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February 26, 2024 5 min read

There are various means by which eras are defined: the invention of the wheel, the start of the Renaissance, and above all, Taylor Swift albums, tours - so much so the current one is literally named Eras - and romantic partners. Basically, enough things change enough and that means we're in a new phase. Having said that, we have been thinking recently of a contrast: animals and pets areconsistently dominant in pop culture - no changes please and thank you - and every single era celebrates and records them. To wit, the Romans enshrined the dogs days of summer into their calendar and ours; cats were sacred creatures in antiquity; and long before any of this happened, there were cave paintings which, get this, rarely if ever depict humans, instead focusing in breathtaking detail on animals. More recently, dogs who've played a central role in some of history’s greatest feats of endurance and survival are the subjects of books and movies. In our current human-centric age, this seems at first, ahem, glance odd, but as we have previously noted, there are 6.5 BILLION cat pictures on the internet which is only slight fewer than the number of selfies on Kylie Jenner's phone (7 billion, allegedly). 

In our view, this is as it should be, but it set us thinking: why? Why are animals more enduring across cultures, eras, continents, and content than anything else*? 

Superficially, there are very simple and obvious answers to this: animals, in particular the domesticated kind but others too, are great. They are loyal, kind, warm, and fluffy. But wait, there is So Much More! So today, let us tell you about a few furred and feathered types who we think can help answer the question more completely. 

The Dog Who Played His Part. 

The onset of the popular press created an insatiable appetite for stories of the famous, and in the early 20th century, politicians, especially presidents, were among the most scrutinized. Naturally, presidential pets were subject to the same gaze as their humans, and while many White House pets have captured the public’s imagination, few have distinguished themselves to the degree of Laddie, kennel name Caswell Laddie Boy, who was not only a loyal companion to President Warren G. Harding, but also a talented surrogate. Photogenic and affable, Laddie sat in on meetings (wearing a bowtie, natch), had his own cabinet chair, greeted official delegations, and even hosted the 1923 White House Easter egg roll when the Hardings were away. A First Dog if ever there were one!

The Cat Who Is All of Us. 

1976 was a huge year; Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded Apple, Rocky was released, and Peyton Manning was born. Yet all these things pale in comparison to the year’s most significant cultural and social contribution: Garfield, a glorious creature who made his first appearance in the comic strip, Jon. Pedants will tell you Garfield wasn’t born until 1978, but take a lesson from the great cat himself and roll your eyes. What to say about Garfield? Where do I start! As well as being a huge lasagna enthusiast - same, buddy! - he is a hater of Mondays - double same! He is spectacularly lazy and whilst that is not a trait anyone professes to admire, it is a trait almost all us at times possess. How else might we explain binge watching an entire season of Love Is Blind or ordering from DoorDash three times in a single day? Garfield is us, we are Garfield. The obvious, righteous response to this is to click here to stock your pantry with the best things since sliced lasagne and here for the tastiest treats on earth. 

The Baboon Who Embodied Teamwork.

At the opposite end of the motivation spectrum from Garfield the cat is Jack the chacma baboon, a companion to a South African named James Edin Wide. Wide worked as a railroad signalman, but experienced significant difficulties doing so having lost his legs in an accident. Over time, Jack learned how to push Wide around in a cart and how to keep their house clean, but this was nothing compared to his mastery of railroads-manship. When trains approached, they'd start blowing their whistles to indicate which track they needed to go down. Wide had been the one changing the tracks, but Jack quickly learned how to operate the levers. Soon, he was in sole charge of making sure the trains got where they needed to go. At some point, the railroad’s managers tested Jack to see if it was safe to have a monkey manning the switches, and Jack passed with flying colors. Thus, Jack became an official employee of the railroad, earning 20 cents a day, plus half a bottle of beer each week. All told, he worked as a signal-monkey for nearly a decade before retiring in 1890. Whether your side kick is hard-working like Jack or slightly sedentary like my friend's dog, Susie, the law** states that treats must be included in their wage packets and who are we to argue? 

The Frog Who Taught Us To Put Our Own Masks on First.  

Now I could write a whole column about The Muppets, and having written that down, it is now an absolute certainty that I will! Holy moly do I love my work ☺️ ! Anyway, The Muppets often show us the value of teamwork, but they also have a great knack for recognizing what they owe to themselves. Kermit, a kind, and above all self-effacing frog who only wants what’s best for his friends, no matter the cost to himself, often wrestles with his guilt about disappointing others. But he also understands the importance of keeping the promises we make to ourselves. In the words of the great frog himself, “I guess I was wrong when I said I never promised anyone, I promised me."  PREACH.

The Bird Who Helped Us Handle Grief.

Staying in the Jim Henson Televisual Universe, there are few creatures who have done more to help us experience and manage our feelings and deepen our understanding of ourselves than the redoubtable Big Bird. Of all the emotions, grief is one of the hardest to bear and the hardest to confront, especially if your audience is little kids, but leave it to Big Bird to rise to the challenge. When the actor who played the grocer Mr. Hooper died, Sesame Street was unsure how to handle it. After much debate, it was Big Bird who suggested Mr Hooper’s death be a lesson about death and grief. The biggest and biggest-hearted of all the birds, Big Bird had to navigate a ton of difficult feelings — shock, sadness, confusion, guilt, and anger. Life later imitated art when Big Bird expressed his grief over the death of the Most Marvelous Muppet Man, Jim Henson by singing at his memorial service. To end on a note of optimism of which we think Mr. Henson would approve, here is Beaker performing the Ode to Joy. 

To return to the question we posed, why are animals and pets so enduring and omnipresent? Because they teach us about our world, about ourselves and most of all, about how to live. Simply put, they are better at being humans than humans themselves!

For now, pack, that's a wrap. Until next time, friends.

*except Taylor Swift, obviously. 

**we made up that law, but we asked a bunch of dogs who all said it was fine to do so. 

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