Friday, March 5, 2010

I'd walk a mile

Another friend, Sophia, sent me this picture. That's a poodle, in case you're wondering.

The poodle's owner says on her web site, "For those who are overly concerned about the dogs emotions. Cindy loves the attention. She will prance around and expects your attention." I don't mind that this owner can't punctuate--so few people can--but I refuse to play along with the assumption that a "prancing" dog is by definition a happy dog. It's a dog in motion.

About ten years ago, I locked horns with an animal-rights activist who didn't approve of my tendency to ride my horse at every opportunity. He said it was coercive and artificial; his working definition of animal rights seemed to be that humans should have no contact with animals at all--a position born of ignorance.

Horses were first domesticated on the Eurasian steppes in about 4000 B.C.E. Domestication, always, is a contract between two species, and it's only a certain small number of species who are willing to sign on. And domesticated animals are, in a broad sense, all technophiles--they tend to adapt to and even seek out human environments.

Of course not all technophiles are domesticated--if they're not, we call them pests. A rat is profoundly technophilic; skunks, bears, and deer are also great admirers of human infrastructure, especially vegetable gardens, dumps, and bird feeders.

When we work or live around domesticated animals, we enter a different moral realm, where we have an obligation to understand the contract and know where interests intersect. The animal is there for a reason, and so are you, but these reasons don't always align perfectly; horses are herd and prey animals who will bargain away quite a lot to escape a tiger, but they are unwilling to cast off their options to kick, bite, or vacate the premises as needed. A thoughtful owner concedes these points, internalizes them, and works with them. A really thoughtful owner celebrates and studies the horsiness of horses, always on the lookout for new points of agreement.

Dogs actually occupy a singular niche in the human moral scheme, since there is good evidence that we didn't domesticate them at all--they domesticated us. This interesting point aside, the ligature between dogs and people is durable, complex, and ancient: A burial site in Germany called Bonn-Oberkassel has joint human and dog interments dating to 14,000 B.C.E. To put that in context, there were still mammoths wandering around Great Britain at about the same time, and we've been revising and attaching addenda to the contract ever since. But we still have an absolute obligation, despite the long connection, of internalizing the dogginess of dogs--they aren't camels, and when they fidget or show discomfort they are not "prancing for attention."

I'll stop now, but it won't take much to get me fired up again.


  1. In this great article, the author argues that dogs are "man's best parasite."

    I know ours is. He does nothing to earn his keep but look cute.

  2. Brava! What a wonderful entry.

    As author Vicki Hearne says, "It's not that animal rights people go too far; it's that they have it all wrong."

    If you haven't already read it, Ms. Hearne's book "Adam's Task" is a great read ( and it is reminiscent of your own sensibilities and writing!)'s+task+vicki+hearne&printsec=frontcover&source=bn&hl=en&ei=uE6oS9akFIH7lwe_tPW1AQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CBcQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=&f=false

  3. I've read some of Hearne's essays--she's very good.