Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, I have asked one question more than any other. It’s come up time and again, day and night, as frequently in my postvaccination spring and summer as it did in the dark moments of the pandemic’s first wave: Are you my booboo?
The question is never answered by Midge, my agoraphobic chihuahua, but the answer is obvious. She’s been my booboo since 2018, when I brought her home from a cat shelter, where she had been stashed by a Long Island dog rescue after her foster family gave her back—she didn’t like them, or anyone, and cats aren’t looking for new friends. At 12 pounds, she is twice as big as the most desirable chihuahuas, and she has a moderately bad personality, which is maybe why the puppy mill where she spent the first year of her life decided it didn’t want any more of her robust and extremely rude babies. Now almost 5 years old, she has grown to tolerate me. I ask her questions she doesn’t answer—if she’s my booboo (yes), if she’s a big girl (relatively speaking), if she has a kibble tummy (a little bit).
Since last March, Midge and I have been testing the bounds of what it means to live in my very small apartment together. In many ways, she’s been a perfect pandemic pal: She hates interacting with others; she loves to sit on the couch; she long ago assessed sneezes as an existential threat. Whether she was sitting on a blanket in the kitchen while I cooked, frowning at me from a safe distance while I did yoga, or watching me do chores from beneath the leaves of her favorite enormous tropical houseplant, she bore witness to a year I spent otherwise alone. Every day, she climbed up the back of the couch to snooze atop its rear cushions, her face pointed toward mine at eye level while I worked at the kitchen table.
In a year when time felt slippery, Midge kept track of it— waking me up for breakfast, waging a nightly campaign for dinner, huffing and snorting and pacing until I got up from work to play fetch with her stuffed crocodile for a few minutes. Many days, she was the only living thing I spoke to, and the only one I touched. She tolerated most of my hugs, and once, when I was in the depths of late-winter depression, she let me pick her up and hold her tiny, warm chest to my forehead for a few seconds. Her big brown eyes look dismayed and embarrassed after these displays of affection, which is usually enough to make me laugh. I tell her she’s a good girl and try not to think about how much worse the past year would have been without her.
Or, for that matter, the past three years. The 2020 pet adoption surge was sharp: Shelters emptied and rescue groups ran out of dogs as the work-from-home set welcomed new companions for themselves and their kids. Among adults under 40, who accounted for the majority of pet adoptions, the pandemic-era spike in demand was anomalous in its intensity, not its trajectory. Millennials recently overtook Boomers as the largest pet-owning cohort of Americans; by some estimates, more than half of them have a dog. The pet- ownership rate is even higher among those with a college education and a stable income—the same people who are most likely to delay marriage, parenthood, and homeownership beyond the timelines set by previous generations. Dogs, long practical partners in rural life or playmates for affluent children, have become a life stage unto themselves.
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