Washington — Here's a sad story with a bizarre twist: Last year, a 6-year-old girl was accidentally strangled to death by her family pet, a golden retriever. Such animals are usually euthanized, but in this case, the dog was treated to an all-expenses paid trip to an animal center in California.
There, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, "a team of pet advocates saw to the dog's every need: Behaviorists assessed its personality, a doggie foster family took the animal home at night to ease its feelings of loss, and more than 250 people applied to adopt the dog."
Why did the parents show so much mercy for the animal that killed their daughter? Apparently, said the center's public relations manager, they "did not want to lose another one of their children."
It's but one (extreme) example of a disturbing trend in America: care for pets is exceeding normal affection and treading into the realm of exaltation. We're treating animals as humans, and in some cases preferring pets to people. But an excess of affection per se isn't the problem – it's the lopsided moral framework that it reveals.
In the United States, 63 percent of households include a pet (up 7 percent since 1988), and pet lovers spent $38.5 billion on their pets in 2006 (up from $21 billion a decade earlier). Americans now spend several billion dollars more on dog and cat food than they do on baby food. And the pet healthcare industry is booming.
So, what's behind the increased affinity for animals?
It's partly due to the growing share of people choosing pets over children.
Census Bureau data reveal that the proportion of childless women 15 to 44 years old reached an all-time high of 45 percent in 2004. Moreover, he National Center of Health Statistics confirms that the percentage of women who choose to be "child-free" has swelled 160 percent in a generation.
Both singles and couples without children are more likely to own pets and are significantly more likely to develop strong, even parental bonds with them. In San Francisco, pet owners – "pet guardians" according to city ordinance – outnumber children nearly 2 to 1.
Standard reasons for choosing pets over people include the rising costs of raising children, and careers and social standing taking precedence over family life.
But there's another explanation: the perception that animals are nicer and more enjoyable than, and even morally superior to, humans. More people are forgoing children because they feel it just doesn't seem right to bring a child into a world with so much man-made suffering, a world where, to borrow from poet Robert Burns, man's inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn.
It's a rather cynical view, but with recent tragic news headlines such as the Virginia Tech massacre, perhaps it's not surprising that more people prefer the company of animals. But our love affair with animals may be getting out of hand.
A 2003 survey found that nearly as many Britons (33 percent) agreed that "the English love their dogs more than their children" as vice versa (40 percent). In America, a recently passed law criminalizing the mistreatment of animals enjoyed bipartisan support, while legislation giving women the opportunity to reduce the pain to their child during an abortion failed to become law. A March Fox News poll found 46 percent of respondents think pet poisoning is just as serious or even more serious than poisoning a person.
But valuing pets over people discounts one fact: While animals make great companions, offer health benefits, and can be a source of endearing affection (as Aldous Huxley said, "To his dog, every man is Napoleon; hence the constant popularity of dogs."), they live in a different moral universe than man.
Human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. And though capable of monstrous acts, human beings also have the ability – unique in creation – to demonstrate heroic forgiveness and compassion. Witness Holocaust survivor and professor Liviu Librescu, who heroically gave his life during the Virginia Tech shootings. Witness, too, the tremendous outpouring of sympathy for the loved ones of those killed.
Some of those most deeply affected by the shootings even extended the hand of forgiveness to the killer. Clearly, even in the face of brutality, man – when he appeals, as Lincoln admonished, to the better angels of his nature – is capable of exhibiting a humanity toward his fellow man that should make countless thousands rejoice.
• Former presidential candidate Gary Bauer is the proud father of three children and the owner of a 9-year-old yellow Labrador, McKenzie.