debbie millman

Wednesday, March 07, 2007


My life has been book-ended with a nearly fetishistic love of animals.

For most of my early years, I didn’t own any pets; neither of my parents were “pet people” and as a result I never understood where my passion for domesticated animals originated. The only pet I ever had growing up was a frog dad found late one August evening while I was spending the summer in a Catskills sleep away camp. My brother and I insisted on keeping the frog through the fall, and we ingeniously named our new amphibian friend Jumpy. Together we decorated a big fish tank with twigs and leaves and pine combs. In order to feed the frog, my parents were forced to scour the neighborhood searching for bugs, but they had to do this alone as I was too squeamish to help them and my brother was too little. Invariably, when they found some living insects to feed the famished frog, I became distressed by the concept of killing the woebegone bugs and cried when the frog snapped up its prey in one fell swoop. Needless to say, Jumpy lived with us only a few short weeks. One day I came home from school and his tank was empty. Mom and Dad told me they had taken him to the park and set him free to live in what was described to me as a frog paradise. As revenge to my unreasonable parents, I begged them for a dog. They said no. Then I demanded a cat, and again I was refused. No one could understand why and where my passion for house pets came from and my perplexed parents tried to make it up to me by presenting me with a glass poodle with pink fur dad won at the annual Jewish Community carnival. They named the dog Suzie; I assumed it was because my middle name is Susan and as bizarrely cute as the glass poodle with pink fur was, I was nevertheless inconsolable.

I didn’t have the impetus to get another pet until five years ago, when I took in a gray tabby I call Rothko. Rothko is a magical feline. Shortly after he came to live with me, I began to feel guilty leaving him all alone when I went to work, and convinced he was lonely, I adopted a companion cat. Lucy hated both of us the moment she arrived, though I didn’t have the heart or the nerve to send her away. She has terrorized us both ever since. By the following year my furry family had grown four fold: I adopted two dogs as well: Scruffy joined us when I was suffering a depression and thought a dog could mend a broken heart (which it can, by the way) and Duff when she was abandoned at my dog walker’s home. It was at that point that my bewildered friends demanded I stop before I ended up a weird, middle-aged woman with no one to talk to but a vet. This was further compounded by the subsequent demise of the relationship I was in, as my then paramour demanded that the pets sleep no where near the bed, told me I had an unhealthy affinity for the furry four and insisted that I choose: him or them. Since I believe how a person treats animals is testament to who they are as people, I chose to keep my family intact, as heartbreaking as it seemed at the time.

According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association 63% of U.S. households currently own a pet. In fact, this country is now producing more pets than people. In 2006, $38.4 billion was spent on our furry friends, up from $36 billion the year before. More and more companies traditionally know for human products are now expanding into pet fare. Companies including Omaha Steaks, Origins, Harley Davidson and Old Navy are now offering lines of products ranging from dog shampoo, pet attire and gourmet treats. Hotels across the country are adopting new pet friendly services including oversized pet pillows, plush doggie robes, check-in gift packages, and a turn down treat. Some hotels even have a licensed dog masseuse on staff.

According to Steve Dale’s Pet Central, animals are now members of the family, so it should come as no surprise that 54% of dogs and 43% of cats receive Christmas gifts. 65% of all dogs sleep anywhere they downright please, including sharing the bed with their owners. And noted cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken recently wrote a piece on his popular blog about a survey stating that 94% of owners believe their pets have human-like personality traits, 45% prefer talking to their pets compared to 30% preferring conversation with their spouse, and 56% surveyed admitted to very likely risking their own life for that of their pet.

So what is going on here? K.C. Cole, the director of UCLA's People-Animal Connection, has reviewed studies of the human-animal bond and is convinced there are many social, psychological, and physiological benefits. Her research reveals that when asked to perform a stressful math equation, pet owners showed less stress in the company of their pets than in the company of friends. Other studies have found that owning a pet relieves depression and reduces blood pressure. Cole believes that animals contribute to raising self-esteem and significantly lower anxiety levels, and most impressively, she states that heart attack patients with pet companions survive longer than those without.

Not long ago, I found the origin to my obsession with pets. While cleaning out my storage space on 11th Avenue, I came across an old wobbley box labeled ‘linens’ in my grandmother’s handwriting. I gingerly opened it up and saw a ramshackle stack of old sheets and pillowcases and shrieked at the fabulously outdated patterns. As I pored through the pile, I came upon a plastic storage bag containing some yellowed pillowcases. As I unzipped the bag, I realized what was in front of me: my first childhood pillowcases. The front featured a little girl with freckles and pigtails lying in a big fluffy bed surrounded by a dog, a cat, a turtle, a pig, and a bird under the comic sans-like headline “Friends You Can Count On.” The back featured a counting poem that read “One is for Suzie all curled up in bed, two is the bunny asleep on her head.” The pillowcases had been repaired many times, holes sewn up, ends frayed bare, and they were dotted with makeshift patches. Here was my whole life. I felt as if I was looking at a science project. And as I fingered the linen cases, I realized I was. Cats, dogs, frogs, pillowcases, people. Here, right in front of me was the lineage of my heart. Here was the evidence--and the effect--of love on a pillowcase.


Blogger terra studio said...

annnd another commonality for us :)

i only have 2 cats because 1. i fear i am swiftly becoming the cat lady before my time and 2. it's not fair to get a dog that i can't often be home for, and can't probably take everywhere either. i have enormous, long-suffering allergies to animals and i suffer through because i can't imagine ever not having animals around.

i agree, you can often judge people by how they treat animals. one of the top ten signs for telling if you're in an abusive relationship is whether he (or she) abuses the family pet. funny, that. such a simple barometer and works every time.

xox eb

3/07/2007 12:50:00 PM  
Blogger MCALDWELLC said...

My ex and I had 6 cats, 3 dogs and 2 birds. I wanted a horse to complete the menagerie. I now have 2 dogs and 2 cats and I cannot imagine life without these amazing creatures. They are truly a source of absolute, pure love and I would probably risk my own life to save theirs.

3/09/2007 11:31:00 AM  

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Location: new york city, United States

Debbie Millman has worked in the design business for over 25 years. She is President of the design division at Sterling Brands. She has been there for nearly 15 years and in that time she has worked on the redesign of global brands for Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, Campbell’s, Colgate, Nestle and Hasbro. Prior to Sterling, she was a Senior Vice President at Interbrand and a Marketing Director at Frankfurt Balkind. Debbie is President of the AIGA, the largest professional association for design. She is a contributing editor at Print Magazine, a design writer at and Brand New and Chair of the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. In 2005, she began hosting the first weekly radio talk show about design on the Internet. The show is titled “Design Matters with Debbie Millman” and it is now featured on In addition to “Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design,” (HOW Books, 2009, she is the author of "How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer" (Allworth Press, 2007) and “The Essential Principles of Graphic Design” (Rotovision, 2008).

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