Children & Animal Companions
Care, love, and grief in multispecies families
As a time in one’s life, childhood is often paired with closeness to the rest of the animal world. And like many other things that become “lost” as we grow up influenced by social expectations about adulthood, so does this affinity - for some of us. Loving animals is sometimes considered childish, and talking about them as part of one’s family might come with an obligatory chuckle (Tipper, 2011; Charles & Davies, 2008), just so the audience doesn’t think you’re that kind of person. As I was writing this, I could say that the cat sitting on my lap was family, her purrs and her warmth calming my cramps. And as we are recording this, we need to do it in between the dogs’ naps, if we can manage. So questions come to me: how is a multispecies family made? How do human and non-human companions learn to relate with one another? Does it happen as early as childhood, and if so, how does it look? What sort of relations arise out of the daily lives of children and their “pets”? And I do use the word pets knowingly. Most often, it is animals as pets that children come into contact with. What do the two kinds of beings learn from each other - animals as pets and humans as children - both vulnerable to adult humans and the society in which they live?
Luckily, some of these questions have already been tackled by several researchers, so in this video, we’ll focus mainly on the CLAN research project, which stands for „Children-Animals Friendships: challenging boundaries between humans and non-humans in contemporary societies,” coordinated by Verónica Policarpo. The research explores these questions by looking at affective practices of children and pets, how empathy and relationships develop and how they are defined, how families and households change, and how care plays a vital role.
Hello childhood, land of endless bliss and play!
Hello kitten, puppy, were you stray?
Or did you grow up in a litter, bred to stay?
Come on here, be our kin, my guardian twin.
It’ll be fun.
Or so some would say.
I. Childhood and pethood
We start by circling back to the word itself. What, or who is a pet?
“A pet is an animal who has been named, who is allowed to share the domestic space with humans, and who will never be eaten.”
(De Mello 2012, 148; Fudge 2008, 15; apud. Policarpo et al, 2018)
A pet was also a name for a child, a spoiled, indulged child (Cole & Stewart, 2014). But pets as companion animals seem to have appeared in the Victorian era, initially a practice of the elite who could afford such a splurge. As Western cities began to grow, animal presences in them started being policed. Upper-class sensibilities could no longer stand the smells and the cries of slaughter in the city, so, gradually, most farmed animals began being pushed out. Discourses surrounding hygiene and public health, along with an increasing desire for a controlled and safe environment, also pushed animals associated with “straying” out of the streets, into the earth - or into private homes. But pets could remain in the urban space, that is, under the control of human owners and their children (Cole & Stewart, 2014). Pets could have food, shelter, and even space to play, but if they transgressed their proper role, they could always be killed or abandoned. And, despite many new laws, their condition is still vulnerable today.
Currently, children tend to be viewed as complex beings, but sometimes, they are still understood as either “innocent” and “pure” or, actually, “evil,” in the sense of being uncivilized, uneducated (Tipper, 2011). They, too, are often pushed into a binary hard to escape from, seen as not-yet-adults, and often put on the other side of what is considered rational and moral (Policarpo et al, 2018). The idea that children and animals get along well emerged with the idea that children are, maybe, a bit like animals - sometimes wholesome, sometimes wild. It follows, then, that not only our ideas of nonhuman animals are grounded in history, but so are our ideas about children, and that actually, these two meet.
Both human children and companion animals, regardless of age, share common vulnerabilities. They are both given a subordinate place in relation to adult humans (Policarpo et al, 2018): they are not perceived as fully citizens or granted political power, being placed in a position of guardianship under which their agency can be easily denied. However, while human children grow out of it in time, animals as property remain, being infantilized for their entire lives (Cole & Stewart, 2014). Thus arises the potential of questioning both childhood and pethood jointly by looking at how they work together and what practices emerge from these relations.
II. Choosing a companion, making a family
It’s no small thing to be able to choose a companion animal or, if we are to be more attentive to the power of words, an animal companion (Goodfellow, 2021). The entire decision rests on human shoulders; they choose the species, the color, the temperament. According to the CLAN research, many aspects play a role, from the animal's cuteness and how they look to preconceived notions associated with certain breeds, to the animal’s size or possible behavioral characteristics and needs. Animals enter families from shelters, but also from breeders, from pet stores, and sometimes, even as a (surprise) gift!
Parents and children have different views of why they’d like a pet, of course. Parents focus on care and responsibility, on the opportunity that, they hope, animals will teach children respect for others and how to nurture. Besides, animals are seen as bringers of joy, enriching the emotional life of the family, and, as a bonus, they are also able to keep children busy, consuming their “excessive” energy.
Children, of course, see this as the immediate benefit: fun and play! One interviewed child mentioned that “because animals play with us… it’s almost as if they were a friend of ours." (Antónia, 11). Perceiving individual animals as friends and companions is how human children start to see their subjectivity. As 12-year-old Miriam says about Ninja the cat, “I think that, mainly, he needs affection. (...) So, we have to respect him like we respect a person. I think that’s what he needs to be happy!” (Miriam, 12). Through closeness and affection, it sometimes happens that animals are no longer objectified. But not always. The opposite can happen too: children that play with living beings as they would with dolls, dressing them up. The relationship is not at all innocent or straightforward. The new animal, too, has to learn how to adapt to the humans, and there are many rules indeed. What to chew, where to go, when to do this or that, and how to act around all these strange beings mustn’t be easy to get right away. The first few weeks are some of the most important: relationships and rules are set, and if they don’t work out, the pet might be returned or re-homed (Power, 2008).
So how are multispecies families made? And what species? This is an important question, as different species are treated very differently. Dogs and cats are most often the ones that become closest to humans and, because of this, are most likely to be seen as part of the family. Other animals, such as fish, might be treated as disposable, being quickly replaced if needed. Space is crucial in home-making, and home-making plays an essential role in who counts as family. In one study (Power, 2008), dogs who were kept inside and allowed to sleep on beds were more likely to be seen as part of the family than those who lived outside. Because there are few spaces in which dogs can interact off-leash in the public domain, the home remains a central site for defining more-than-human family practices (Power, 2008). Within it, rules and routines, while decided upon by adult humans, are changed and influenced by both children and pets. Dogs can be welcomed into a family and be asked to fit into its pre-existing schedules, or they can be allowed to shape them.
Cohabitation, shared activities, and the length and quality of the relationship all add up to animals being considered ”part of the family” (Tipper, 2011). Sometimes, children even mention pets of other relatives, which they consider integral to their kin network and they „know quite well” (Tipper, 2011). Terms such as „meeting,” „liking,” and „knowing” come up (Tipper, 2011), showing that children often see other animals as individuals they enter a relationship with. Adults, however, even if they do include pets when asked whom they consider family, tend to laugh or dismiss strong affection towards them for fear it might be seen as - you already know it - childish (Charles & Davies, 2008).
III. Caring for another, playing together
Being childish is considered something one must grow out of, and in the child-pet interaction, adults see an opportunity for children to learn respect and care for one another. In practice, however, things don’t go as planned. Most families interviewed within the CLAN project showed that parents do most of the day-to-day caring, and most often, the women. Children do care but in another way. For them, playing is a form of caring. They see play as a need to be fulfilled - maybe both theirs and the pets’. The sensorial aspect of care and play is essential, as interacting between human and non-human animals takes a physical, hands-on form. However, it is not just humans who care, but nonhumans too; they provide emotional and sometimes physical support. One child mentions in an interview that “sometimes I begin to make the handstand in the middle of the house, and when I fall, they come immediately to my rescue.” (Bia, 13), and another says, “when we are alone, it’s the animals that come to us, that come to help us.” (Miriam, 12). In another study, dogs are shown to become part of the daily routine, for example, by being eager to push the bottom drawer of the dishwater in after the dishes are stacked (Power, 2008). So animals are described as actively producing and changing family dynamics. More than their parents, children recognize that “the family wouldn’t be the same” without its non-human members. For 13-year-old-Carla, “[Life without Lili, the dog] would be more like, I wouldn’t talk so much with other people. Because sometimes we are in the kitchen and she comes with her toy, and then we hang around with each other more. ” (Carla, 13).
The human-animal boundary is not so easily drawn in multispecies families, and care is an activity in which all animals participate. Let’s take Pavi, for example, an auburn, white-spotted pointer dog whom the CLAN researchers encountered. Bárbara, his human, enjoys Pavi’s company even when he just lays on the bed, but she also looks out for him when he goes on the balcony to stare at humans, dogs, and birds passing by. Even though Pavi can’t jump, the girl still pays attention, just in case. Their relationship is embedded into daily life and its needs - for example, when Pavi is thirsty, he looks at the bidet to ask for water. Sometimes, mistakes are made, as Bárbara says: “He goes there, and he looks at me, he looks at the bidet, drinks water again, comes back, looks at me … that’s when I realized that I opened the hot water tap!” For her, Pavi is “...the life of the house! (…) Because when everything is silent, he’s the one who wants to play, he calls us, and we start playing with him. If Pavi isn’t around, nothing special will happen because he’s the one who moves everything around here!” (Bárbara, 8)
Encounters such as these and the simple pleasure of just being present together add up to a multispecies family life.
IV. Unmaking family, rituals of mourning
But families change, and not just in one way. In reconstituted families, animals from previous relationships can bring conflict into new ones. Illness, unemployment, or change of house are all moments in which the status of the pet may change, and so is the birth of a human child (Policarpo et al, CLAN).
Anthropologist Dafna Shir-Vertesh has coined the term “flexible personhood,” meaning that pets are like '“emotional commodities"; they are loved and incorporated into human lives but can at any moment be demoted and moved outside of the home and the family.' (Shir-Vertesh, 2012). Drawing from David Harvey’s conception of flexibility as the defining logic of late capitalism, Shir-Vertesh shows how pethood allows humans to “react adaptively and opportunistically to changing ways of life and social conditions.” Pets are seen as a way to enlarge the family and can be compared to children, as the researcher identifies four patterns in her research: 'The animal as a “prechild,” the animal as a child substitute, the animal as a “semichild,” and the animal as significantly different from a child' (Shir-Vertesh, 2012). These sorts of conceptualizations build a shaky ground for when actual children appear, as some couples in the research “demoted” the pet from being seen as their child, calling them an “it” or a “nuisance,” and other couples even re-homed the animal, not being able to take care of both. While familial relationships change between humans, too, Shir-Vertesh underlines that in the case of pets, their personhood status is being challenged. They are seen less and less as “individual persons,” and their undesirable differences, such as too much hair or barking, become salient. The rest of the people in the community tend to follow the couple’s conception of the animal, and thus, no one remains to claim their best interests.
Being part of the human family is related to being seen as a person. As one becomes more and more entrenched in the family history, one’s individuality and personhood become inseparable from the family’s understanding of who they are. The nonhuman animals participate in important events, from birthdays to funerals (Policarpo, 2018). They share joy and grief, they stand with humans as humans stand with them, they mourn the dead, and, ultimately, they are mourned. Or at least, some of them are.
Grief is unequal. Not all lives are considered worth grieving. Just as some humans are considered less „grievable,” some nonhuman animals, too, are seen as less so. Without counting all those farmed for food or used otherwise, for companion animals, too, there are hierarchies. Dogs and cats tend to be more highly regarded as family members than fish, birds, or reptiles, and thus, more deeply mourned. Quite often, the cause of death is not even determined for many of them - for example, one child mentions his heartache about his bird: “I don’t know exactly what he died from. He kind of… in one day he was ok, and on the other he was already… I was sad. And kind of, I kept asking myself why…” (Miguel, 13)
Grief is political. Research shows there is a taboo against grieving deaths of nonhuman animals, even of pets with whom we live closely. Hence, researchers gave it a name - disenfranchised bereavement (Stewart, 1989 apud Redmalm, 2015). Grieving individual nonhuman animals challenges their status as material resources or replaceable members of a species (Redmalm, 2015), ultimately putting a dent into human exceptionalism. Following Judith Butler’s three characteristics of grief, sociologist David Redmalm explores how pets occupy an ambiguous space when being mourned. First, being grieved means being considered irreplaceable, but that is not always true for companion animals, as humans might quickly turn to get another one. Second, grief is transformative and unpredictable, but pet owners often plan for the animal’s passing, framing it as “manageable” and a “natural part of having a pet” (Redmalm, 2015). Third, as grief is a bodily experience and “the loss of a person is always the loss of a body,” mourning is felt intensely and physically - this sort of missing appears even when animals are given away without actually dying.
Grief re-shapes us. It changes our understanding of ourselves, our lives, and the world around us. It lives with us in bittersweet memories, shaping our future. Miriam recalls her departed Golden Retriever, Lory, and their closeness, even if he died more than seven years ago when she was very small. She remembers him dearly, mentioning a touching example of interspecies care and communication “When I was a baby, Lory would, sometimes, when I started crying, go and get my mother.” (Miriam, 12). Lory seems to have left his multispecies imprint in Miriam’s human world. For her, he is irreplaceable. The memory of his body coming to her rescue persists in a timeless zone. And grieving him meant becoming someone else - a human who knows how it feels to be fully connected to another species.
Grief calls our world into question. It asks for our attention. It demands our care. And so, it is a force of change.
V. Being childish, being animal
Occupying the category of an animal or a pet, and even just being called an animal as a human, is dangerous, as it puts one in a condition of disposability and vulnerability. On another level, being called childish and being infantilized puts one in a condition of not being taken seriously, being dismissed, guarded, and controlled for one’s good. Thus, both categories, that of the pet and that of the child, operate in one similar way: by denying full agency and voice to the subject. And again, while one of them (the child) might eventually “get out” of this fraught category, the other will perpetually remain, as current social conditions keep perpetuating relationships of ownership and domination, and as long as those in need of care are seen as somehow “less than.” What other futures could we build, then? How can affects, such as love and grief, guide us? What would be desirable, sustainable, and joyful for both nonhumans and humans, for both children and adults?
A key to how current families are made is in the making. Family is formed through different practices; it’s what we do with each other, not defined solely by an institutional bond. Emotions make and unmake our relations, whether with humans or nonhumans. Many contemporary families are seen as places where members can unleash their full potential as individuals, be they children or partnered adults (Morgan, 2011; Singly, 2007). But what does it even mean to be authentic, and what could it possibly mean for nonhuman animals in human families?
As more questions arise, we can begin by reclaiming and redefining family as “based on mutual respect, aid, individuality, and freedom” (Goodfellow, 2021). This respect is not for adults only, but everyone - children and nonhuman animals included. We can continue by valuing care and reproductive labor, by seeing it as essential and organizing around it rather than around productive work (Balzano, 2021). This requires us to take a hard look at gender imbalances across families and strive for a more just organization of the household. And we can keep going, restructuring homes, schools, and public spaces. We’ve got a lot to do. But most importantly, let’s not forget to play, too.
Hello childhood, wildland, full of unknown fruit!
Hello dear companion, where’s the loot?
We’ll eat together, play together,
marvel at each other & learn how to play better!
What’s that whisper?
I’m listening to you.
Directed & Edited by Aron Nor
Written & Narrated by M. Martelli
Art direction, Illustration & Animation by Mina Mimosa
Music composition by Adrian Feener
Script editing by Verónica Policarpo
Voice over by Harish Vijay Sakthi, Sienna Crichton, Madison Lauren, Brenna Epstein
Quotes recorded by Aron Nor
This video was created with the guidance of Verónica Policarpo, coordinator of project CLAN, and thanks to Human-Animal Studies Hub. It is supported by the CLAN research project, funded by FCT - Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (PTDC/SOC 28415/2017).
Video-essay based on the research project CLAN – Children-Animals Friendships: challenging boundaries between humans and non-humans in contemporary societies, PI: Verónica Policarpo // Co-PI: Ana Nunes de Almeida.
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