When I heard that Boo, ‘the world’s cutest dog’ had passed away recently, I was struck with a strange bout of sorrow. Not because I personally had any admiration or real love for the mutt, but because I knew someone who did. My first thought after taking on a gut full of anxiety was “How am I going to break the news to my girlfriend?”
Cute animals have become a cornerstone of what people use the internet for. The rise of cat pictures in the early 2000s, led the way for the household pet to reach an iconic status that is comical, cute and in some cases unexplainable. There is an in-depth exhibition documenting the feline’s rise at the Museum for the Moving Image titled “How Cats Took over the Internet.” For psychologists it became a case study to find out why there is such popularity over these seemingly unaware creatures living their lives while being the darling of millions.
If you were never a cat person, Dogs are now the most instagrammed pets with #dog being used in over 138 Million posts. Facebook made it easier for these animals have accounts of their own, with Boo attaining 16 Million followers at the time of his death. His owner was a Facebook employee who eventually released a book about him and his older brother Buddy, another endearing Pomeranian who basked in the limelight.
With all breeds of animals with thousands of followers came the ascent of exotic and strange pets, prompting Instagram to caution and ban users for indulging in selfies with endangered animals. Instagram is the tool of choice for the culture of celebrity, and feels organically equipped to propel animals to stardom just as easily as their human counterparts. They even have their own talent agencies. They aren’t the first animals to become well known celebrities, in the early 20th Century we did our fair share of worship over box office star Rin Tin Tin and fawned over the exploits of sled dog Balto. However it’s the first time that they’ve become well known in the same way some humans are — famous for being famous.
I used to have this thought in the back of my mind whenever I thought about the ancient, yet still breathing members of the Rolling Stones. “What happens when all the rock stars die?” The rock stars we grew up with, the ones our parents loved and grandparents tolerated. The question always had a simple answer: there’ll be new rock stars to replace them. When pets die, time moves on and sometimes the owner gets a new one. But what if your pet has an audience of millions of people? What are the repercussions of their deaths then?
Some people die young, some die old, but most animals have lifespans that rarely surpass their teenage years. Celebrity deaths are widely reported on because it’s in the public interest to know, but celebrity pet deaths? The amount of animals getting cult status online is reaching new highs, and with it the ratio of animal pet deaths is scaling at an equally morbid rate. On every second page I visit of an insta-famous pet, there is a memorial post for the animal as the owner publicly cycles through the stages of grief. Sometimes they move on with the account and get new pets, other times they keep the page as a shrine to their beloved. But with every death post is the sharing with the fans of what would normally be quite personal information. It’s not just the owners who are weeping.
A couple of years ago, I was watching videos of Gabe the dog with my girlfriend. While original clips of the American Eskimo dog are scarce, there are thousands upon thousands of remixes and parodies he has inspired, with his odd borks and sniffs featuring as a key musical instrument. After watching the 20th remix of Gabe singing a Final Fantasy song, I saw there was a featured post from the owner of the little white barker. I turned to her and said “Aw, that’s a shame. Gabe the dog died.” I didn’t think much of it, other than the dog we like on YouTube had his little heart give out. Instead of seeing the casual frown of disappointment someone has upon learning of a celebrity death, she turned off the television and burst into tears. After I got over the initial guilt and pain of making my girlfriend cry, I told her “It’s okay though, because he brought so much joy to the world”. She started to smile through the wall of tears. “I know, it’s just I’m sad right now. He was so nice.”
I can’t remember any time where she showed the same amount of open grief over a human celebrity dying. Boo and Buddy were two of her favourite little dogs on the planet. Buddy appeared nonchalant towards being filmed, but Boo would actively pose and strut for the camera, showing off his teddy-bear haircut and tiny clothes. It was Buddy’s complete lack of desire to be part of this celebrity circus that made them a hilarious double act, complimenting each other to create a realistic comedy of errors. Their owners said that when Buddy died last year, Boo became withdrawn and showed signs of heart issues. It was heartbreak that did him in. It wasn’t just that both dogs were past the life expectancy for Pomeranians, the way they died had to be adorable too.
With the passing of Boo and Buddy, nearly every animal that we’ve ever had a relationship through a screen has died. Soon these famous pets won’t only be associated with cute videos and hashtags but the state of mortality as a whole. My girlfriend brought up Boo and Buddy in conversation yesterday and I decided to rip off the band-aid. She hadn’t heard about their passing and subsequently wept for 15 minutes straight, but she’s getting better now. Death is something we all have to go through, but if our reminder of mortality is a video of Pomeranian in a sailor suit, it might not be all that bad.