An Intriguing Quote from John Berger

“In the past, families of all classes kept domestic animals because they served a useful purpose—guard dogs, hunting dogs, mice killing cats, and so on. The practice of keeping animals regardless of their usefulness, the keeping, exactly, of pets is a modern innovation, and, on the social scale on which it exists today, is unique,” (14).

This quote from Berger stuck out to me because of the immense truth. In reality, the majority of humans, especially in the United States, keep domesticated pets for alternative reasons than their use. In fact, the majority of domesticated animals, specifically dogs and cats, kept are for companionship. Granted there are owners, who will use their dogs for hunting purposes, but the animals are always given names, and most of the time there are emotional bonds between man and animal.
I also related this quote to an early quote from Berger’s essay. “Animals were seen in eight out of twelve signs…And Dog brought fire to man,” (8). This full paragraph details the mythological visions of what animals have represented. When Berger discusses the “Nuer of the southern Sudan,” he quotes how man and animal lived together in peace. It was interesting to read how Berger saw the transition from coexistence of man and animal, to man keep animals as domesticated “pets”.

A statistic that Berger offers also interested me. “It is estimated that there are at least forty million dogs, forty million cats, fifteen million cage birds and ten million other pets,” (14). There has to be a realization with these statistics that, the majority of these pets are not serving a “useful purpose” besides companionship. I am curious as to why so many people have pets (and yes, I am one of the forty million dog owners). Are animals no longer seen for their use because of the overpopulation of America? As more houses are built on top of each other, animals that require more room are nearly impossible to have. The relationship, or understanding, that once existed with animals, no longer exists.

I do agree with Berger when he says, “the keeping of pets is unique,” (14). This quote is especially intriguing to me when applied to indoor pets. People take in animals that originally stayed outdoors, and now, we punish animals who act like animals indoors. I feel like humans expect household “domesticated” pets to relinquish their animalistic behaviors. For me, this can explain why so many dog owners invest in obedience courses.

I found the entire essay from Berger intriguing, but these selected quotations were the ones that especially made me think. As a pet owner, I never thought too much, on when pets stopped serving a useful purpose. I do not see the domestication of animals as a bad thing, but I do believe it shows how humans expect to be dominant over animals and nature.

Berger, John. About Looking. InternationalCH./Art: Why Look at Animals? p. 3-28. Pub. Vintage Sept 1991


3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by christys21 on November 16, 2011 at 8:06 pm

    I really enjoyed this particular portion of Berger’s piece. It relates a lot to our current generation and soceity here in America.

    While some households do have pets for guarddogs, they are often first said to be for compionship, as you stated. The fact that soceity has an animal, which should technically be out in the wild, home and protected from nature is rather strange.

    When you think of it, somes dogs can be aggressive. Back when “pets” had a useful purpose, they were used to protect the home or hunt down an animal. They had beastly instincts and were by no means good enough to be kept in a pretty pink bed next to the owners night stand. Now-a-days, many dog owners would not dream of leaving their dog outside overnight. Owners are certain that their is clean food and water in their bowl and that they are up-to-date on all medicines.

    As Berger said, this movement is “unique.”(14) It is difficult to think of how humans and pets have created such a close knit relationship that even if they serve no purpose, humans are more than willing to have them around just as a friend.

    Berger, John. About Looking. InternationalCh./Art: Why Look at Animals? P. 14. pub. Vintage Sept. 1991

  2. Posted by kwalley on November 17, 2011 at 11:21 am

    As an owner of two pets myself, I felt slightly affronted by Berger’s statements about the domestication of animals. There are many “pets” who are used today for jobs as well as serving as a domestic companion for a family. For many people, a dog or a cat is another member of the family, particularly in families that may not have the ability to have children or otherwise. Without domestication, the use of guide dogs and other assisted living dogs would not be possible, greatly compromising the lives of these disabled people. While there are certainly more animals who serve their owners only in the sense of companionship, who is to say that this is not an important job on its own. My dogs may not be trained to attack an intruder, but I certainly feel safer when they are around.

    Aside from the benefits humans receive from the presence of domesticated animals, there are many benefits for the animal as well. It is essentially a symbiotic relationship with both the human and the animal giving and receiving something. Dogs and cats have been domesticated to the point that most would not be able to survive in the wild, so isn’t it our duty as human beings to care for an animal that cannot care for itself, regardless of whether it has a defined function in our lives?

  3. Posted by lpeake on November 17, 2011 at 2:29 pm

    I agree with your statement that “People take in animals that originally stayed outdoors, and now, we punish animals who act like animals indoors. I feel like humans expect household “domesticated” pets to relinquish their animalistic behaviors.”

    I see this time and time again. I have known dog owners who punish their dogs for having accident indoors, even after the owner has told the dog to stop whining and they’ll get around to taking them outside in a minute. It is completely absurd that a person should punish a dog for not being able to first, understand that they only have to wait “a minute” and secondly, that they should have to hold their bladder at all. These animals are not humans and to be punished as though they should have the same intelligence absolutely leaves pets marginalized.

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