Life Off the Leash


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.


12 replies on “Life Off the Leash”

Just watch the documentary Zoo again (Washington State farm where men gathered to have sex with horses). Lurks on the edge of this post and the one about Horse Flesh.

I enjoyed Judith’s blog very much. I do want to clarify that use of “pet” in the title “Freedom To Marry Our Pet” is meant as a joke. Let’s face it, “Freedom to Marry Our Companion Species” doesn’t inspire a chuckle. The pet industry is, without a doubt, exploitative. It certainly not immune to the logic of commodity fetishism that saturates every aspect of our life in capitalism. Another example of this logic is the hyper commodified industry of childhood. Nonetheless, I think we should strive to imagine and enact companion species bonds that are not reducible to the logic of owning pets.

This was an interesting post. The dominant narratives of man and beast, and designer pet and rich chic owner certainly deserve the above critique, however, these narratives are not lived by everyone. Some people claim themselves as pet owners and act accordingly but others understand themselves quite differently. Ask the humans at a dog park if they own their pets and you will receive a variety of answers. Some will certainly place themselves in the dominant narrative but others will produce quite different and even queer descriptions of their relationship to Stormy, Spike, or Punya. Ask them where they found their pet and many will say the local shelter and not a designer breeder. Talk to people who live with cats. Many humans in relationships with cats will tell you that they do not own the cat but the cat owns them.

I think the above critique is useful but it also makes too many assumptions. These assumptions foreclose the possibility of queerness; there is nothing queer about that.

comment from Quince Mountain:

Hi Jack,

Shelter dogs are, of course, a certain class of petophiles’ ready answer to the “precious, over-bred, high pedigree, eugenically engineered” animals you describe. These abandoned or “surrendered” pets offer a good number of would-be jailor-nannies a solution to the guilty language of ownership: a narrative of rescue.

(Incidentally, I once walked into a half-frozen river to pull free an unknown dog that was trapped underneath the icy crust. I did not for a second consider taking said dog home and feeding/captivating him for the rest of his days. I went home to warm up and dry off. The dog trotted off along the riverbank. So engrained is that idea that pet ownership equals pet rescue that it wasn’t until years later that I realized I, too, could claim I had rescued a dog.)

Note that in the Pet Rescue Industrial Complex, no money changes hands in exchange for the animal itself. Instead, an adoption fee is said merely to defray some of the shelter’s cost. This system helps insulate jailor-nannies from the feeling of dis-ease that may come with buying or ordering an animal that is supposed to be their companion, not their captive. The owners forever get to say things like “I didn’t find him; he found me,” when they describe how a particular animal, clutched in a cage and barking its terror alongside 10 other captive animals of different colors and builds, caught their fancy during lunch break. It’s as though their wandering into the local Humane Society or browsing the ads on Petfinder had nothing to do with the arrival of a new dog in their home. As though the captive had as much or more agency than the captor. As if an 80-lb German Shepherd just knocked on their door one day, and the family looked at each other and shrugged, “Well, okay, why not?”

And the shelters, of course, run as non-profits, which means that all taxpayers are subsidizing pet ownership (as well as the assuaging of failed pet ownership, aka “surrender”) and ensuring a constant stream of animals awaiting their “rescuers.” It’s a kind of publicly-funded game farm for nonhunters, where the visitor comes away not with a trophy mount but with a savior delusion – perhaps more insidious than a traditional game farm where an animal is most often well-fed and relatively free to roam until its sudden death.

Quince Mountain

I wonder how many people feel dis-ease when purchasing their pet. Humans with shelter dogs certainly employ the rescue narrative but are they bothered that they hand over money for their new friend? Maybe so, and the rescue narrative is their cover story. Perhaps some of them don’t care. Is it wrong to buy a friend/companion? What do these terms mean? Why limit the pool of potential companions for humans to humans? Animals generally don’t turn up on one’s doorstep (though it does happen) but neither do human companions. True we don’t keep potential friends in cages (well, some folks do) but relationships between humans in their various forms are not free.

Quince, thanks for giving me something to think about.

dogs are co-evolved natureculture artifacts who have no place in the “wild.” this could be said of many non-human species of animals. surely we require a critique of the “how” of domestication rather than the “whether,” since it’s too late for that one now. so let’s critique their commodity form, let’s be peeved about how marriage gets smuggled back in in the guise of allo-erotic queer love, and let’s maybe figure out an ethics of living-with and being response-able to.

thanks, this is a really interesting series of entries and comments.

every pet i ever shared a house with in my 30 years of city dwelling pet life, i found on the street and was followed home by(6 cats and 2 dog), or was given to me by someone who could no longer care for it (1 cat, 2 bunnies) and it’s true that “foodgiver” is my primary role, but there is an affectionate bond between animals and humans, and i think it’s pretty awesome and worth it for everyone involved.

Many animal species have co-evolved with humans to the extent that releasing them “into the wild” would be an act of cruelty: so they can be run over by our cars or shiver in the cold under someone’s porch? You don’t have to want to be around domesticated animals, and I’m not one of those “lesbians” who would sneer at this post, even though I live with 2 dogs and 4 cats (to each his own: blah blah blah), but what kind of creeps me out about this post is how one of the world’s most brilliant queer theorists thinks there is only one kind of “animal”: out “free” in the “wild” [and can we please, maybe, interrogate the terms “free” and “wild” in here? this smacks of some real romanticism regarding the lives animals have “in the wild” — uh, like Interstate 95?]. A Jack Russell terrier and a grizzly bear do not have anything in common with each other and each desires a very different habitat, set of relationships with other creatures, etc. There are a lot of dogs and cats out there, especially in urban areas, who “roam free”: they look like hell and would, in most cases, happily run into your apartment and live there. I just wouldn’t blithely recommend re-patriation programs, for animals, or for humans.

I love this blog! Nothing about animal ‘ownership’ is fair for the pet. Granted there are a few owners that are very much into spoiling their dogs but many more owners who don’t , won’t and just not that attuned to their dog until the dog exhibits cute human like behavior. (deep sigh).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s