Black Joy

Black people and their pets: the deeper meaning behind your favorite Instagram trend

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If you’re like me, you have at least one or two friends who you communicate with on social media exclusively through pet videos.

Watching people, especially Black people, interact with their pets might be the best genre of content on the internet. And clearly, I’m not alone in the feeling as there is an entire social media page dedicated to Black People and Pets.

Because I have spent hours watching videos of Black men cuddling with kittens, and pet (grand)parents fuss at their fur babies for acting up, I have been thinking a lot about the emotional benefits pets serve in the lives of Black folks.

A quick Google search is evidence of how grossly underrepresented we are among emotional support and service animal owners. But the truth is, whether our pets are officially registered or not, they are saving us.

Learning myself through my cat

Cats might have one of the most controversial reputations among all domesticated animals. I mean, they can be rather spicy, moody and flat out rude. But I think that cats are also misunderstood.

Jay Wainaina, a 27-year-old pet parent from Seattle, might agree.

When making the decision to get a cat, Wainaina was very intentional about getting one that aligned with their lifestyle and needs. Contrary to popular tropes about cats, they are not a monolith.

“When I was looking for a pet, I knew I didn’t want a kitten cause I’m not out here trying to raise no babies and kittens are really, really hyper. And so, I knew I wanted a cat that was at least a year or two old. I got [Mabel] when she was about three years [old]. And I also wanted something that was like, very cuddly.”

It must’ve been fate that while scrolling through the shelter profiles, Wainaina came across Mabel who was nearly a perfect match. And this match would serve a really important purpose in Wainaina’s life.

Like so many of us, Wainaina struggles with asserting their boundaries. It has been a recurring theme in her therapy journey. However, it’s Mabel who’s shown she deserves to feel safe and heard.

“Witnessing Mabel who’s an animal [that doesn’t] speak no human words, but she’s so good about her boundaries. She’s very clear when she wants love and pets. She’s really good about nudging my hand and asking for pets. But once she’s done, she’s done. She’s like, ‘Alright, I’ve gotten all that I need from this moment.’ If I try to impose cuddles, she’d be like, ‘Nah, I don’t want this anymore.’”

For those of us who struggle with enforcing our boundaries, it is often about not wanting to offend people. We don’t want to be judged or labeled as rude. This might be one of the reasons cats are often seen as mean or having an attitude. But maybe we can learn something from them about being completely unbothered by other people’s insistence on overstepping their boundaries.

For Wainaina, Mabel has been just that. And it has greatly improved their overall quality of life.

“The more that I honor my needs [and] I honor myself, the happier I’ve been noticing myself be. And I can say a lot of that has been just from witnessing Mabel take up space and do her thing.”

“The love of my pups saved me”

For the past few months, I have been fostering my friend’s cat, Roxy. As much as I hate to admit it, some days she literally keeps me alive. When I am having those days when getting out of bed is difficult, I can hear her scratching at my bedroom door reminding me it’s past time to get up and also, “Where are my snacks?”

Ghrey Mbenza, a 30-year-old pet parent also living in Seattle, has a similar relationship with her two dogs.

Mbenza was 7 years old when they got their first dog, Oreo. Oreo, a black and white Cocker Spaniel, was like a bonus sibling for them. He was family.

“We grew up together. We got in trouble together. We went outside and played, [and did] all the things that kids like to do.”

Although Oreo is no longer with us, he still holds a special place in Mbenza’s heart, and in some ways has made her more open to showing up for other dogs.

One in particular was her family’s second dog, Bougie (pronounced boo-jee), a schnauzer who she found lost and attempting to cross a busy street. Mbenza decided to stop to check on her to see if she was okay. Of course, it didn’t end there.

“I wasn’t able to find her owners or where she was supposed to be, so I took her home and that was the start of a very brief relationship with Bougie because I ended up going off to college and being away from home for a long time. But every time I’ve come home, that’s my homie.”

Bougie wasn’t the last dog they saved. Their current pup, Prince, a Maltese mix was a rescue they adopted from a shelter in March 2018. About 8 months later, Mbenza was gifted Simba, a toy Poodle. They describe their two fur babies as their emotional support pets.

“Prince and I have a mutually supportive relationship. [He] truly, genuinely supports me when I’m having heavy emotions [and] navigating difficult moments in life. [He] comforts me and makes sure I’m grounded. Simba keeps me active. He likes to play, [and] he’s persistent. So, if I’m in the bed, he will tap me until I get up to take him outside or he’ll bring his toy over and put it on my lap or put it in my hand. We have a very playful relationship.”

For Mbenza, both Prince and Simba have forced her to be as accountable to herself as she is to them.

“[They’ve] given me a sense of purpose in ways that work, friends and family can’t provide. Maybe similar to the way that people experience a sense of purpose when they have kids. They give me a reason to wake up, get out the bed, [and] go outside, to feel the sun on my face.”

Having to maintain the routine of caring for their pets has helped them do the same for themselves, which they believe keeps them alive and well.

In addition to the routines, her pups have also taught her that being an adult doesn’t mean she shouldn’t be making time for fun.

“They also remind me to play and have fun without limits. . .something that we do a lot is dance around my apartment while I’m holding them, or I’ll get on the floor, and I roll around [with them]. It probably resembles a child in play, in pure joy and happiness. So, I really appreciate my dogs for being able to create space for me to exist in joy.”

Black Pets are Black Joy

I think part of the reason myself, and so many of my friends are drawn to pet parent social media content is because it shows Black folks participating in pure, unrestricted joy.

And as a community, it makes space for a kind of camaraderie.

We get to joke about raising our pets to know they’re Black. Or giving them Black names, like the comedian Kevin Fredericks, known on the internet as KevOnStage, who named his dog LaMontarious.

But beyond that, for me, there is such a sweetness to witnessing Black folks being playful with their fur babies, smiling wide, and for a moment, not a care in the world.

Want to join the trend? Email us pictures and videos of the fur babies bringing emotional sustenance and Black Joy into your life!

Danielle Buckingham

Danielle Buckingham

Danielle Buckingham (she/her), affectionately known as Dani Bee, is Reckon’s Black Joy Reporter, and a Chicago-born, Mississippi-raised writer based in Oxford, Mississippi. A 2021 Lambda Literary fellow, her work has been published in MadameNoire, Midnight & Indigo Literary Magazine, Raising Mothers, and elsewhere.

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