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The Secret Life of Pets: A Worthy Portrayal of Them and Us

An essay on a very popular movie raises numerous questions about pet keeping

The Secret Life of Pets is an extremely popular movie that makes people laugh about what their companions are doing when they are left at home. A brief description reads:

Max (Louis C.K.) is a spoiled terrier who enjoys a comfortable life in a New York building until his owner adopts Duke, a giant and unruly canine. During their walk outside, they encounter a group of ferocious alley cats and wind up in a truck that's bound for the pound. Luckily, a rebellious bunny named Snowball swoops in to save the doggy duo from captivity. In exchange, Snowball demands that Max and Duke join his gang of abandoned pets on a mission against the humans who've done them wrong.

This movie also raises numerous questions about our choice to share our homes with nonhuman animals (animals). A recent essay by Psychology Today writer Dr. Jessica Pierce called "The Secret Life of Pets? Forget the movie, here's what it's really like," who also wrote a recent book called Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets, presents a balanced and extremely important discussion of this show (for an interview with Dr. Pierce please see "Are You Ready to Give Another Animal the Best Life Possible?). When the hundreds of comments are also factored in, this brief piece is a gold mine of information that focuses in on our relationships with animals who we invite into our homes and lives. 

Dr. Pierce's essay is available online so here are a few snippets to whet your appetite for more. She begins:

The main character in the new film The Secret Life of Pets is a white and tan terrier named Max. As the movie opens, Max gushes about how wonderful his life is with his beloved owner, Katie, in their Manhattan apartment. There is only one problem, he tells the audience: “She leaves!” Indeed, the opening scene is a series of doors slamming in pets’ faces.

For a split second, the pets appear bereft and lonely, but they quickly shake it off and the fun begins. They open cage doors, climb through windows and gather in apartments and on sidewalks. They have parties, with butt-sniffing and bowls of biscuits; they rock out to heavy metal music and, on the day in question, have wild and unexpected adventures involving deranged alley cats, dog catchers, and the Revolutionary Army of Flushed Pets who are plotting revenge against the humans who abandoned them.

She goes on to write, "The Secret Life of Pets was written to entertain, not to provide social commentary on the state of pet-keeping in America. But in addition to providing some clean summer fun, the movie offers an opportunity for serious reflection upon this most bizarre human cultural ritual. And some reflection is in order, since the wellbeing of millions of animals is at stake."

I agree. Dr. Pierce notes that many pets suffer behavioral and other serious problems, and writes: "By one accounting, the average pet owner spends only 40 minutes a day really interacting with his or her animal. Pets have few opportunities to interact with others of their own kind, leaving them in a state of constant social starvation. Rates of morbid obesity are even higher in dogs and cats than they are in humans – unmistakable evidence that our animals are not getting the physical exercise they desperately need."

While Dr. Pierce notes that many pets get frustrated and bored and highly destructive, she also stresses that "Secret Life reminds us that animals do have complex worlds of their own – worlds which interlock with ours. We can do our best to help them have interesting lives, have some independence from us, and have opportunities to engage in the behaviors for which they have evolved and which they still 'need' to perform."

Are we doing the best we can? When we do it's a win-win for all

The Secret Life of Pets is a most valuable movie. Anthrozoologists, researchers who study human-animal relationships, will find lots of food for thought in this movie. I am thrilled that a movie like this was made, and hope that people not only laugh at the antics of the animals who are portrayed in it, but also ask themselves, "Are we giving our pets the very best life possible?" We are their lifeline; we are their oxygen. Dr. Pierce's final words must be taken to heart. She writes, "it is incumbent upon us as responsible guardians to make sure the secret lives of our pets are fulfilling and happy."

In no way is Dr. Pierce a killjoy. Rather, she, along with others who are concerned about our relationships with pets, including the numerous people who took the time to pose thoughtful and wide-ranging comments, are raising questions that have been ignored for far too long. When we pay careful attention to what we are doing when we choose to bring other animals into our lives, it's a win-win for all.

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in early 2017. (Homepage: marcbekoff.com; @MarcBekoff)

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