When it comes to domestic pets, a terrible thing has happened which I should have foreseen and which has unforeseeable consequences itself. The extreme end of the humane movement has been matched by the development of growing organization at the other extreme which has no name yet but an equally militant and intransigent nature. Similar to the gun-owner’s lobby and often overlapping, these people defend their right to own large, possibly aggressive, unregistered and intact dogs. Cats, shrug. Not so much interest and often the opinion that cats are vermin anyway. Like gun defenders, there are way more men than women. Humane societies collect women.
Partly these dog-owning defenders are entirely respectable hunters, including those who work with hawk-and-hound pairs; aficionadoes of classic working breeds like the big cart-pulling or flock-guarding dogs developed in rural Europe; citizens who feel the need for protection in their own homes; but then go along a continuum to criminals who keep dogs to alert them against law enforcement or competing criminals and those who promote dog fights for betting and blood sport. As the density of cities increases and the multiplicity of cultures grows more complex, we end up with intense battles over such things as how many dogs a household can own. In rural areas there is more concern about the government’s fixation on microchipping and tracking every cow, horse, pig, goat, pigeon or whatever. In the suburbs -- where people presumably live in for peace and quiet -- conflicts over animal noise, mess, aggression, and so on can build into what amounts to civil war.
In short, animals are a part of human culture -- have been for a very long time -- and are symptoms, manifestations and causes of everything human. As people go, so go their animals. They are not separate entities that can be considered apart from humans, so much as extensions of those humans. The worst part of this present polarization is that both ends of the spectrum increasingly take out their feelings in hatred of the government, humane folks feeling that they are not doing enough and dog-defenders feeling that they are doing far too much. If there’s anything we don’t need now, it’s further erosion of our civic trust and integrity. In fact, our only hope of resolving this development is through governmental and non-governmental democratic consideration and action, sometimes called “animal control.” But both ends of the spectrum habitually attack animal control.
Animal control across the country sometimes tries to travel under euphemisms (“dog wardens”), but in truth it includes both extreme philosophies within itself and has to struggle constantly to remain useful and professional. There are those who want to be armed and to forbid the ownership of vicious dogs against those who want to maintain a no-kill shelter and laws requiring the sterilization of all pets. In some communities animal control is contracted to humane societies and in others there is a pitched battle of hatred between the two. Some humane societies have excellent education programs that have led to innovations like dog parks and programs that neuter feral cat colonies. Some humane societies think up ridiculous projects like making the town of Ringling, Montana, change its name because the Ringling family is connected to circuses and circuses can be hard on elephants. Politicians rarely know enough to play a confident role in these turbulent processes, but they are keenly aware that the dynamics can make or break an election.
Recently “animal hoarding” has come to the front burner. Usually the story is about old or alcoholic individuals who accumulate shocking numbers of animals until they far exceed the ability of the keeper to feed, doctor or clean up after them. Often they are inbred or feral. Sometimes they are represented as a “puppy mill,” an economic endeavor gone crazy. Yet reporters, often young and bemused, rarely link animal hoarding with the universal social practice of putting the elderly or ailing into understaffed nursing homes where they are not fed, doctored or kept clean. They don’t think of the link between the proliferation of puppies and a household overrun with unparented children and no real income.
We have split attitudes towards people of great wealth and high status, but don’t connect them to the AKC concentration on showing off dogs as a sign of status and prosperity and weird fads like conventional surgical alterations of ears. The drive to own an ever more exotic and rare pet has a very dark side indeed as people kidnap species from the wild or make a certain breed so desirable that they are bred hastily without the high standards and constant culling that created the virtues of the breed in the first place. Churches, which used to remind people that with great advantages come equal obligations to the world at large, are now diminished into safety and prosperity promoters, blessing the animals on St. Francis’ day. Animals come are discussed in terms of dominion and souls, some feeling that people own and can use animals as they would machines and others feeling that pets have souls that will take them to heaven while their owners burn in hell. One of the deepest religious problems is coming to terms with the realization that we ARE animals, indisputably proven so by science. Some, esp. the young, think that if they stop eating animals, they will defeat the death of animals. Death is also a religious problem.
If humans are inundated in floods, so are the animals. If humans are trapped in conflagrations, so are the animals. If humans starve, so do the animals. We feel that if humans must have Real ID, so must the animals. As we do to humans, we do to animals: sex, torture, neglect, murder. Normally our culture would guide us through our decisions and practices, but our culture is in uproar -- there is no consensus about what is normal.
The impulse of most people in the face of all this is to pull off into enclaves, wall ourselves in, and develop our self-righteousness. Nothing could be less helpful. Instead we need to admit the continuousness in relationship of every entity on this planet, whether animate or inanimate, so that we become aware that what one of us does affects all of us, one thing is entwined with another. It’s a pretty high standard to impose on both the Mexican who brings his love of fighting cocks and the starlet who loves her purse pooch, but in the end the treatment of these small players and their foibles will affect our ability to deal with climate change, global bird flu, food animal contamination, endangered species, and unstable human societies.
Remarkably, while the two extremes go to war over animal issues, the sensible center continues on. Daily and quietly they manage their own lives to support what is around them and accept the ordinary blessings of good things like dogs and cats. They have no names or organizations except "democracy."