IN THE EARLY months of the pandemic, my housemates and I adopted the world’s least photogenic cat. Someone in our local mutual aid group had found her wandering the streets. She was extremely skinny, her fur was matted, she had cloudy speckles in her eyes and a strange lump on her chin, and her meow sounded like a haunted floorboard. We’d post photos, and people would reply asking if we were sure she was okay. “She’s got liver problems,” we’d explain, continuing to post. Her vulnerability enchanted people. We called her Hildy.
We put up flyers just in case her owner was out there somewhere. Two different people got in touch; neither wanted her back. We developed a narrative in which the previous owners had been neglectful, if not abusive, and congratulated ourselves on saving her from certain death. (Once, while walking back home from the shops, I’d come across what I thought at first was a cat asleep on the road; when I got closer, I discovered that its entire head was missing. Reports of dismembered cats found around London a few years earlier had spawned fears of a serial feline murderer referred to as the “Croydon Cat Killer,” though an extensive police investigation yielded no evidence of human intervention. The phenomenon was dismissed as the unfortunate result of vehicle collisions combined with scavenging by foxes and other predators.) For three years, we showered Hildy with love, massaged her little ears, and spent a fortune on liver supports and carpet cleaner and cat-relaxant diffusers.
Then, this summer, she went missing. It had only been a few hours, but she’d never strayed beyond the garden wall before. I knocked on all the doors in the neighborhood. After a few friendly dismissals, a woman answered and confirmed that there was a strange, emaciated brown cat in her garden, which she’d presumed to be a stray. There, I found Hildy fast asleep in a makeshift bed the woman had built for her. When I tried to pick Hildy up, she screamed as though she were being kidnapped. “I promise you she’s my cat,” I told the woman, who looked skeptical and told me she seemed “really hungry.” The woman pulled out a packet of off-brand cat food to hand over to me, and Hildy let out a heart-wrenching wail at the sight of it. Again, the woman looked at me sideways. When I finally got her home, my arms covered in scratches, I put out the sachet of food for her. Hildy gave it a sniff and walked away.
I felt a weird vertigo; I could sense the neighbors developing the same story about Hildy as I had, except this time, I was the neglectful owner, and they were her happy ending. Sure enough, over the weeks that followed, Hildy began visiting the neighbors for longer and longer stretches, coming home only to be fed. They sent me photos of her lolling about on their laps, assuring me she was safe. Eventually, she stopped coming back to our place at all, and I stopped trying to collect her. We went out to the pub with them and talked about Hildy for hours. At the end of the evening, we invited them to take on full ownership.
I experienced Hildy’s departure like a one-sided breakup. I couldn’t sit with her over coffee and do a postmortem, so I went back through an album of photos of her on my phone, searching for early warning signs. In one photo, Hildy wears a placid smile on her face as she stretches a skinny arm out over my belly, embracing me like a child would. In another, she perches on the edge of my bath, her love for me evidently stronger than her fear of water. It was no use. I’d curated these photos to tell a very particular story — one in which she needed me. What had I missed in my view of her? And what role did my incessant photography of her have to play in this?
By most accounts, pet-keeping in its contemporary form dates back to the Victorian era, when the practice of keeping domesticated animals for companionship and pleasure began to spread through the middle classes; prior to this, it had been largely viewed as a quirk of the aristocracy. From England, it was exported globally, where it clashed with other forms of interspecies relation and friendship. Animal historian Harriet Ritvo ties this to the wider sense of a new technological mastery over nature: “Once nature ceased to be a constant antagonist,” she writes, “it could be viewed with affection and even, as the scales tipped to the human side, with nostalgia.”
John Berger makes a similar argument in his classic 1980 essay “Why Look at Animals,” which begins with a paradox: “Everywhere animals disappear.” Lost to forces of industrialization, Berger writes, the animal proliferated in popular culture at the same time as it was disappearing from the functions of daily life. From the 19th century onward, animals no longer formed part of society’s fabric. Instead, they began to show up as meat, as leather and wool, in zoos, and in the domestic sphere — as plush toys for children, and as pets. For Berger, these approximations do nothing to satisfy a still deeply rooted desire for interspecies contact. Since 1970, wildlife populations have plummeted by approximately 69 percent. Meanwhile, in the same timeframe, pet ownership has more than tripled in the United States.
Whether pets count — strictly speaking — as “nature” is a question that was as tricky to answer in Victorian times as it is today. Cats and dogs are the product of long histories of selective breeding, in which certain traits — docility, loyalty, emotional expressiveness — were favored. In the 19th century, the categories of human and animal were coming to form opposite poles, giving way to a scalar logic according to which some animals were more animal than others — and some humans more human than others. Meanwhile, the pet emerged as a bridge, absorbing the fraught questions that developed at the intersection of humanity and animality, while simultaneously offering a palatable vision of nature as subordinate to and dependent on man.
The emergence of the “pet” as a concept emerged in tandem with a technology that was crucial to this new framing of the animal companion: photography. In the 19th century, several famous animal taxidermists, including Walter Potter and Hermann Ploucquet, staged images in which stuffed creatures were arranged into social tableaus. A schoolmaster weasel punishes his rabbit pupil; a group of kittens sit around drinking tea while another plays the piano. Their bodies are strangely stiff, their eyes glassy and blank. The Victorian photographer Harry Pointer, by contrast, used live cats for his subjects, capturing them in unlikely poses — riding a bicycle, or ice-skating — and sold the images as greeting cards.
The invention of photography helped establish the pet as a kind of ready-made anthropomorphism. But pets are still animals. A large part of the appeal of adopting a pet is the thrill of interspecies contact, the everyday encounters with what Berger calls the “abyss of non-comprehension”: the joy of making contact across this abyss and approaching a nonverbal intimacy that feels ancient and transformative. A pet is a little walking tornado of mysteries. What does she dream about? What is she trying to tell me? What does the world look like through her eyes? Who am I to her? These are not trivial questions.
Like Rome or Istanbul, the internet is absolutely swarming with cats. The 2007 meme “I CAN HAS CHEEZBURGER?” kicked off a generation of “Lolcats,” normalizing the use of pet pics as a tool for expressing simplified responses or emotions. Perhaps it is significant that it’s the cat that absorbed this function rather than the dog. In many ways, dogs are too human. They have less in common with their distant ancestor, the wolf, than the cat does with the wildcat; the cat has enough apparent “wildness” in it still to satisfy our desire for intimacy with “nature” without frightening us too much.
Content featuring undomesticated animals performs well on the internet, but pet content does even better. The most widespread memes aren’t of elephants, or snakes, or even pandas (the most beloved of undomesticated animals); they’re of cats and dogs. The pet is a Goldilocks zone. It has one foot in the instinctive and bodily world of the animal, and one foot in the socially conditioned world of the human. Pets often pop up on Twitter or Instagram as a “timeline cleanser,” a soft animal body to interrupt the doomscroll, counteracting the nastiness of the human world and of its crowning achievement, the internet. If the pet is an extension of human life, then the pet pic is — in a sense — a kind of flattering selfie, a Vaseline-smeared mirror, expressing the best, most innocently “animal” elements of humanity without the worst.
The pet cannot give consent and therefore we presume that none is required. Following Sianne Ngai’s definition of “the cute,” an aesthetic category, the pet expresses an appealing powerlessness, a body that is “soft, malleable, diminutive.” Crucially, the cute is shorthand for describing an object to others, rather than a means to process the subject for oneself. When I was a teenager, my mother used to burst into my bedroom in a panic, telling me to come downstairs urgently. Each time, I would assume something had caught fire or that one of my siblings had lost a finger, but each time she merely wanted to point out the family cat, who would have tucked himself into a drawer or would be lying in a particularly vulnerable position: belly-up, legs akimbo, arms folded over his stomach. “He’s being really cute right now.” Right now! Her determination that I not miss the moment stuck with me, and I adopted it as a habit of my own, the camera as my witness.
Pet pics are a way for strangers to bond with one another, a bond forged across a shared aesthetic judgment. A couple struggling to maintain a relationship will often adopt a pet in an effort to rediscover their connection. As a framework, though, cuteness is limited in what it can do to extend care. Cuteness creates community horizontally, across different observers. But it doesn’t operate vertically; it doesn’t transcend the species barrier.
For Akira Mizuta Lippit, as for John Berger, the emergence of contemporary imaging practices was bound up with the emergence of contemporary relations to animals. In his book Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife (2000), Lippit argues that contemporary technologies were forged to incorporate or resemble the animal they replaced (he gives as an example the insignia of a horse that commonly featured on the early steam engines that replaced horse power). For Lippit, technology widely — and film specifically — can be seen as “a massive mourning apparatus, summoned to incorporate a disappearing animal presence.” In other words, technology became a home for animals at a time when they were physically disappearing from the surrounding environment. Haunted by animals, our technologies even developed some animal traits (Lippit traces the origins of film back to Eadweard Muybridge’s fascination with animal movement, identifying a common etymological root between “animal” and “animate”).
For Lippit, animals in the contemporary world are ghosts, finding themselves most at home in the spectral media of photography and film. The animal “cannot die” and therefore lingers in the world undead. It cannot die because — here Lippit borrows from Berger — animals are not perceived as subjects with individuated identities. Every elephant is Elephant, every lion is Lion; when the animal body dies, the species continues. The living animal is therefore also perceived as a corpse. But where do pets fit into this argument? The pet is individuated. We view the cat as a specific cat, and not as a category. We don’t look at a cat and see its corpse.
It is the individuation of pets that most separates them from the wider world of “nature” as conceived within Western modernity. Corresponding to the atomization of society under neoliberalism, this individuation has become more pronounced as it has become more commodified — pets aren’t just individuals; they’re complete brands. “Consider your pet’s persona,” advises a guide to monetizing a pet’s online presence. Between 10 and 50 percent of pets in the UK have a social media profile (the most famous pet on Instagram, @jiffpom, has 9.5 million followers). The pets that crop up on Instagram are strangely placid. They sit in the bath while their bellies are massaged with toothbrushes. They are probably heavily sedated.
Insofar as the pet (and, by extension, the pet pic) gives us an insight into the consciousness of another species, and a glimpse of what interspecies friendship might look like, it can only be a good thing. Pet-keeping, though, isn’t a de facto ecological good. By some estimates, owning a medium-sized dog is as bad for the environment as owning an SUV. More nebulously, the very blinkered way in which we have learned to understand human-animal relationships through pet-keeping may prevent us from conceiving other arrangements with nonhuman species. “Pethood” is a specific lens, one that reveals more about us than it does about the inner lives of the animals we have domesticated.
When I was a child, images of puppies or kittens would arouse an almost painful feeling of longing in me, one heightened by the tragedy of the knowledge that I would never be able to tell them how much I loved them. It turns out this is a well-documented phenomenon called “cute aggression,” a response present to some extent in all of us, sometimes resulting in the desire to crush the cute object: to pop it, or squish it, or eat it — to possess the animal in a visceral, bodily way. According to neuroscientist Anna Brooks, the impulse results from “frustration about an over-the-top reaction that we can’t really act upon.” A prevailing theory is that the brain tries to counteract positive emotion with negative impulse. This feeling of frustration may go some way to describing why every time I experience a wave of love for my cat, I reach for my phone. Short of absorbing her entirely, the only response left to me is to relentlessly capture her image.
Today, I spend as much time looking at pet content as the next person (truthfully, probably more). I do not think people should stop keeping pets, nor that people should stop photographing them. But I do think we are missing other models of relating to animals, and that this sense of loss expresses itself as a fetishization of pets, whom we have created as an antidote to what Berger calls “the loneliness of man as a species.” For better or worse, this fetishization is — and always has been — enabled by photography.
Last week, my neighbors went on holiday, and Hildy came back to me. I know she’ll leave again the moment they get home. I watch her walking about the house and don’t know what to make of her, and it suddenly seems absurd to me that I ever did. Nonetheless, I continue to photograph her, sending some of these photos to the neighbors to assure them that she’s safe.
Lauren Collee is a PhD researcher at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Baffler, Real Life Magazine, The Rumpus, Another Gaze, The Chicago Review, and elsewhere.
LARB Quarterly cover art: Tishan Hsu, Fingerpainting 2, 1994. Silkscreen ink, acrylic on canvas, 69 x 69 inches. Photo: Stephen Faught. © 2022 Tishan Hsu / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.