Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Dogs' Place in Society

There is a long article in the current New York magazine (don't ask why I read it) entitled "A Dog Is Not a Human Being, Right?". The author, John Homans, subtitled it "The increasingly twisted relationship between man and his best friend." Inside, it's titled/subtitled "The Rise of Dog Identity Politics: Dogs are increasingly rootless souls, country bumpkins in city apartments. But is a vegan pup still an animal?" I started reading with some trepidation, but it turned out to be a fairly balanced article. Mr. Homans lives in the city, and wonders if that is an appropriate life for his Lab mix Stella. "Guilt, along with plastic bags of dog poop, is pretty much a constant in an urban canine-human relationship. Is this any kind of life for a dog?" he asks.
He quotes James Serpell, of the University of Pennsylvania, with whom I've had some interesting conversations. Serpell notes that, as detailed in the book Bowling Alone, people are living more isolated lives, marriages break down regularly, and all of this coincides with a sharp upswing in the pet population. He says we're using animals to fill the gap in our lives.
Serpell also cites research from Japan that showed an owner's oxytocin levels rise when their dog gazes at them. Oxytocin is a majorly important social-bonding hormone, and a great stress reducer.
Homans notes the industry that has built up around dogs, and notes the financial empire of Cesar Millan (though he refers to his view as "an elaborate fantasy"). He backs that up with a quote from Patricia McConnell that Millan's is a very simplistic view. Then he goes on to reference Peter Sing'ers Animal Liberation, and from there to Ingrid Newkirk and peta. He says plainly that peta dreams of a world in which pets have been abolished, and brings in Nathan Winograd, a no-kill advocate, to debate her. He sees the animal rescue movement as an offshoot of the civil rights struggles of the sixties, a final frontier for universalist ideals. He also notes that despite all the bluster about the need for mandatory spay/neuter laws, euthanasia figures are well down. In a year in the mid-80s 12 million dogs and cats were euthanized, according to ASPCA figures. Now the figure is 3-4 million a year, about half of those dogs. Of course that's still far too many, but look how far we've progressed. Homans reveals Wayne Pacelle and the HSUS as animal rights, calling Pacelle "the silky pony of the animal-rights world, a Yale graduate who looks tremendous in a suit."
Back to Serpell, who notes "The thing about mandatory spay-neuter is that those who are most willing to have their dogs spayed or neutered tend to be responsible people. And often, their dogs also happen to be nice animals in temperament. So what you're doing essentially is taking those dogs out of the breeding population."
Homans notes that the AKC's breed rules are strictly visual, having drifted into the vagaries of fashion rather than usefulness. And he wraps up with a look at euthanasia and the extreme measures that can be undertaken to keep a dog alive.
It was quite an interesting piece of reading, and I commend Mr. Homans for a thorough and thoughtful piece of writing.

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