Do You Like Pets Better Than People?

Leona Helmsley and her dog Trouble photographed in Leona Helmsley's Park Lane Hotel apartment. Friday, January 31, 2003 in New York. Helmsley left her beloved white Maltese, named Trouble, a $12 million trust fund, according to her will, which was made public Tuesday Aug. 28, 2007 in surrogate court, according to published reports. But two of Helmsley's grandchildren got zilch from the late luxury hotelier and real estate billionaire's estate. (AP Photo/Jennifer Graylock)
AP Photo/Jennifer Graylock
Dogs have been in the news lately. The cruelty surrounding the Michael Vick dog fighting ring outraged Americans. On the opposite end of the spectrum, billionaire Leona Helmsley died and left her dog, Trouble, $12 million - and left two of her grandchildren nothing. Most Americans love pets. Do we love them more than we love people? And are some of us trying to turn our animals into people to justify that love?

Football players have gotten into trouble in the past for violent crimes against other people. But in some ways, the anger towards Michael Vick, the Atlanta Falcons quarterback, involved with violent dogfights, was greater than what people felt about those crimes against other people. I don't think this is necessarily misplaced compassion. Despite their ability to bite and scratch, dogs are much more helpless than people. They can't say, "OK, I know this is dangerous, but I want to fight because I love fighting," as human boxers can. And very few dogs can dial 911 for help.

Americans care about pets more than ever today. Nearly two-thirds - 63 percent - of households have a pet, and pet lovers spent $38.5 billion on their pets in 2006, up from $21 billion a decade earlier. According to the Census Bureau, in the last decade, the percentage of homes with pets has remained relatively stable, but the amount of money people spend on pets has doubled. We spend several billion dollars more on dog and cat food than on baby food. According to Bob Vetere, the president of the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, 42 percent of pets sleep in the same bed as their owners - up from 34 percent in 1998. I found no statistic saying what percentage of people share their beds with other humans, but it's obvious that pets are catching up.

Vetere feels the increase in people caring so much about pets is a reaction to 9/11. Pets provide company, calm, and comfort in troubling times. Others point to the fact that many people these days are deciding not to have children, so they have pets - and spend freely on them. Some people, very freely.

Before you start worrying that Trouble Helmsley is going to blow that $12 million in one binge of eating all kinds of treats, or lose it all in Vegas with some dog of questionable breeding, or fall for some business scam, relax. The $12 million is in a trust for the dog, and Helmsley's brother is the trustee. So, forget about sending your gold-digging Retriever to sniff around Trouble.

I know that attributing these human characteristics to Trouble Helmsley is silly. But that's exactly what more and more people are doing with their pets. Some owners dress their pets in fancy outfits. They buy gourmet meals and perfume for their dogs and cats. After consumer electronics, pet "care" is the fastest growing retail business in America. Some owners pay for cosmetic surgery to get rid of pug noses, droopy eyes, and other "doggy features." And there's even a patented testicular implant that sells for up to $919 a pair to restore the way pets looked before they were neutered. So far, 240,000 pairs of them have been sold.

The irony is that some of those who feel they care the most about animals are actually trying to rid them of their animal characteristics and make them more like people. Certain dogs are supposed to have "doggy features" like pug noses or droopy eyes. Why assume that a pet would like to wear a bikini or jewelry just because you do? And how much of a confused ego does an owner need to be obsessed by his pet's genital area?

This excess brings us back to the late Leona Helmsley. To be fair, I should mention that she left the bulk of her money - billions - to charity. But still, leaving $12 million to a dog?

Right around the time that the Vick and Helmsley stories broke, we (coincidentally, I think) adopted a dog from the pound. I wonder, which dog got more excited by the recent gift he or she got? Trouble after hearing the news about the $12 million, or our dog after getting his new squeaky toy?

So, love your pets. Spoil them if you want. But don't try to turn them into humans. Why would you want to knock them down a notch?

Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them dog-eared by now.

By Lloyd Garver