Ginger Strand writes for Orion Magazine on the modern day pet industry at Global Pet Expo 2007:
As you glide down over central Florida into Orlando International Airport, the Earth glitters up at you as if strewn with diamonds. The lush, landscaped grounds of the airport are ringed, like much of the Sunshine State, with a circlet of man-made lakes.“All this was once swamp,” the driver of the Mears private van—Florida’s idea of mass transit—tells me. We pass a sign for Boggy Creek Road. “They built canals and retention ponds to drain it and built the airport on top.” We pass a rectangular lake crisscrossed with overhead tracks from which cables tow waterskiers in mechanized circuits. We pass a billboard announcing Shamu’s All-New Show. Traffic slows to a crawl because this is the highway to Disneyland, and the driver switches to unfurling a fairly comprehensive, if unattributed, recap of An Inconvenient Truth. I’m trying to look involved, but I’m eavesdropping on two people behind me who are discussing the Zone Diet for dogs. By the time the driver gets to Florida’s disappearance under rising sea levels—an outcome I can’t bring myself to regret just at this moment—the folks in the back have switched to discussing hip replacement surgery for dogs.
There are two conventions at the Orange County Convention Center this week. One is a whirlpool spa exhibition. The other, the one we are headed to, is Global Pet Expo 2007, an annual trade show sponsored by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA). Here, the makers of food, supplies, vitamins, toys, services, and furniture—yes, furniture—for pets put their wares on display in the hopes that the five-thousand-plus buyers attending will adopt them for their stores.
The U.S. pet industry is booming. The trade-show press conference unleashes the new stats: 63 percent of American households now include a companion animal, a number steadily on the rise. This year, for the first time, Americans are expected to shell out over $40 billion on pets and associated costs, more than double what they spent in 1994. Nothing—not September 11, not recession, not war in Iraq or rising seas lapping at the convention center gates—seems likely to hinder this cash-flow juggernaut. As Bob Vetere, president of the APPMA, puts it, “This industry is unbelievable.”
On my exploratory pass on the exhibit floor, the first booth to catch my eye is a dais decked out like a Roman arena. Corinthian columns are flanked by large flat-screen monitors playing the film Gladiator. The product on display is called Pork Chomps. Before obelisks of digestible pork skins, Russell Crowe gravely salutes the emperor.
Ancient Roman decadence feels oddly appropriate here. With more than twenty-one hundred booths, this is, as the organizers keep declaring with glee, the largest Pet Expo yet in North America. Sprawling across the square-footage of thirteen football fields is an unbelievable assortment of goods only the most affluent society would consider lavishing on animals: designer clothes, jewel-studded collars, high-end pet strollers. Elaborate, if not actually gilded, cages are everywhere. You can buy a mahogany canopy bed for your cat, hang your fish in a framed, wall-mounted aquarium, and dress your dog in fashionable duds—whether your taste runs to hip-hop or haute couture.
It’s hard not to think of Thorstein Veblen, the political economist whose groundbreaking 1899 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, skewered society for its addiction to what he named “conspicuous consumption.” Pets, declared Veblen, were of the class of commodities valued not for real worth but for “honorific” value. Once considered tools for hunting, pest control, and transport, animals had become expensive and useless. Like landscaping and trophy wives, they were nothing more than status symbols.
If Veblen were around today, he wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Burberry and Snoop Dogg have pet clothing lines—which he could read about, as I did, in the trade magazine Pet Style News. (Other canine couture trends for spring: mix-and-match, alligator leather, and animal prints.) Nor would he wonder at pet sunglasses, custom oil-paintings of pets, pet jewelry, or the company called Cain and Able that offers dog spa products: shampoos, soaps, “Paw Rub,” and aromatherapy candles. Their brochure shows a white-robed yellow Lab contemplating a rose-petal-strewn whirlpool tub with patrician calm. A plate of cheese and doggie biscuits and a glass of white wine perch at its edge. Okay, I find myself thinking, cheese, biscuits, robe. But the wine glass? How’s he getting his snout in that?
The notion of conspicuous consumption seems less apt when it comes to pet Advent calendars or edible greeting cards (“The pet can eat it when he’s done,” exclaims Bob Vetere, raising the question, Done what?). Not to mention the scads of products that are less status-seeking than simply upscale: organic foods, wild Alaskan salmon-oil supplements, heated beds, and pet car-seats. These items seem less about showing off than improving pets’ lives. According to the APPMA‘s 2007 survey of pet owners, pets are being treated better all the time. Few live outdoors anymore, almost none are fed on table scraps, and most get elaborate medical and dental care. Even major medical procedures once reserved for humans—chemotherapy, organ transplants—are increasingly performed on pets. Pet insurance is on the rise to cover the costs.
Veblen might be right that we give the dog a designer bone to keep up with the Joneses. But when we give the dog a kidney transplant, surely there are deeper longings involved.