In October 2018, a woman on a Frontier Airlines flight from Orlando to Cleveland was forcibly removed from the plane before takeoff. The reason? Airline personnel noticed that the “emotional support animal” she had brought on board in a pet carrier was in fact a squirrel—a pet that was not allowed aboard under the airline’s policies but one she refused to relinquish. Defiant as she was escorted off the plane by security officers, the woman, whose behavior caused a two-hour delay for the other passengers, later told USA Today that she was planning to sue the airline and portrayed herself as a hero for telling the flight attendants, “You’re not taking my squirrel. Sorry, you’re not. I refuse. You will not take my baby from me.”11xSara M. Moniuszko, “Woman Kicked Off Flight over Emotional Support Squirrel Speaks Out: ‘You Will Not Take My Baby from Me,’” USA Today, October 11, 2018, https://www.usatoday.com/story/travel/flights/2018/10/11/frontier-airlines-passenger-who-brought-emotional-support-squirrel-flight-speaks-out/1603615002/.
As the ballad of the therapy squirrel suggests, something significant has changed in our relationship with our pets—and not all of it for the good. Pets have become problematic, both in the new rights and privileges and emotional lives pet owners claim for them and in the deeper tensions those claims reveal about contemporary culture.
The impulse to treat our pets as beloved children and companions isn’t new. “Romans buried their dogs in human cemeteries and talked about them like children,” David Grimm, author of Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs, told Wired magazine.22xBrandon Keim, “Dogs and Cats Are Blurring the Lines between Pets and People,” Wired, April 8, 2014, https://www.wired.com/2014/04/citizen-canine-cats-dogs-personhood/. But the scale and scope of our pet obsessions have vastly increased since Roman times. Rather than demonstrate an increased capacity for empathy for other species, our relationships with our pets often inadvertently reveal new forms of human anxiety and weakness. Have we reached a more enlightened stage in the evolution of our relationships with our animal companions, as some animal lovers suggest, or, like Lennie in Of Mice and Men, who carried a doomed mouse around in his pocket, are we at risk of loving them to death?