets in America” is a rich source. Grier demonstrates that our sense of responsibility has come a long way since the days newborn litters of domestic animals were routinely drowned. Such wholesale killing is still occasionally practiced today, but at least we feel miserable about it.
Grier’s view of pets is so expansive that she challenges all three of the traditional traits of the concept, namely 1) that the animal was allowed into the house, 2) that it was given an individual name, and 3) that is was never eaten. Grier takes the view that an animal could be tended contrary to each of these status conditions and still be considered a pet. Perhaps a young person’s 4H livestock is an example. According to Grier’s broadened definition, “the most important quality pets share is that they have been singled out by human beings.”
“Pets in America” is not a mere historical chronology. Grier organizes her chapters by topic and offers a broad analysis within each topic. Her strongest chapters address the evolution of ethical treatment of animals and the amazing growth of commercial marketing for pet supplies. Grier’s book is highly, and often amusingly illustrated with vintage photographs, sketches and advertisements.
Walking in Circles Before Lying Down
By Merrill Markoe
Villard Books, 270 pages, $22.95
One of the cleverest offerings of new fiction is Merrill Markoe’s “Walking in Circles Before Lying Down.” Markoe is paid to be clever as a staff writer for Late Night with David Letterman and her affinity for animals is apparent from her concept contribution to the show known as Stupid Pet Tricks. In her novel, Markoe’s protagonist is at the end of her rope emotionally when she starts to receive end of the leash advice from her seemingly talking dog. His lips don’t move, but his mind is going a mile a minute.
Markoe’s vulnerable heroine values her dog’s intuition about humans, but is still baffled by his doglike defining habits. He proves to be quite the wag when she asks him why he has to pee so often. “Well, there’s two kinds of peeing,” he explains. “There’s regular peeing, because you have to pee. And then there’s auxiliary competitive peeing. For acquiring an empire. I’m all about the real estate.” With such understanding of the essence of dogness, Markoe knows who her best friends are.
By Elliott Erwitt
Chronicle Books, 165 pages, $22.95
If you love dogs, you owe it to yourself to fetch a copy of “Woof.” Sit and stay with it to the end and you will be rewarded with the treats found in the charming photographs of Eliott Erwitt. He captures what dogs like to do best: lie on their backs, play in the water and sniff things. There is very little text, as the pictures are worth a thousand kibbles. The good mood of this book lasts longer than a belly rub.