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Photo by Stacey Schumacher

Animals as idols

Lifestyle | Veterinarian Wendell Cantrell says a healthy affection for pets has become an unhealthy 'petcentrism'

Issue: "The battle," March 24, 2012

When Texas veterinarian Wendell Cantrell attends veterinary conferences, he likes to pull fellow vets aside and ask a question. His "informal survey" goes like this: Let's say you're in a city and standing on a street corner. Across the street is a burning apartment building. You look in a window and see one of your pets and a stranger. Which one would you save?

"You'd be surprised," he says, "how many would save their pet."

Last year 62 percent of Americans owned pets, according to a survey by the American Pet Products Association. The group estimates that Americans spent almost $51 billion on everything from routine and surgical veterinary visits to gourmet dog foods made from organic ingredients and pet products from Old Navy and Omaha Steaks. There's even a doggy Skype-PetChatz-that allows owners to talk to their dogs when apart from them.

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Some Americans are so enamored of their pets that they don't want to let them go. New Yorker Danielle Tarantola paid a Korean cloning company $50,000 to clone her dog Trouble. She says the puppy, named Double Trouble, has the same mannerisms and behaviors as the original dog.

That statement underscores a transformation in American attitudes toward pets. Cantrell calls the new attitude petcentrism. He summarizes the shift: Dogs went from the backyard, to the back porch, to the bedroom, to the bed. It's a change that's happened so gradually, he says, people don't think twice about it.

Cantrell, 65, grew up on a farm in the Texas panhandle. He became a vet because it combined his interests in animals and medicine. In 1978 he started a practice in Katy, west of Houston, where he cared for pets and farm animals. As Houston expanded westward, transforming farms into housing developments, Cantrell and his partner opened a small animal practice.

Two decades ago Cantrell went on several short-term mission trips with Christian Veterinarian Outreach. Those experiences changed his life. As he explained to his wife, "It is hard to focus on the money side of veterinary practice and taking care of pets, when I could be taking care of some Masai goats." So in 1993 he sold his practice, joined Christian Veterinary Mission (CVM) full time, and moved to Nairobi, Kenya.

Cantrell spent his years of CVM service in Uganda, Kenya, South Sudan, Rwanda, Tanzania, and South Africa. He was in Rwanda days after the genocide, helping widows who might be taking care of 10 children get the help they needed to raise hens. He retired last year.

Veterinarians who serve with CVM come alongside partners on the ground, typically NGOs and churches. They seek out local people with a bit of livestock background and teach them to identify and treat animal diseases. In Uganda, vets have been cataloguing and disseminating local knowledge about herbs and plants that tribal leaders have used in animal care. When veterinarians are "faithful on the ground," Cantrell has found, "all kinds of doors open up."

After his first four-year term, Cantrell returned from Kenya and realized his heart had changed. He'd come to believe that "life isn't about the life of these pets." Although he still acknowledges that pets serve a purpose in a family, he saw that Americans had become pet-centric. Too many were like the client who came in with a 17-year-old cat in kidney failure. He talked to her about palliative care, but she wasn't interested. She went home and printed out 70 pages of treatment options she'd found online and said, "I could go to UC Davis and we could get a kidney transplant."

Cantrell says in a west Texas twang, "I was blown away."

The recession has been hard on vets. Cantrell says their success depends on promoting the human/animal bond. It is to the veterinarian's benefit, he says, if they treat dogs as hairy people because people will spend more money on them.

Cantrell doesn't get invited very often to speak on the topic of petcentrism. He wants people to be good stewards of their pets but not petcentric. He wants them to think about the cost of treatment and balance it with other priorities. He asks hard questions: Add up your pet costs and the amount you give to animal causes. How does that compare to your missions giving? Is it good stewardship to treat your pet like a human?

Dog blogs

Handout photo

Some Americans have found that the road to fame is paved with photographs of their dogs doing strange things.

A man named Andrew has gained internet renown and a mention on CNN by balancing food on the head of his dog Tiger, a Staffordshire terrier/bulldog mix. He posts his photos-Tiger with a can of Spam, or three Twinkies, or a sandwich on her head-on his Food on my Dog blog (foodonmydog.tumblr.com).

Another blog, Maddie On Things (maddieonthings.com), features photographs of Maddie the coonhound standing atop objects like a skateboard or two shopping carts in locations across the United States. -Susan Olasky

Pets over humans

Vladimir Suponev/iStock

Pets Inc., a no-kill shelter in Columbia, S.C., relies on nearly 100 volunteers to feed, groom, and entertain dogs and cats ready for adoption. Like director Amanda Carlson, who has a master's in social work, the volunteers share a devotion to animals.

"I'm more of an animal lover than a people lover," said Stacy Culbreath, who volunteers weekly at the shelter. She and her husband have no children and have adopted two dogs from Pets Inc. "Our dogs are part of our family. It's a shame when people don't treat them that way."

Volunteer Patti O'Rourke works to save dogs from kill shelters: "When you can't save one, it's pretty tough." Moffatt Steele, who has volunteered for eight months, says animals are defenseless creatures with no say in their futures.

Jeanie Frazier, volunteer coordinator for Pawmetto Lifeline, another Columbia no-kill shelter, also has a degree in social work: "Our volunteers want to know they can make a difference in the lives of animals. ... So we go the extra mile-even if there is a health or behavior issue." -Deena C. Bouknight

Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.

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