Thursday, May 22, 2014

What Makes a Family?

Clearly, at least in the wealthy countries of the industrialized and post-industrialized world, our pets are our family. For millions of people today, we dote on our companion animals, buying them the best food, toys, and beds (when they are not sleeping in ours), taking them on vacations, and including them in our family photos.

Fighting over catnip sprouts. by Jason Houge
But what about feral cats?

The very definition of feral--from the Latin fera, meaning "wild beast"--suggests that they are clearly not members of the family. These domesticated (but not tame) cats, who live around the periphery of human societies, are viewed as pests, disease hosts, wildlife killers, and worse by most observers. They are subject to a wide variety of control and eradication policies around the world, up to and including killing them, although in the United States, it is still illegal to intentionally kill a cat, even if feral. But that doesn't mean that it isn't done.

Diane ran past some visitors who came to see the kittens. By Jason Houge
Still, many animal lovers care for the cats in feral cat colonies, feeding them, and catching them in order to have them spayed and neutered or given medical care. 

But one man, photographer Jason Houge, who shares his rural property with a colony of feral cats in Green Bay, Wisconsin, takes "family photographs" of them as well.

His lovely, and often intimate photos of the many cats on his property, all of whom he cares for, makes them feel as if they are truly part of his family. This is so different from the way that feral cats are usually seen; to borrow a phrase from anthropologist Mary Douglas, they are "matter out of place"  (1966).

Like dirt, to which Douglas was referring, they are not just dirty, but they literally don't fit into our conceptual categories; they are not cute and cuddly, you cannot hold them--they are not PETS. Like pigeons, another culturally problematic animal, they are hated.

Family Portrait: Ernie, Mumma and their 9 kittens. By Jason Houge
But Houge doesn't just not hate them, and he doesn't just care for them. His photos almost re-domesticate them, making us remember what makes us love cats in the first place, and want to bring them into our families in the first place--their playfulness, their lovingness, and yes, a bit of their wildness too.

This last photo he's titled "Family Portrait," and it includes the entire kitty family.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Human Like Me

While pet portraits seem to be everywhere we turn, they aren’t a recent phenomenon, in fact, one of the earliest animal portraits date back to 15,000 BC where bison and other animal paintings were carved in Lascaux caves in France.

In contemporary time, thanks to social media outlets like Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube, pet portraits circulate through society like lightening. Within a few seconds a proud pet parent can snap a picture of their beloved pooch with their mobile phone and upload it to several social media outlets for friends and family to enjoy. Sometimes those portraits or videos go viral and become a cult favorite like The Disapproving Rabbits, Colonel Meow (Colonel Meow recently passed away this past January, RIP), or I am sure everyone’s favorite, Talking Dog. In addition to pet portraits floating around the Internet, many have framed pictures at home and at work to celebrate their love for their pet. In fact, here’s the picture I have on my work desk.


So what makes us want to watch hours of cat videos or why do we have more pictures of Fido on our phone than of friends or our Mom? What makes us say “oh how cute!” when the neighbor shows us the latest picture of her bunny? What is the unspoken connection that we have with our pets that we can’t quite put our finger on?

Could it be anthropomorphism? Do we project human emotions onto our cherished pets? Do our pets really feel guilt, loneliness, or jealousy? Photographer Maija Astikainen is exploring this exact possibility through her portrait series, One-Dog Policy which started in 2010 and is an ongoing project. 

When you scroll through the portraits, ask yourself what emotions you see upon these pups’ faces. Do you see a Bulldog lamenting his upcoming bath? Do you see a depressed Greyhound on the sofa yearning for her pet parent to return home? Do you see a guilty dog peering from behind a white dining table; did he eat the baked chicken that was sitting there minutes ago?

Regardless if you see the same emotions as I did in these portraits or believe that's its only anthropomorphism, you cannot deny that there is a powerful bond between people and their pets, one that is almost magical and certainly timeless.

To see Maija Astikainen’s portrait series- click here and feel free to comment on your thoughts below.