Or, Confessions of a Petophobe
By J. Jack Halberstam
(Under the topic: Freedom to Marry Our Pets)
I never wanted a pet when I was growing up. The few odd rodent-like creatures we did try to domesticate (desert rats and guinea pigs) would either die quickly or shed their tails when rudely grasped by childish hands or, in one horrible incident, a particularly vicious mamma hamster ate her young. Animals, I strongly believe, belong outside. I no more want to see a dog on my kitchen floor or a cat on my bed than I would like to spot a cockroach settling in on my sofa. Bunnies look cute in the pet shop but they stink after sitting in their own pee in an over-heated bedroom for a few days. Birds are beautiful in flight but honestly, they shit too much to sit in a cage. And so, with no romantic memories of a beloved family dog or cat to draw upon, with no reservoir of human-animal relation to lure me into sentimental petophilia, I remain an out and proud petophobe. But, as someone who has moved through the category of “lesbian” in many forms, I have of course, lived with petophiles – cat people, dog people and, in one unfortunate case, hairless rat people. I have been allergic to every kind of animal brought into my vicinity and I have usually insisted that either the pet goes or I go. It is a lonely road for the pet phobic queer.
But I am not just here to tell my own sad story about living on the outside of a pet-maniac society, I would actually propose that far from marrying our pets, we should be liberating them. The intimacies between people and pets are not pretty to observe and they are usually the stuff of vivid fantasy on the part of the human partner. While the pet sees the human as a source of food or exercise or maybe comfort, a cross between a nanny and a jailor, the human sees the pet as uniquely hers, as a romantic partner, a trusted companion, an uncomplaining spouse. In fact, as many people in animal studies have suggested, there may be a much thinner line between pet owning and beastiality than we like to imagine when we curl our lips at the very suggestion of a sexual exchange between man and beast. But of course, the slobbery kisses exchanged between many a dog owner and his dog could easily fall into the category of “sex.”
The very language of “ownership” in pet-dom might alert us to the fact that in an age of designer pets we might be investing our domesticated companion animals with a kind of misplaced value. The trophy dog/cat/reptile may look great on a leash as you walk through the park and may indeed attract all kinds of other petophiles to talk to you, but let’s not mistake this for companionship or romance; let’s call it by its proper name – commodity fetishism – and then let’s admit that the narrative of “love” between man and beast is a bit of a cover-up for a much more base economic relation; that done, let’s move on, far from marriage, far from petophilia and, as Tavia Nyong’o suggests, let’s move queerly back to the wild. But while we are at it, let’s not follow our pets back into the wild – let’s not be like Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man, believing that we are communing with nature while in fact the loving looks cast our way by bears and lions are in fact the prelude to a magnificent feast that the beasts are planning with us as the main course. It’s an eat or be eaten world out there and while petophiles may plan organic meals for their precious over-bred, high pedigree, eugenically engineered animals, and may even claim a queer relation to their furry friends, the rest of us might feel that the companion species model harbors more heteronormativity then one might think. I personally prefer my animals in animated form or as robodogs or toys; I can live with an inauthentic pet while leaving the “real” animals to roam free. So, while we may all want to work for more humane practices in the meat and fish industry, we might also want to free our pets and learn to live off the leash.