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We can’t be that bad off.

Yeah, I know. The economy is the worst it’s been in my lifetime (55 years and counting). We’re flailing away in Afghanistan, the longest war in American history. Public education, with its overemphasis on testing and “measurable results” – “What’s our ranking?” – is regressing. A year after winning the World Series, the Giants didn’t even make the playoffs. And there may not even be an NBA season.

Despite all that, America has Petco and Petsmart. The fact that these gargantuan pet stores are thriving is a testament to something, but I’m not sure what. Or whether or not it’s good.

If the people of Montegrande, Nicaragua, the rural mountain community where I worked last summer, could be teleported to Petco, they’d be flabbergasted. I mean, most of Nicaragua doesn’t have stores that big for people. So, they’d be dumbfounded that a building that massive could be built for pets.

People in places like Montegrande are too caught up with trying to feed, clothe and entertain their children (and themselves) to worry about feeding, clothing and entertaining their dogs. “Heart-healthy” gourmet pet food? Diet pet food? You’re kidding, right?

While in Nicaragua, I had a conversation with Josh, one of the Los Altos High students working there with me, about what we thought were sorry looking animals. The cats and dogs were so thin, we weren’t sure if some of them were cats and dogs. The horses looked emaciated. Even the cows seemed shriveled and gaunt. And no wonder. Nobody there buys pet food. If animals are fed at all, they get leftover scraps. Usually, they fend for themselves.

But then we realized we were comparing Nicaragua animals with American animals. We figured that, around the world, a typical cat, dog, horse or cow probably looks a lot more like the Nicaraguan ones than the American ones. Ours are atypical. It’s not that theirs are skinny; ours are fat.

America is the exception. Despite it all, our worst is better than most places’ best. Petco and Petsmart are proof. As long as we’re well enough off to keep big box pet stores in business, we can’t be hurting that bad. It may seem like it, but come on! We feed our pets more food than millions of parents can feed their children. As long as the massive pet store chains are in business, I’m not worrying that the apocalypse is upon us.

On the other hand, is our pet excess a source of pride or embarrassment? Maybe it’s both. The rational side of me says, “Stop it!” Stop spending scarce dollars on pet food and pet toys when a billion kids wake up hungry and have never owned a store-bought toy.

But the animal loving side of me says, “Why not?” There’s nothing like the love I learned to feel for our precious puppy. Her heart is so pure. Her character is so perfect. Why not do everything I can to make her life as comfortable and wonderful as possible? And if pet store owners and investors are getting rich off that love, so what?

They're filling a need.

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