Friday, November 17, 2006


In the far past “culture mixing” has been local and mostly a product of shipping or packstring commerce: silk, sugar, slaves, spices, bananas and so on. Along came colonies, largely commerce-based at first (corporations), which shifted large numbers of white northern European people into “other” cultures as bosses. Then World Wars scattered people all to hell and gone over the face of the planet. Now we push ever farther into treacherous and unvisited corners, just to say we did it.

When people stay in one place for a long time, they develop meshed understandings of the place that amount to a culture: accepted ways of doing things with the resources at hand. Desert culture might be uncommonly focused on wells and herding. Fertile riparian places might be concerned with gardening and therefore the determining of “property” lines. These practices support religious concepts, economic means inform hierarchies, and order is kept by consensus as the oddballs drop out, are pushed out, or even are genetically extinguished.

All is well until someone different shows up and is able to make an impact or if the economics change, maybe due to weather or erosion or disease. Then there’s a scramble until a synthesis or at least a truce is achieved.

In the US today, we have a highly eclectic population except as they self-select in pockets by ethnic origin, economics (more and more), education, and so on. One cause is immigration, another is the shift from rural to city (rural used to be the baseline for everyone), another is the receding of two hugely unifying shared experiences (Depression and World Wars) that melded together the previous assortment of immigrants. The schism introduced in the Sixties and Seventies seems to lie latent within our society, with occasional flaring up of embers. Another fault line, which I blame on the media, is the barrier between parents and their young, who have been introduced to black ghetto culture through music, dialect and uppity persons. Even reservation kids who are lucky to get to Great Falls can talk Hip-Hop.

Culture just happens, mostly. Great Waves pass over us all. The media thinks it’s at least surfing on it, but I think the changes are more subtle and deep than any television or even literary expert can trace. Maybe most of all causes are economic, which always reduces in the end to environmental resources. Even our politics and certainly our movie culture is driven by economics: oil, sex, bling, and control to protect corporations.

Government is charged with regulation, both formal laws (short of the Constitution) and minor local regulations and everything in between. Regulation can try to restrain culture (no porn, no violence, no white collar crime, decent pay and working conditions, no monopolies) but also the culture tries to resist and do what it wants to though the mechanisms of voting. If worse comes to worst, there might be a riot.

Animals are caught in this struggle just as much as people are, but they have no say over it. Animal Control agencies are governmental, trying to keep order in communities, while Humane Societies depend upon the culture through the media. Somehow, in a time when people have forgotten about relating to cows and horses (except in the movies -- well, in the brief period when we all watched Westerns) but like to keep child-sized animals (cats and dogs) as signs of affluence and status or just to make family of a single person or a childless couple, we have managed to swap the status of pets and children. Some call this anthropomorphism, but I think it’s a little more specific than that.

Many people treat their pets as though they were children. Many people treat their children as though they were pets. The consequences are not very good for either category. An overfed little dog with a wardrobe is an aberration, but so is a child who is left to shift for his or her self, never receiving the transfer of human culture that is the function of parents. Schools themselves are no longer concerned with progress and civilization for the whole of humanity, but rather are told to make the children economically viable, as though they were race horses or milk cows. More, more, bigger, better. Make me proud of my child so I can buy one of those self-esteem bumper stickers.

The culture today has so sexualized every form of human intimacy that it’s only safe to be truly unguarded with one’s pets. A little too much fondness with one’s child and someone will knock on the door. (A little too much harshness with one’s pet and someone will knock on the door.) The kids want to escape anyway and run off with their peers. The pets might be willing to give up their peers in order to devote themselves to you. (If the pet doesn’t cooperate, you can always get rid of it in a way one can’t dump children.) Anyway, with both men and women working, nurturing careers instead of families, living in city apartments, not really willing to commit to lifelong relationships with another person, pets just make more sense.

Humane Societies have capitalized on the infantilization of pets in order to fund their work -- which is undoubtedly worthy work -- but it isn’t about the dignity of horses anymore. Their concentration has been on “adopting” all animals, maintaining the idea that euthanizing animals is as horrifying as euthanizing unwanted children, trying to capture all unowned cats and dogs so that none are “street animals,” encouraging the keeping of cats indoors at all times -- possibly declawed. Even “wild” animals are seen as very much like populations of people whose cultures are inscrutable. We read about elephants that weep and geese who “mate for life.” We giggle over bonobos who have such liberated sex lives.

Humans are animals but animals are not human. The culture has lost its grip on this, and the result is that governmental regulation -- Animal Control -- is hampered by a loss of social consensus, a constant barrage of bad publicity and lawsuits from the sentimental, and confusion in general when one culture says dogs are lovable children and another says dogs are to eat and another says one dog per household is plenty and another says dogs need their freedom to do their own thing and another says dogs are unclean, to be avoided at all costs.

I recommend several measures. First, animal control and humane societies must work together BUT paradoxically they probably cannot do this so long as they are the same entity. To the public and the media, animal control is the parent who is oppressive (but often inadequate when really needed) and humane societies are the children who are always good, always in need of money (and therefore can’t help demonizing animal control) and sometimes victims. Humane societies that contract to be Animal Control might not be able to do either very well.

Second, both entities need to get more sophisticated about culture, providing examples of successful ways to manage animals and Americanizing good animal care. (I would also recommend the uplifting of the American mutt as an exemplar of multi-culturalism!)

Third, the use of arbitration and mediation through boards in communities and neighborhoods is far more helpful than a full-scale court trial over a barking dog. Often bad dog ownership is part of a household collapse that already involves parole officer, public health officials, social workers, and so on. Local teams and panels help defuse the Big Bro image of government regulation. They’re far more work, especially at first, but in the end they CAN change the culture more than any judge could. Or any media outlet either.

Fourth, animals -- especially dogs -- have been a part of criminal and police action for a long time. There will continue to be a need for criminal prosecution and penalties for such situations as dogs that harm or even kill people, especially when they do so as agents of humans -- converted to deadly weapons. It would be the rare humane society that could cope with this. Likewise with emergency responses when people or animals ae in danger.

Fifth, animal regulation should be local as much as possible. Rules good for city dwellings are silly in small towns or rural countryside. Some suburban problems can be solved structurally: fences, a plumbing receptable for droppings, so on. High population of any animals -- including humans -- means more regulation. Economic inequity also needs to be addressed. Perhaps animal hoarding can be treated medically, but surely if the hoarders themselves had security and support, they would behave differently. They are rarely high-earning folks, often old and alcoholic.

This is only the beginning of the discussion. The culture changes -- the regulations pant along behind, trying to keep up. Burgwin used to push all the paperwork off his desk now and then, put his giant feet up there, and think. Think. Think. Figure it out.

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