A year into the pandemic, Nat Geo photographers turn their lenses on pets

From parrots to dogs to chickens, domestic animals are alleviating some of the stress and boredom of quarantine life.

Dionisius Suharmin and Vimaladewi Lukito, and their children, Amadeo Irwan, 13, and Andrea Irwan, 11, share their home with seven cats in North Jakarta, Indonesia. They are family friends of photographer Joshua Irwandi. “They help us to keep our sanity,” Lukito, pictured above on February 7, tells Irwandi. “Taking care of them and giving them love somehow makes us relax a bit in this stressful situation.”
Photograph by Joshua Irwandi

In 2019 photographers Kendrick Brinson and David Walter Banks visited 14 countries on assignment. When the married duo recounted their adventures, people invariably asked, “But who takes care of your four cats and dogs?” They joked that the pet sitter made a lot of money. 

But 2020 couldn’t have been more different. Thanks to COVID-19, Brinson and Banks never left the United States. Often, they didn’t even leave their Los Angeles neighborhood. Instead of spending long hours in airport security lines and waiting for the perfect lighting, the pair snuggled up with dogs Tux and Tia and cats Rex and Kudzu.

“Our pets became emotional therapy animals, and our only friends we could safely hug in a world struck by a deadly pandemic,” Banks said.

As COVID-19 lockdowns swept across the world last March, the change was especially jarring for National Geographic photographers such as Banks, who are accustomed to spending long periods abroad.

And so many turned their camera on a domestic subject: Their pets.  

Preliminary research suggests that pets have offered emotional support during the pandemic, helping make the long days of isolation and quarantine more bearable, says Emily McCobb, a clinical associate professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.

In fact, the pandemic has accelerated a trend McCobb and other scientists have observed: The rise of the pet as a member of the family.

“In the past 20 to 30 years, the role of the pet in the family has taken on a whole new role,” says McCobb. (Read how dogs are more like us than we thought.)

“It really hasn’t been that long that we’ve had these furry child substitutes with this kind of prominence in American society.”

Stephen P. Northrup holds his nine-foot-long carpet python, named Leisure, in Saint Augustine, Florida. Northrup, who recently had foot surgery and spends a lot of time alone while his family is at work and school, cares for eight snakes. "They give me quite a bit of comfort,” he says. “I ain't got nobody to chill with.”
Stephen P. Northrup holds his nine-foot-long carpet python, named Leisure, in Saint Augustine, Florida. Northrup, who recently had foot surgery and spends a lot of time alone while his family is at work and school, cares for eight snakes. "They give me quite a bit of comfort,” he says. “I ain't got nobody to chill with.”
Photograph by Karine Aigner

Stressed pets

Most pets have responded joyfully to the near-continuous presence of their humans, as it has meant more attention—and more treats. And few video conference calls would be complete without a cameo from Fido or Fluffy.

Human owners, too, reap the physical and emotional benefits of pet ownership. Studies have shown that pets can help lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety, and increase activity levels.

But the sudden transition from long hours at work and school to near-constant togetherness can be challenging for pets as well as humans, McCobb says.

As more independent creatures, cats in particular are more likely to require breaks from human attention, she says. And preliminary research from a handful of countries suggests dogs that have had prior behavioral problems are experiencing them again, such as loud barking or anxiety. (If you’re chronically stressed, your dog may be too. Here’s why.)

In Jakarta, Indonesia, Dionisius Suharmin and Vimaladewi Lukito, their two children, and seven cats went through a similar adjustment period. Although the pandemic allowed the family—four-legged and bipedal alike—to become closer as school and work moved online, no one was exempt from growing pains, including cats KitKat and Tokyo.

“They became more attached to us to the point that they were stressed out when we left them for a short holiday,” Lukito told National Geographic photographer Joshua Irwandi, a family friend. KitKat became depressed and lost weight, and Tokyo cries when left alone, she reports.

Long-term benefits

Even with these difficulties, the bond between people and pets will endure the problems posed by COVID-19 and beyond.

McCobb says the increased flexibility in working hours and locations is likely to continue. (See some of National Geographic staffers’ favorite pets.)

“We love our cats dearly like our own children,” Lukito says. “We are one big family.”

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