The pet industry in America is a booming industry. For the past several years, American pet owners have collectively spent nearly 100 billion dollars or more annually on their pets. While much of this can no doubt be accounted for with things like food, vet bills, and the like, there is a rather large market for all sorts of goods that go well beyond the scope of basic pet care. It shouldn’t be all that controversial to posit that the root of this goes hand in hand with the colloquial phraseology people adopt in referring to their pets as children, kids, fur Babies, etc. People love their pets—in an inordinate sense and much of this goes hand in hand with how our culture views actual children.
It shouldn’t strike us as all that odd when we consider the startingly large number of babies led to the veritable slaughter with abortion and abortifacients. Even if we ignore the topic of abortion, all one has to do to see the ample number of “return to school” videos posted each year where parents chomp at the bit to be rid of their kids. Many mothers likewise can’t imagine staying at home all day to care for their little ones, so the workforce is often seen as the enterprise for exercising their adult freedoms (or it comports with their identity in some sense). In both cases, someone else is raising their children for them for the majority of the day, and seldom do people connect this with why they have lost their child’s ear in the teen years.
What I believe it speaks to rather candidly though is a culture of perpetual adolescence, where people seek to express their maternal and paternal instincts whilst retaining maximal freedom. You can pour out your love on an animal as you desire yet lock them in a cage for extended periods of time or find a quality pet pampering place as you deem necessary. You can continue to progress in your career uninhibited; you can have a social life to whatever capacity you desire; you can even save a tremendous amount of money.
Let’s face it, both marriage and child-rearing are difficult and often arduous tasks that requires more than many are willing to give in today’s hyper-individualistic world. They take consistent energy, effort, and resilience, not only to maintain some semblance of order, but to cause these relationships to flourish. Despite our culture’s insistence that you can marry and raise children while retaining your identity and goals, the reality is that upon entering into these things, you give up your freedoms and goals for the good of the whole—at least in healthy, functional families.
Trading out a spouse or children for pets to fill these voids gives some the illusion of all the benefits of both worlds though. For the single person, pets can fill the void of companionship without the messy aspects of pursuing a God-honoring relationship and commitment one finds in a spouse. For the married couple who doesn’t desire kids, contra the dominion mandate of Gen. 1:28, pets fill the void of the pitter-patter of little image-bearers without much real, lasting sacrifice that is part and parcel to raising kids. In all of it, it speaks to the American ideals of comfort and freedom.
You don’t have to think much of others before yourself; you can travel the world, spend money as you like, and have little else as a goal beyond your own personal enjoyment of life. I believe much of this is tied into a greater reality behind the scenes, which I will touch on shortly, but the practical reality is that having pets is a rather easy task more often than not. One might have a pet with all sorts of behavioral and health issues, but it speaks more of the individual who clings to the life of their pet than the animal. Am I against pets then? In a word: no.
By all means, enjoy your pets and care for them well (Pro. 12:10), but let’s not confuse their nature with that of the nature of children, or people more broadly. Children are born with the Imago Dei and as such, are part and parcel to God’s most unique creative work in humanity (Gen. 1:27). They showcase the wonder and glory of God in ways that nothing else in all of creation can (Ps. 139:14). Children are a reward from the Lord (Ps. 127:3), and while pets may be a blessing, they are an altogether different one that is not even remotely deserving of elevating them to the level of a human being.
God cares for the image-bearer in a way that is utterly unique to all creatures; He deems people to be much more valuable than animals (Matt. 6:26). There is nothing that indicates little, beloved Fido has a spiritual aspect as man does (Gen. 2:7). Fido doesn’t have a God who redeems him, nor gives him eternal life. Fido doesn’t have a proverbial leg to stand on when it comes to all of the general benefits and kindness that God bestows upon all of humanity—the just and the unjust (Lk. 6:35, 16:25). Despite the often cringeworthy poem, “Dog is God Spelled Backwards,” little Fido may reveal God’s general benevolence, but he is not the crowning jewel of God’s creation.
The point here is not that God doesn’t preserve the animal kingdom and care for them. He does and will even redeem all of creation in the general sense (Ps. 36:6; Rom. 8:19-22). The point is that animals are not deserving of the unique status of human beings. It is only mankind that has been stamped in His image, and to ascribe this peculiar glory to an animal is fundamentally at odds with Scripture. To liken a pet to a child then is simply taking this logic to the extreme, and in essence, degrading both the image-bearer and the image-Giver. Pets are not children. They never have been, nor will they ever be children.
They can never replace a child who has died, nor fill the void of those who have left the roost—and we ought to take stock in that reality. The brokenness of barrenness and death should hold its full weight upon us, namely, because it is then that we can remember the beauty of God’s grace and the resurrection from the dead. In other words: these realities testify in a most horrendous way that creation is broken and distorted by sin, yet One has come who has defeated sin in every regard, and even the most brutal of our enemies: death.
The years of singleness, childlessness, and loss, no doubt filled with many tears, are tears of pain promised to be wiped away by the hand of our loving Father. No pet can come close to filling that void, nor console the inconsolable—but God can. This is perhaps where I believe the trend of calling pets your children can be all the more sinister in its practical implications, albeit in quite a subtle way. It fosters the mindset we are warned of in Rom. 1, where mankind exchanges the glory of the immortal God for created order, and all of it is born out of a faulty elevation of that created order. In other words, pets, at least in American culture, tend to be a means by which all sorts of idolatry can be maintained, or become idols in and of themselves.
This is obviously not the case with all who have pets, but we all ought to be able to recognize there is a fundamental issue in referring to pets as if they are children. In a saner time, I don’t think this would have garnered much controversy, but in our current day and age, saying this is almost guaranteed to draw the ire of a rather large segment of the population. Yet again, I believe it speaks to where our culture is at in a rather profound way. This is but one of many ways people have defamed the image-bearer, all as a result of defaming the image-Giver. To use the cliché line: this is what happens when you remove God from the equation. This is what happens when you cobble together all sorts of opinions about the world and everything in it without giving God the honor and glory, He is due. When one thinks little of image-Giver, they are bound to think little of those who bear His image.