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Can't Rent Me Love: One Woman's Battle Against Pet Fads

Humans are hardwired to go jelly-kneed around creatures with kinderschema—infant traits like big eyes, big head, and small body. Can we resist it?
(Illustration: Sebastien Thibault)

(Illustration: Sebastien Thibault)

One day I decided to foster a dog.

“Foster,” I told the animal shelter, “not adopt.”

Pets in Need, the shelter, usually didn’t foster out their animals. Possibly they saw fostering as a weakness of character, as a sign of someone unwilling to commit. This was true in my case, but I still feigned dismay at their rules, and they agreed to bend them. They thought they saw a human who might fall in love.

But I was no dummy when it came to human susceptibility to animal cuteness. I had two cats that milked this vulnerability, and I had fostered before: a beagle recently freed from a medical research lab (nicknamed a freegle). He’d lived with me for a month, during which time I became one of those new mothers who transmogrifies from a sensible person into someone who babbles baby talk.

People dumped their imitation Prada purses at Goodwill and their Chihuahuas at shelters, and now the Chihuahua, along with the pit bull, is one of the most euthanized breeds in the U.S.

Studies suggest that humans are hardwired to go jelly-kneed around creatures with kinderschema—infant traits like big eyes, big head, and small body; this is an evolved response that protects babies and thus the human race. Yet I inoculated myself against long-term attachment and successfully passed the freegle on to his forever family. Clearly, I could outwit biology.

I wanted to foster a medium size mutt; in my mind, a dog should be at least three times as big as a cat. Otherwise you should just get a cat. But the shelter only had small dogs and there was no telling when a larger one might come in. This screwed up my plan. Small dogs are strange: yappy, aggressive, and often shivering. They wear argyle sweaters, and tiny hats.

They are also abandoned in great numbers. Chihuahuas especially. The Taco Bell commercial featuring Gidget the Chihuahua is partly to blame. The Disney movie Beverly Hills Chihuahua— the third sequel came out in 2012—is also at fault. So is Paris Hilton. She dropped Chihuahuas into her Prada handbags as if they were lipstick, and people began to believe that, like lipstick, Chihuahuas didn’t need much care. Then Paris Hilton mania waned. People dumped their imitation Prada purses at Goodwill and their Chihuahuas at shelters across the country, and now the Chihuahua, along with the pit bull, is one of the most euthanized breeds in the U.S.

The shelter sent me a picture of my new foster. She had floppy ears. Her eyes were large and black and sad. She stared directly into the camera and back out at me, like a photo of an impoverished child sent by UNICEF.

She was definitely part Chihuahua; the other parts were unclear, but lemur and bat were possibilities, as was a smidgen of Susan Sontag, the feminist thinker and author. “Hello, Susansontag,” I said, naming her on the spot.

Susansontag had been dropped at the shelter six months earlier. Unfortunately, she was a black dog whose white-tinged face made her look old, and that was two strikes against her. Many shelters claim that black animals are the hardest to adopt out, a trend called Black Dog Syndrome: They’re considered bad luck, their features are hard to see, and they don’t photograph well. So Susansontag waited. She was bored and anxious. She licked her paws until the fur came off. Funny-looking feet—three strikes against her now.

This was a pitiful tale, but I had steeled my heart. It was going to take more than a UNICEF photo and a sob story to knock me down. I went to the pet store, bought a rubbery green bone, tennis balls, and a package of dried duck hearts, then left to pick up my foster.


Susansontag. (Illustration: Wendy MacNaughton)

Susansontag peered up at me, her kinderschema on bright display. Immediately my body began to dispense chemicals that raced through my system like town criers, screaming OMG! Cutest thing ever! These shouts went to various parts of my body, including my hands, which desperately wanted to rub her tummy, and my larynx, which awwed before I could intervene.

Steeled heart! I admonished myself.

With her tail pressed between her legs and her ears sagging, Susansontag walked with me to the car. She didn’t protest when I picked her up and placed her carefully on the doggie bed in the passenger seat. “There,” I said, and she looked at me with those puddles of eyes as if I had an axe in my hand. “It’s going to be fine,” I said. “I promise.”

Soon Susansontag began to follow me everywhere. She stared at me constantly. Even when she was sleeping, she seemed to keep one eye open, and if I moved her head jerked up immediately. If she had been human this would’ve been creepy. In a dog, it was adorable.

But when I sent videos and updates to my family, the word fostering featured prominently. Even after my mother phoned and said, “She looked so happy it made me cry,” and after my brother, an animal rights activist, emailed, “u send her back to the pound it will kill her spirit,” I held strong. I had armored myself against adopting a freegle. Surely I could do so against a freehuahua.

Then my partner, Wendy, took Susansontag on a walk without me. “She cried and cried for you,” Wendy said, “like a baby bird.” She handed me her phone and told me she’d recorded it. I turned it on and listened. The keening sounded so bereft I soon shut it off, but not before I secretly savored being loved and missed this much. Evolution had millennia to refine our susceptibility to cute, needy creatures. I was no match for it.

I told the shelter I wanted to adopt. I could almost see the knowing smile on the other end of the line. I imagined the high fives, the bets paid off, the general hilarity, the dogs barking in happy chorus knowing that one of their own had found a home. I imagined my name being added to the list headed “Humans Felled by a Dog.” I imagined the life I would have with my freehuahua, and the argyle sweaters she would wear.

This post originally appeared in the July/August 2014 print issue ofPacific Standardas “Can't Rent Me Love.” Subscribe to our bimonthly magazine for more coverage of the science of society.