Pet-Keeping in Non-Western Societies: Some Popular Misconceptions

Author: Serpell, James A.

Source: Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals, 1 September 1987, vol. 1, no. 3, pp. 166-174(9)


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Throughout history the world's wealthy and ruling classes have demonstrated a powerful affinity for pets. In the modern West, the recent growth of pet populations has coincided with rising standards of living. This apparent association between pet-keeping and material affluence has helped to create the false impression that pet-keeping is an unnecessary luxury—a frivolous invention of the idle rich—which is of little social or cultural significance.

The assumption that companion animals serve no useful purpose is prevalent in the field of anthropology. Although the practice of capturing, taming, and keeping wild animals for companionship is widespread among hunting and gathering and simple horticultural societies, it has only rarely been studied or even described in any detail, and explanations for its existence are often strangely contrived. Admittedly, a certain confusion surrounds the meaning of the term “pet.” Social anthropologists and historians have undoubtedly devoted considerable attention to the use of animals as adornments, emblems of status, religious symbols, or even as educational “toys.” The word “pet” has been applied in each case. They have not, however, managed to explain satisfactorily why so many non-affluent cultures nurture and cherish companion animals without any obvious ulterior motives in mind. Indeed, they have tended to evade the issue by turning it on its head. Rather than tackling the reasons why such societies should keep companion animals at all, they have addressed, instead, the question of why these societies do not kill them and eat them—as if the only sensible reason for keeping an animal is in order, ultimately, to devour it.

Research in other disciplines within the last fifteen or so years has begun to shed light on the potential social, emotional, and recreational value of companion animals in human society. Recognition of the fact that pets are not, after all, entirely useless may help to promote a more open-minded approach to what is a fascinating and, alas, fast vanishing aspect of tribal culture.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: September 1, 1987

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