There is a very good chance that I will get a lump of coal in my stocking for feeling frosty about Fur Babies, because it is unbelievably sweet, and practically pleading to be adored. This four-part series follows pet owners who are breeding their animals, assisted by two photogenic vets who are there to guide them through the process, as well as advising viewers on responsible pet-breeding practices.
The huge pet TV genre thrives on the stories of the owners’ lives, and casting has taken place with that at the forefront. Holly’s two sons, Charlie and Finley, are leaving home, and together, the family is breeding their two-year-old chocolate labrador, Bella. Soon, we learn more about Holly’s life and her deep connection to animals. On the feline front, Kelly and her son Ronnie are seeing Leyla, their British short-hair blue, through her second litter. Again, we soon learn more about the depths of Kelly and Ronnie’s bond, and the love they share for Leyla. Later, although they are not given nearly as much screen time, another family has to rethink everything they thought they knew about their male guinea pig, Splodge. His appearance in this show may give away the secret.
We follow Bella, Leyla and Splodge through their pregnancies, from Bella’s trip to visit the stud (she is shown frolicking in the grass with her new companion), to their visits to vets and the birthing of the litters, which is mostly caught on camera. Anyone fascinated by animals is likely to be fascinated by this. The two vets here – Bristol-based Dr James Greenwood and London-based Dr Bolu Eso, who might be the most upbeat vets in the UK – are smiley and sunny, even when they have to carefully admit that not everything always goes to plan. “The thing about nature, it can be cruel sometimes,” says Eso, sagely.
The show does not bother to hide what it is, or who it is for, as the title makes clear. If you refer to your pets as Fur Babies, then these are your people. I express no judgment of those taking part; they clearly love their animals and care for them well, and these animals enrich their owners’ lives and wellbeing. One participant, for example, explains how having a pet helped her through grief. The simple routine of having to care for a dog, to take it outside for walks, to ensure it is fed and happy, can be a balm in times of crisis and despair.
There is plenty of sweetness here, so much so that it could lead to a filling. There are moments of humour, too, which usually happens when real people become the subject of lighthearted documentaries. “Oh, it’s another willy,” says one “pet parent”, as the litter keeps on coming; she is keen on a female, so she can keep the pup with her mother as a companion. The saga of Splodge, treated as one of the boys for a little too long, is very funny. Guinea pigs are, apparently, notoriously difficult to sex.
However, on a broader level, and looking at the premise of the show rather than the lovely people participating in it, the discomfort begins to set in. This entire series is an exercise in rampant anthropomorphism, and I am wary of blithely attributing human characteristics to animals. Though domesticated animals live with people, surely it is a matter of respect to acknowledge that they are not extensions of human beings. Yet here they are imbued with their owners’ desires and feelings: are they flirting, are they lonely, do they express a strong instinct to become mothers? We cannot possibly know these things, as cute as the stories are supposed to be. As Eso notes, nature can be cruel sometimes, but even that is an insertion of human value judgments, a way of looking at other species as we operate, rather than as they do. Referring to people as “pet parents” when it is the animals doing the hard work, for instance, seems like a strange framing of the situation.
I know this is supposed to be nice, fluffy, festive fodder, and if you just want to sit back and watch the miracle of life unfolding, then this will do it for you. There is a strong emphasis on responsibility and best practice when it comes to breeding. The vets make clear that breeding an animal is a huge undertaking and an enormous commitment, and there are even tips on how to do it properly. For me, though, Fur Babies is about people, not animals, and as a documentary, the natural balance is off.
• Fur Babies is on Channel 4.