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Animals and Empathy

One of my favorite toys as a child were Littlest Pet Shop pets. I had, and continue to have, quite a collection of the small cartoonish animals. They aren’t quite dolls, or at least not in the way we might traditionally define dolls.  They’re modelled after animals, not people, and they don’t exactly come with clothes to dress them up in the way fashion dolls do. They do come with lots of accessories and playsets that really could be considered dollhouses.

Each of my Littlest Pet Shops had a personality. Even if I didn’t have a particular name for one, I knew their role in the “town”, who they were and who they were related or connected to. The duck was married to the yellow bird and the pink parakeet was their eldest daughter. The pink poodle was the mayor’s daughter, the prettiest girl in school, and dating the middle of the three rowdy, skateboarding husky brothers whose name may have been either Zack or Cody.

When my cousins or friends would play Littlest Pet Shops with me, we would each pick out a house and then a family or families, and extra family members to live there (many of the characters were orphans or adopted or inexplicable living with a separate nuclear family unit). There were certain furniture pieces that belonged to certain characters. For example the pink baby carriage was the gray kitten’s bed and Juliet the Persian cat always had the pink hair bow. After that furniture and accessories was fair game.

Once the setup of our homes was finally complete, if we weren’t bored or called down to dinner by that point, the game commenced, and usually it followed the same story.  Much like with my Barbie doll bachelor game, the Littlest Pet Shop characters followed a cliché hetero-romantic narrative. The high school aged pets were centered, although we tried to remember to move around the other characters in the town every now and then, and put them all back in their beds at the same time. There was always some sort of prom or dance or Friday night coming up that the high schoolers needed dates for. Usually this involved going to “Lookout Tree,” a cliché I learned from the Disney channel show “Sonny with a Chance” which itself was parodying the cliché of the “Lookout Falls” or what-have-you place that high schoolers go to make out in their cars. Our favored protagonists were a pair of cats named Romeo and Juliet, who surprise, surprise, end up together.

In 2010, Hasbro released their version of Blythe, a fashion doll that had previous been produced by Kenner, as a companion to the Littlest Pet Shop pets, along with an animated children’s show in which Blythe Baxter discovers you can understand and talk to the animals that frequent the Pet Shop where she works as an animal fashion designer.

My friends and I were not on board with the narrative of the Littlest Pet Shops being animals in a human world, despite the name implying they were pets. As far as we were concerned the animals were the people in their worlds, in our stories about them. We had used them as children are expected to use their human dolls, to play act various human narratives.

I’m sure it’s not an unusual experience for a kid to have animal toys they treat as people, but perhaps not universal. I remember being shocked to my core in a high school literature class when a self-proclaimed animal lover I was doing group work with confessed to me that she didn’t believe animals had souls. I wonder if perhaps the games I played as a child, projecting narratives onto inanimate objects, helped me to have greater empathy than I might have had, for other people and other living creatures. The games we play, and other childhood experiences do greatly impact our development of empathy, but do the types of toys we give our children impact that development?

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