I must begin this article with a confession: If it weren't for my fiancee, I never would have gotten so deep into the world of Instagram-famous pets.
To say that they give her joy is an understatement. Many restful slumbers have been disrupted by her random exclamations of unbridled happiness, followed by her pressing an iPhone against my face while cooing, "Look at the adorable dog!" or "Isn't this the most beautiful pig in the world?"
At first I affectionately teased her for her obsession, but then I began to dig a little deeper. What I soon learned — first from a trip to Canada last year to visit the famous Esther the Wonder Pig and then from my own research — is that animal social media stars are more than just cute pets. They are at the vanguard of a new way of viewing humanity's relationship with other species — one that has left a positive impact on the larger world.
"We raise awareness for the Toronto Humane Society and the Basset Hound Rescue of Ontario on our social media platforms through posts and live broadcasts," Nathan Sidon, who along with Carly Bright co-owns Dean the Basset, told Salon by email. Incidentally, Dean the Basset has over 400,000 followers across social media platforms.
"We also donate a significant portion of the account's profits to these charities (over $5,000 in the last 12 months)," Sidon adds. "It's hard to follow Dean's account and not see how much love, attention and care he's showered with daily.... It's my hope that our greatest contribution to this cause is by setting an example to all pet owners and anyone considering getting a pet of how to be the best pet-owner you can be."
According to Sidon, he and Bright believe that "pets are a privilege and that animals in your care should be made a top priority." He added, though, that "in our case we've gone so far that whether or not we've become Dean's slaves is a legitimate question. I think this really shines through on Dean's account. He's calling the shots!"
Salon also emailed Gemma Gené, whose social media presence includes not only pictures of her beloved pug Mochi, but also a comic series that colorfully depicts his ebullient personality.
"I was working as an architect in my first big job in New York," Gené recalled when asked about how she met Mochi. "It was my dream job at the time but unfortunately the hours were crazy. I used to finish work at night every day and I had to work most weekends. I missed my dog Mochi so much during work. I always liked comics and used comic as a journal. I started drawing little stories about Mochi on my subway commutes. I posted them on Instagram and eventually they become big enough that I was able to focus on my art work."
Now she says that she has 250,000 followers on Instagram, over 50,000 on Facebook and over a 100,000 visits every day.
"We have participated in several campaigns," Gené told Salon when asked about her animal rights work. "We were part of Susie’s Senior Dogs and Foster dogs NYC #famousfosters campaign where they pair people who have big audiences with a senior dog to foster. This is a great way to show how important fostering is. We fostered a little senior that we renamed Dorito and was adopted after a very few days."
Gené says that she donates her artwork to raise money for dog rescues — including pug rescues.
"A cause that is very dear to our hearts is the 'Animals are not property' petition the Animal Legal Defense Fund is working on," Gené explained. "We try to use our influence to share this message to help change the laws on animals so they stop being considered an object and start having rights."
"A big part of our work presents Mochi as a little character with a big personality, much closer to a human than what most people think of dogs. We are trying to show the world that animals are much more than objects and that have many more similarities to us than what we think," she adds.
Salon also reached out to Steve Jenkins, who, along with Derek Walter, co-owns Esther the Wonder Pig. They told Salon that their various social media pages have roughly 2,000,000 followers and garner around 450,000 interactions every week.
"Esther was supposed to be a mini-pig, we never had any intention of anything else," Jenkins wrote to Salon. "By the time we realized Esther wasn't what we thought she was, and that she would in fact be many hundreds of pounds, we had fallen in love with her and weren't willing to give up. Technically having a family member like Esther was illegal where we lived, so we kept it quiet and opted to make a 'little Facebook page' to show our more removed friends and family what was happening. The page went viral somehow, and all of a sudden we had thousands of people checking in every day to see what she was up to."
Their ownership of Esther soon caused them to become full-time animal rights activists, eventually purchasing a farm where they keep pigs, dogs, turkeys, horses and at least one (literally) strutting peacock.
"We have been able to establish the Happily Ever Esther Farm Sanctuary, where we rescue abused and abandoned farm animals," Jenkins explained. "We donated the largest CT scanner in the world to our local veterinary hospital. Until then, the didn't have equipment large enough to properly get proper diagnostic images for an animal Esther’s size. We also established a fund called 'Esther Shares' that we use to pay the medical bills for other sanctuaries and rescue organization. Last but not least, we use our pages to help people build a relationship with Esther, something that can have a deep and lasting impact on the person's life because of their newfound love and respect for pigs."
Jenkins, like Gené and Sidon, also told Salon that he began to reevaluate how human beings view their relationship with animals.
"We think everybody has a connection with animals, but we learn over time to love some animals differently than others," Jenkins explained. "Esther really leveled that playing field in our mind, and elevated farm animals to the position we previously reserved for companion animals like cats and dogs. She ignited a passion within us that we didn't know we had. It became a mission of our to help others see Esther the way did, and to bring her larger than life personality across in a way that people could relate to."
These arguments are what makes the social media movements so powerful — and why, I suspect, my fiancee is so enamored with them. It is easy to objectify animals, to view them as vessels for whatever immediate function they can provide human beings (food, clothing, recreation). Yet by presenting their animals online as hilarious personalities, with quirks and stories of their own worth following, these sites help us see animals as more than just tools of human beings. They become individuals — and, like all individuals, worthy of not just affection, but respect.
Gené, Jenkins and Sidon also had heartwarming stories about how their social media work had improved the lives of the two-legged animals who visit them.
"Through photos and videos requested by fans, Dean has helped a teenager ask a girl to prom, surprised a bride on her wedding day, been the theme of a 90 year old woman's [birthday] party, and the list goes on," Sidon told Salon. "We've also received hundreds of very personal messages from fans around the world telling us that Dean's account has provided them with a much needed daily dose of positivity that's helped them when they're going through difficult times in their life. Suffice to say that Dean gets a lot of love from around the world and he hopes to give the love back!"
Jenkins had a similar story about Esther.
"My favorite message ever came from a young mother in the southern United States," Jenkins recalled. "She was having a rough time emotionally, and found Esther’s page was becoming a bit of a crutch for her. She would check every day to see what we were up to, and engage with our posts as a way to take her mind off stuff. One day she sent a message to let us know that we had been the source of most of her smiles lately. She wanted to thank us for helping keep a positive attitude, and for helping her show her two small boys that it was ok to have two dads [Jenkins is in a same-sex relationship with Walter] and a turkey for a brother. A family is a family no matter what it looks like, and I still well up when I think about her message."
Gené discussed how lucky she is to "have a very loving audience," telling Salon that "we get hundreds of messages a day telling us the impact our comic has on people and they really fuel us to keep going. Some of them particularly warm my heart like when people say that our comics make them smile when they are going through a difficult time, or when they bring back sweet memories of an animal they loved that passed away."
She added, "If one day we don’t post anything, we get messages of people checking up on us. That made us realize we have a community that look forward to our posts daily."
I should add, on a final personal note, that I do not write this article from a position of presumed moral superiority. Despite vowing to eliminate my meat consumption since I visited the Esther farm last year, I have only been able to somewhat reduce it, and aside from writing pieces like this I can't claim to have done very much to advance the cause of animal rights in my own life. Sometimes I suspect the plaque which clogs my arteries is karmic, a punishment for sustaining my own life at the expense of those animals who have given theirs, and one that will likely shorten my own time in this world.
The goal here is not to shame those who eat meat, or search for a firm distinction between companion animals and farm animals. The point is that social media's animals stars have made more people think of animals as individuals — to start to see them as living souls. That isn't enough to solve the problems facing our world today, but it's the only place where we can start.