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.