Apparently we now own a rescue dog, a term I was entirely unfamiliar with a mere 5-10 years ago. The Regnerus family was not, so far as I knew, in the market for a dog, although cute canines calculatingly kenneled in front of PetSmart, Petco, or some other such big box brand never failed to attract my children’s attention on the way to the grocery store. And that is how we eventually wound up with a dog, my first since a nine-year stint with a beloved dachshund that ended in 1989, when he was put down. He needed expensive back surgery (to walk), and well, people just didn’t do that for dogs back then like they seem to today.
Be that as it may, I find myself mulling over this rescue dog phenomenon. It seems to be a cultural badge of honor for the owner (or master, or whatever we’re called today—but please, not “mommy” or “daddy”). Dogs acquired the old-fashioned way, by a breeder, have become passé, somehow inferior. In 1980, my parents acquired Cinnamon, the family dachshund, for 50 bucks from a breeder in rural Sumner, Iowa. It seemed like a good deal at the time, and certainly in hindsight. Perhaps AKC-registered dogs are much more expensive today—I don’t know. But our rescue dog, a mostly lab, part hound mix, cost more than that just to acquire her from a rescue organization planted in front of PetSmart. I realize Austin is weird, and that we’re supposed to keep it that way, but the legitimacy issue here is striking. I’m not talking about the legitimacy of being or not being recognized by the American Kennel Club, but rather about culture both here in Austin and probably in lots of other American cities. Culture is a form of power, the power of “legitimate naming,” the ability to name something as normal and right and good, and its competition as deviant, stupid, inferior, ridiculous, or just plain wrong. (I borrowed that description from James Hunter’s excellent book To Change the World).
The emergence of the rescue movement as the most legitimate and socially acceptable way to acquire a dog is an example of successful cultural change. How so, since people have long gone to the “pound” to look for a pet? Just look at the terminology: we neither call the place a “pound,” or the pooch a “mutt” anymore, and the term “rescue” has taken on an element of nobility, of “cultural capital,” as if there has emerged a morally-superior way to acquire a pet. You might find it ironic, of course, that the Whole Foods crowd would find breeders a bad idea, since expensive food and expensive pets would seem to go together. The emphasis, however, is on organic: food grown without human intervention, and pets born without human intervention. Of course rescue dogs are almost universally neutered or spayed before being placed in homes, to which I don’t much object. But the irony of it all is not lost on me.
What does this movement toward doggy-acquisition legitimacy spell for other domains of life? Probably nothing. Perhaps something. In interviews with 24-32-year-old unmarried Americans, I’ve noticed a penchant for talking about adopting children in the future. Adopting a child, of course, is far more complicated than adopting a dog, which took our family about four hours to accomplish. By contrast, adoption of a baby by strangers—which is what we tend to think of when we think of adopting a child—remains quite rare, under two percent of all children. It takes a long time, is quite expensive, and in America is subject to shifting law about biological parents’ rights. We notice adoption because it’s comparatively uncommon. And yet as infertility becomes a more urgent issue for many Americans—especially white, upper-middle-class ones—adoption is increasingly on our lips, and in a socially esteeming way. Not because we’ve found ourselves infertile at 25 (which is unusual) but because we’ve found ourselves infertile (or unmarried, or both) at 35 and 40, having missed out on the most fertile years (which are 20-29, by the way). Infertility is a growth industry, aided and abetted by the contraceptive industry, obviously. I’m not declaring anything here, just observing. As the average age at marriage rises to 27 for women and 29 for men, and the share of married Americans continues to drop, it signals that many women who might previously have readily received marriage offers increasingly aren’t. Demand for adoption will likely increase, if it hasn’t already (I don’t know, offhand).
I hope, however, that we don’t witness an emerging preference for adopted humans anytime soon, as we have for pets. (If that statement strikes you as harsh, make note of it as an indicator of legitimation.) Adoption, while often a noble thing, will always contain risk, no matter who does the adopting. It need not be great risk—and is commonly far less risky than a child navigating the foster care system—but let’s not suggest that risk isn’t present. A developmental psychologist friend of mine who studies adoption put it this way: studies of adoption have repeatedly shown that there are important and wide ranging differences, on average, between adopted children and their non-adopted peers. It is better to be raised by your biological parents—who created you the old-fashioned way—than by someone else (on average, of course). In sum, to rescue a human is a noble thing. To prefer rescued humans, on the other hand, would indicate a profound culture change around family and childbearing that I, for one, would recognize as deleterious.