Do some people surround themselves with pets to avoid figuring out how to deal with other people?
In my experience, the answer would be a resounding YES—or, if you prefer, a deafening BARK or an earsplitting MEOW.
Don’t get me wrong—I am a lifelong animal lover. I love cats and dogs equally, and regardless of species, breed, or gender, they flock to me as if I were St. Francis of Assisi. I am thoroughly, nauseatingly—and, to many people, surprisingly—affectionate with animals.
But I haven’t owned a pet since late 2012, when I had a female pug that I’d owned for eleven years put to sleep because she’d grown senile to the point where she was falling down stairs and walking into walls and looking into my eyes as if she had no idea who I was.
Back in the early 90s—when I owned four cats at once—I bristled when I heard Howard Stern on the radio claim that people who immersed themselves in their pets only did so because they were severely maladjusted socially.
Owning four cats and being severely maladjusted socially, I got angry at his comments. The truth hurts, as I’m sure we’ll see in the comments here.
This template of a socially awkward person who escapes into their pets—mainly because pets love them “unconditionally” and won’t judge them for all their flaws as humans are wont to do—was much more dramatically illustrated by a family member of mine who at one point during the 1990s owned over 90 cats, all of them crammed squirmingly into a tiny two-bedroom Florida cottage. He and his spouse gradually shifted over to dogs, and when I visited them in 2006, they owned precisely 30 dogs and 20 cats—I know those sound like estimates, but I counted them. Exactly 30 dogs, 20 cats, and two human adults who hardly spoke to one another.
Although married for decades, he and his spouse shared absolutely no direct affection between themselves. They only showed love to their pets, which in a way I thought was like showing affection to one another through an interpreter.
Their house was the shit-stinking hoarder’s disaster you might imagine. Both of them gobbled enough painkillers daily to power a spaceship to Venus. Her son was an HIV-positive male prostitute and crack whore who’d routinely ransack their house and steal their valuables. His daughter died all alone of a Vicodin overdose in a Colorado motel.
Yet they hardly seemed to notice the shambles that their personal lives had become. Cleaning the dog cages and naming the new puppies seemed far more important to them than whether their own human children were dead or dying.
This is an extreme case of pet-collecting, reality-denying psychosis, but across the nation there are likely milder examples—and a few that are even worse—festering behind closed doors in at least one house on every block.
I have a son who will be 7 this summer, and when I first held him in my arms at the hospital—just as I cradled my pug’s nine puppies from birth until they were all old enough to find homes—I realized that all my pet-lovin’ had merely been a diversion for my innate paternal instincts.
I won’t project here and say that this is the case for everyone. Yes, it’s possible to own pets and also be entirely at ease with human interaction. I’m talking about me…and my family member…and what are likely millions of other lonely, maladjusted Americans. There’s a reason that the “crazy cat lady” stereotype invariably depicts a woman with no male lovers and no children.
This is the longest I’ve gone in my adult life without owning a pet, and it may be a long time or never before I get another one. And if I do, I will choose one—just one—and only after making sure that my son has everything he needs.