Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Cruel to be kind

Nio says Hi. For those of you who don’t know Mr. Nio, he’s the youngest member of the pack around here--rescued (as we self-congratulating animal lovers like to say) a couple of years ago in mighty poor shape. He’s quite the handsome guy now, don’t you think?

My entire family is hopelessly addicted to adopting stray critters. Virtually all the pets we had when I was growing up—and there were a lot of them—were strays or cast-offs, and my parents were as likely to bring them home as my brothers and I were. My mother still gets teary-eyed over Calvin, a black Lab who was exiled with us in lieu of being executed for killing his previous owner’s chickens; and my father was passionately attached to a golden retriever named Rufus that he found in the parking lot at work. Rufus liked to accompany Dad on his frequent outings to the tavern and became a local celebrity. He got a memorial complete with photo in the paper when he died—which, come to think of it, was more than Dad got.

Anyway, here I am well into middle age and still bringing home strays, but questioning more and more what the real motivation is for doing it. It seems selfless and loving to give a home to an essentially useless creature. (A few pets work, of course—guarding, herding, killing vermin—but most spend their lives in stultifying leisure.) I know nothing makes me happier than feeding my crew when they’re hungry, or nursing a sick stray back to health. It makes me feel like a good person. That's what we all aspire to be, right?

But really, what’s so good about it? From the animal’s point of view, rising from stray to pet involves a questionable trade-off. In exchange for a cozy place to sleep and plenty to eat, the dog or cat surrenders pretty much everything else that makes life worth living. Pets (the ones who have "responsible” owners, that is) don’t get to fuck, or kill things, or even stage raids on the neighbors’ trash. It’s true, they do seem to enjoy our love and attention—but that’s not surprising given the paucity of other pleasures in their lives. If you spent a lot of your time being hauled around on a leash, you’d probably be grateful for the occasional ear rub or game of catch, too.

That’s not a new insight, of course. Think of Lady and the Tramp. But if I recall correctly, ol’ Tramp eventually opts for pet status. It wouldn’t have been a happy ending otherwise, not in the Disney universe. And Disney values still seem to carry the day in the world of animal welfare. There’s a massive network of shelters and rescue organizations devoted to creating more people like me, who leash up our ex-junkyard dogs and take them shopping in PetSmart. (Where we stock up on treats made from factory-farmed meat--but that’s an issue for another post.)

Indeed, at this point it’s impossible to disentangle the charity from the consumerism. The same people who rail against puppy mills will go halfway across the country to adopt the purebred of their choice via a "breed rescue”—simultaneously clothing themselves in virtue and acquiring a stylish furry accessory. This is a bit of self-deception on a par with driving a hybrid SUV, or berating somebody in a fur coat while wearing leather shoes.

Leaving that kind of indulgent silliness aside, it’s worth pondering exactly what our relationship is to the creatures we think we save. I’ve got a family of feral cats hanging out on my porch right now, and I have to admit that I feel very guilty about not trying harder to re-domesticate them. I know from past experience that it’s almost impossible to do, but I feel guilty just the same. Why? I see them out there playing, hunting, having a great time. Do I really think they’d be happier in here with me, eating gunk from a can and shitting in a box? My desire to rescue those cats has very little to do with their welfare, and everything to do with some need I have to be their rescuer.

I’m not saying it’s some kind of crime against nature to haul a critter off the street and teach it to be your friend. On the contrary, I suspect it is in our nature to do it—part of our innate drive to dominate, most likely. What could be more gratifying to the power-hungry human soul than making a predator your love slave? In any case, I don’t plan to stop doing it. I’m just gonna try not to feel too smug about it.


Bozo said...

BG-- How can you deconstruct this so?! I just love dogs-- it's as simple and inexplicable as that-- and I hate to see one unhappy, let alone suffering. And face it, dogs for the most part like to be with humans; I've even heard biologists call the attachment an evolutionary strategy which dogs have followed to survive. So when a stray whippet showed up at our house last week, we took her in, hoping that her master would show up but not counting on it. I hope there's a special circle in hell for people who abandon dogs. And if I could have one wish it wouldn't be for world peace (which is impossible) but that all dogs be taken care of.

chayaruchama said...

I can follow your train of thought, and see how you got there...

And , like you, I become enraged when I catch myself pulling the wool over my own eyes, no matter how dubiously noble I find the cause.
You don't want to be self-aggrandizing, or self-deluded.


I hate to see anyone, or thing, suffer.
I've never become accustomed, and I hope I never will.
Do I have a savior complex ?
Do you ?

No major harm done [YET, lol].
But we won't be kidding ourselves about it...

[Bozo, that's not meant as a slam- I'm a rabid dog lover, and would fill my flat with them]

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, I don't know about an innate drive to dominate because I am actually dominated by my menagerie.

However, we have this guy that mows and blows are yard bi-weekly and he is the animal dominator type. His theory is, is that animals (dogs/cats in his case) should respect you and that's why you must dominate them in the beginning. I asked him how he got them to respect him and said you have to break them down and then build them back up so that they *respect* you. I ended the conversation there because I was starting to want to break him in half.

Anyhoo....you are not hurting yourself or any animals or other beings in your quest to salvage these creatures. So, carry on dear! I'm glad there are people in this world like you and Chaya and Bozo. :))


BitterGrace said...

Dawn said: "I ended the conversation there because I was starting to want to break him in half."

Ha! Oh yeah, I know that feeling. Not that I'm a violent person or anything...

Bozo, I deconstruct everything. It's sort of a mental tic. I actually feel the same way you do, I just think it's always worth questioning my motives about anything that makes me feel virtuous. My maternal grandmother always said you are never more in danger from the Devil than when you are proud of being a good person.

It seems very plausible to me that dogs attached themselves to us as an evolutionary strategy. The question is, Why did we let them? After all, ticks and leeches (and mice and cockroaches, for that matter) also want to attach themselves to us, but we object. What's different about dogs? Or cats?

Partly it's that they are easily made somewhat useful for guarding, etc., as I noted in the post. But it's also (especially these days) the fact that they are enough like us that we can project our feelings onto them. They become surrogates and sounding boards for all kinds of human psychodrama. That's not inherently good or bad--though it can be very bad indeed, as with Michael "I love animals" Vick. I just think it's important to stay awake to what I'm doing, and as Chaya says, not pull the wool over my own eyes.

Leopoldo said...

BG - I'm also a deconstructer type, though Nio showing his teeth will prevent me from doing anything but coo for a short while.

Starvation versus warmth and love seems like a reasonable pay-off, even if we humans also limit doggy behaviour to our own terms... (Well, some of us do).

Leopoldo said...

And Dawn, that man doesn't know his ass from his elbow. I hate it when we Disneyfy and anthropomorphise animals... Dogs want to know - can I eat it, can I chew it, can I make it smell good, can I get pleasure from it, and probably can I fuck it. They don't think about respect. Puh-lease.

Bozo said...

OK. Let's say I love dogs, as I do. If you deconstruct "love" in this context you wind up in Chaya's and Dawn's conundrum of whether I am dominating my dogs or they are dominating me. Sartre said that all love is either sadistic or masochistic, which is precisely where deconstructive thinking leads. But I don't buy it, and I think the relationship between people and dogs may disprove it. Some things, like love, are simply irreducible, without any deeper parts: unity is their essential reality. What exists between me and my dogs is something organic and unique, and it makes me believe that unconditional love exists no matter what the psychologists or Sartre might say. Deconstruct this into anthropomorphic or projection illusions if you must, but the fact is that ultimately we see everything in the world through a human filter and mostly, intuitively-- that's my reality anyway. Sometimes we can think too much and miss the un-deconstructed experience of life-- that everyone here loves dogs.

BitterGrace said...

You're right, Bozo--we all love dogs. It's people we're not too sure about.

I do see what you mean about over-analyzing experience and missing the point. I think that's just as dangerous as failing to examine one's virtuous self-image. If you read the "Big Yellow Ball of Crazy" post along with this one, I think it's clear that I appreciate the immediacy of love between me and my dogs. I don't think taking a hard look at my impulse to rescue them damages that love at all.

To put the issue in another context, think about the love a mother feels for her baby. Nobody would question her experience of love. On the contrary, we revere it. But the fact is that we know her feeling is a neurochemical event conditioned by the release of hormones in her body. Knowing that fact is important and useful, esp. when dealing with problems like postpartum depression. It would be ridiculous to deny the biology of the issue out of fear of diminishing the value of the emotion. I feel the same way about the doggy love question--I think I can (and should) look at it from both perspectives.

David Maddox said...

That's my boy. Nio, I'm about to get on an airplane and I'll be home in a few hours.

BitterGrace said...

There you go, Bozo--at least you can rest assured that one person at our house is feeling nothing but the unity of love for his dog. I don't think Dave even read the post, much the less the debate over here in comment corner

David Maddox said...

I read it. I just can't resist the picture. But while I'm quite agreed about watching out whenever one feels righteous, I'm also sympathetic to the dogs chose to live with us argument. Nio, for one, I don't think misses too much wandering and stuff Pearl cares about. But that's just the way he's wired.

Renee said...

"After all, ticks and leeches (and mice and cockroaches, for that matter) also want to attach themselves to us, but we object. What's different about dogs? Or cats?"

I was fine till you got to the "or cats" part.

Bozo said...

I looked up "Nio." What a great name. He looks just like a nio.