Late last week, Ms. Palin, the former Alaska governor whose m.o. includes shooting large guns at large animals while sporting a large smile, posted a few pictures to her Facebook page that she apparently found sweet rather than horrifying. They are of her 6-year-old son, Trig, standing on the family dog, Jill, step-ladder-style, so he can help Mama Grizzly do the dishes.
Her message: "May 2015 see stumbling block turned into a stepping stone on the path forward."
PETA, on the other hand, tilted toward horrified.
“It’s odd that anyone – let alone a mother – would find it appropriate to post such a thing, with no apparent sympathy for the dog in the photo,” PETA President Ingrid Newkirk said in a statement to Politico.
In all fairness, Jill doesn't appear to mind all that much being Trig's stumbling block. She is the trained service dog for Trig, who has been diagnosed with Down syndrome, after all. And the young boy hasn't exactly got a linebacker's build.
For a family that loves their dog (as the Palins appear to) it's easy to see how the moment might seem a snapshot of domestic harmony – the precocious young boy and his dutifully patient dog.
To others, however, none of the cuddly family optics should becloud the fact that people – no matter how cute they are – should not use their pets as step ladders.
Between these two points lies the evolving debate about how American society should view and treat pets.
This is not Michael Vick running a dog fighting ring; the photos are not bound to create universal shock. But PETA's reaction speaks to an accelerating movement among animal-rights activists to win for some animals basic "human" rights.
A 2003 Gallup poll suggests that only a quarter of respondents agreed that animals deserve the same rights as people, but the past 10 years have seen activists work hard to establish a legal ground for that position. Though both lawsuits failed, PETA and the Nonhuman Rights Project have sued on behalf of orcas and chimpanzees, respectively, during the past two years, claiming that their captivity amounted to enslavement. During that same period, the documentary "Blackfish" spurred conversation nationally about orca captivity at SeaWorld.
The ultimatum of the movement, perhaps, would be dogs suing Sarah Palin (with help from PETA) for standing on them. But for now, the question is one of public values, with PETA marking out a position that might resonate with an increasing number of Americans.
Surveys by marketing company Mintel have found that 72 percent of American pet owners consider their pets "part of the family" while 79 percent say the quality of their pets' food is as important as their own food.
"We see the continued humanization of pets, people treating their pets like family," said David Lenhardt, president and chief executive of PetsMart, in an earnings call in November. PetSmart's $8.7 billion private-equity buyout last year was the largest of its kind in the US in 2014.
Where the line between "family member" and "acceptable furry step ladder" should be drawn is a question for each family.
For Palin, the Iditarod sled race – in which dogs haul humans and their gear 1,049 miles across the Alaskan bush – is the ideal of man and animal in natural concord. It is not enslavement, but remarkable example of mutual effort spanning species.
By that reckoning, Jill helping Trig clean the dishes is feat less remarkable but more adorable.
For PETA, it is the anachronism of arrogance, the dominion of humans literally keeping animals underfoot.
In the end, perhaps it is just a bit of personal axe-grinding. Palin noted that PETA said nothing when its 2009 Woman of the Year, Ellen DeGeneres, published a photo of a child standing on his dog.
Indeed, PETA and Palin have a less-than-cordial history.
But the trend lines in society suggest that Palin's simple photos have at least tweaked a chord in a changing society.