More than 128 million people have watched “The Sneezing Baby Panda” on YouTube since it was uploaded five years ago, and that’s not counting the millions of additional views for spin-offs and remixes.
While the numbers point to a great interest in cuddly creatures on the screen, 16 seconds of virtual panda might not be able to replace the real thing.
“I think it’s sad that we think it’s OK for a TV or some inanimate object to take the place of a pet,” says Aileen White, communications director for the Winnipeg Humane Society (WHS).
“I’m not saying it doesn’t have its entertainment value, but would you say that watching videos or movies of children would take the place of a child if you really wanted one? It’s not the same.”
White needs to look no further for evidence of this fact than to the many examples of people who are forced to part with their pets.
“When there are people that have to move into residences that do not allow pets, or what particularly breaks my heart is when there are people moving into assisted living facilities,” White says. “They’re not allowed to bring their pet but they need a new place to live.”
“That pet is their closest companion, more so than a family member, and what it does to them is horrible,” she says.
The opposite is true as well. The connections and adoptions made through the WHS can be a great boost to the adopter’s well-being.
“They may not be saying that they are in a depression or that they are feeling lonely,” says White. “They may not use those phrases because that’s fairly intimate, but definitely there’s a reason why they’re called companion animals.”
“We know that some people come in and they want a companion,” she says.
White’s experience seems to agree with the dominant opinion among psychologists.
A paper published last year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology points to numerous physical as well as mental benefits to pet ownership that range from improved cardiovascular strength to increased self-esteem.
Unfortunately, the medical facts do not always translate into greater understanding.
“I think it’s a shame that some landlords make these decisions that pets are not allowed without looking at the impact from a well-being point of view,” White says. “For some who live on their own, or spend a great deal of time on their own, that is the closest living being to them.”
White also believes the relationship is mutual.
“If you’ve ever owned an animal you’d definitely understand how they’re on a complete schedule,” White says. “And then all of a sudden they’re in a shelter environment. It’s very upsetting (for the animal).”
White says that working or volunteering at the WHS is very rewarding, but not always easy.
“Some of our dogs have really difficult behaviour, and you wonder if they’re ever going to be rehabilitated enough to make it into adoptions. There are very big highs and very big lows to this world and this shelter life.”
Published in Volume 66, Number 18 of The Uniter (February 1, 2012)