Pets are replacing America’s children. According to the marketing research firm Mintel, two-thirds of American pet owners treat their pets as “part of the family.” One-third say that their pets understand their feelings better than most humans. Half care as much about the health of their pet as about any family member. (Pet owners who have actual children are less likely to speak of their pets in these terms.) Forty-four percent of young pet owners see their pets as “starter children.” Seventeen percent of pet owners bought pet costumes last year, and 10 percent bought pet strollers. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Fido in the baby carriage.
We are sentimental about pets because we are unwilling to welcome human life—or so says Pope Francis. In 2014, he condemned those who choose not to have children because they fear poverty and sickness. Such people think, “It’s better . . . more comfortable—to have a dog, two cats, and the love goes to the two cats and the dog.” But their love of animals shows their indifference to man.
The conflict between love of pets and love of children is most obvious in gentrifying neighborhoods, where sterile, secular, dog-loving whites are displacing poor, fecund minorities. In 2011, Marshall Brown, a veteran D.C. political activist, criticized the gentrifiers: “The new people believe more in their dogs than they do in people. They go into their little cafes . . . they don’t connect at church . . . they don’t volunteer in the neighborhood school.”
For daring to make this remark, Brown was fired from his position on a city council campaign—but his sociology was sound. In 2008, D.C.’s Shaw Dog Park was built on a section of a public playground where a canchita used for pickup soccer games by members of the local Latino community had previously stood. The Shaw Dog Park Association meets monthly at Commodore Public House, a “five-star dive” specializing in craft cocktails and local beers.
Earlier this year, a man named Carlton Knight told the Washington Post that a dog park illegally erected on public land in Columbia Heights was “good for the dogs . . . but to be straight up . . . it makes you feel you’re not welcome because you’re not white.” The Friends of Columbia Heights Dog Park was founded by a Planned Parenthood “clinic escort” whose father is the former head of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association. Construction of dog parks is a new closing of the commons, the seizure of public land by a select class.
Those who insist that the adoration of animals is compatible with the love of children will sometimes invoke St. Guinefort, a greyhound venerated as a martyr after he died protecting an infant. Guinefort belonged to a lord and lady who one day left him alone with their child, then came home to find the crib upset and blood splattered around the room. Thinking the dog the attacker, they killed him and threw him in a well. Only then did they see a dead snake in the room, and realize that the dog had in fact saved their child. Struck by remorse, they filled the well with stones and planted trees beside it. Peasant mothers began to bring their sick children to the shrine in hopes that the dog might intercede for them.
Guinefort’s story was first documented in the thirteenth century by Stephen of Bourbon, an inquisitor, but it had many literary precedents. It is hard to find a tale so ancient and so broadly attested as that of the pet unjustly slain after protecting a child. It first appears in the Pañcatantra, a Sanskrit text compiled in the third century b.c.; it reappears in Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Chinese, and all the languages of modern Europe.
In the oldest version of the tale, we encounter a striking anticipation of modern pet ownership. The couple adopt the pet as their “all-in-all, their younger son, their elder daughter—their elder son, their younger daughter, so fondly did they regard that little creature.” The mother suckles it at her breast. Her raptures of tenderness toward the pet do not preclude neglect of her human child, whom she and her husband leave alone.
Though the Church attempted to suppress it, Guinefort’s cult lasted well into the twentieth century (Jean-Claude Schmitt found evidence of its practice as late as 1940) and is now enjoying a revival. Last year, The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog became a bestseller. The children’s novel imagines the child saved by Guinefort reuniting with the sainted dog in order to confound church authorities. And no one has done more to spread the cult than Disney. Lady and the Tramp is simply a secular retelling of Guinefort’s legend.
Yet fans of Guinefort tend to overlook the cruel reality of his cult. The women seeking Guinefort’s help believed that spirits had stolen their real, healthy children, leaving behind sickly impostors—“changelings.” Guinefort would restore the true child if the mother and a witch tossed the changeling nine times between two trees planted over the well. After placing the child on a bed of straw and lighting candles by its head, the mother would go out of sight and earshot. If the child did not die in the fire, as often happened, it was to be dunked nine times in a nearby stream. If the child survived this ordeal, it was recognized as the mother’s healthy, human child. If it died, the mother was rid of a sickly and troublesome devil. Stephen of Bourbon rightly called this cult infanticidal.
In August, Elizabeth Harman, a philosopher at Princeton, gave an interview to James Franco explaining her view of unborn life. “Among early fetuses there are two very different kinds of beings,” she said. She and Franco, for instance, “had moral status in virtue of our futures.
. . . But some early fetuses will die in early pregnancy due to abortion or miscarriage. And in my view, that is a very different kind of entity. That’s something that doesn’t have a future as a person and it doesn’t have moral status.” This means that “if you do abort, abortion is okay, but if you don’t abort, abortion would have been wrong.”
Harman’s view is a revival of medieval belief in changelings. It reassures us that we, like the women who worshipped Guinefort, need not mourn the children we have killed. We seek such reassurance to quiet a guilty conscience. Sixty million American children have been aborted since 1973. Eighty-five percent of those diagnosed with Down syndrome are now killed in the womb. Harman’s argument may sound absurd, but judging by our lack of protest, our absence of mourning, we quietly share her judgment. The victims of abortion are not our dead; they must be creatures of another kind.
It is no coincidence that in the thirteenth century and the twenty-first, veneration of dogs arises alongside contempt for burdensome children. Pets permit us to enjoy companionship without commitment and tenderness without sacrifice. They are bred to our liking. They arrive on our terms and live at our pleasure. Human at one moment but not at another, objects of adoration that we can “put down” without sin, pets are more perfect versions of what children become when we refuse to welcome human life that is weak or strange. As playgrounds become dog parks and pets are put into strollers, the symbolism is hard to miss. Dogs are stalking horses of the culture of death.
One woman described by Stephen of Bourbon was unlike the others. After leaving her infant son at Guinefort’s shrine, she saw a wolf stealing toward him. According to the customs of her time and place, she should have done nothing. The dog was simply the devil come to reclaim his burdensome changeling. But the woman did not stand on custom. Though the world denied his worth, she ran to save her child.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things and a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.