Monday, September 01, 2008


It’s well understood that the brain addresses reality through concepts it already has and that it is difficult to create new concepts except through new experiences. Much of science is a matter of devising ways to look at reality in new ways through experiment and statistical analysis to see whether subjective assumptions are right. Recently people have begun to look at the most subjective of our realities, our pets and, in particular, dogs with a cool eye.

Much of the motivation comes from the obvious atrocities of inbred “purebred” dogs that have resulted from 19th century assumptions, particularly the drive to make dogs the subjects of prestige and beauty contests. “Champion,” “with papers,” “not a mongrel” migrated over from the European entitlement class system to the genetics of these animals capable of unconditional love for humans. In the process the fancier breeds have become so twisted with so many painful afflictions that their shortened lives must be a misery.

Another part of the motivation comes from the need to understand pet overpopulation, the public acceptance of mass killing of dogs to get them off the streets. Or perhaps the specific elimination of a troublesome animal. Maybe you remember my earlier blog post about the Lady Princess, living under a trailer on the back of the block, producing ten black wiggly lovable pups, resourcefully eating cats when there was nothing else available. She acquired her name because “Petunia” and I were feeding her and to feed something is to claim it in some way, to take responsibility, and to feel affection for it. Indeed “Petunia” became quite attached to this big, mangy, feral bitch with the sweet face and huge ears. When the sheriff finally shot her, Petunia grieved hard. I felt it myself.

Breed? Some guessed golden lab/shepherd/Akita. That’s what I’d put on an impoundment card if I were still an animal control officer, though after a while in that role one learns that “breed” is a pretty tenuous concept. Lady Princess was a rez dog. This might be a new term to you unless you drive through a reservation. A rez dog, in my opinion, is not a “stray,” which implies that someone somewhere owns it and takes responsibility for it except that it has escaped restraint. Neither is a rez dog a true “feral” dog which is a dog that has been domesticated and then gone wild. Rather the term that comes closest is a pye dog, or a pariah dog, which is a dog that lives with a human community but is not a pet unless someone tries to domesticate it. Otherwise, it lives in that ecology the way a raccoon might or even the whitetail deer that have invaded many towns. On a rez several households may feed a dog, name it, be guarded by it, but no one takes responsibility for it in the way we expect pets to be licensed, vaccinated and possibly spayed or neutered.

The Lady Princess was found in a garage in deadly cold weather with two pups, one dead. She was bone-jangling thin. The household had a split domicile, partly on the rez and partly in Valier, and a LOT of kids. The little girls of the family begged for the salvation of the dog and pup and brought them to Valier for care. In fact, they still have the pup as an “owned” dog. But the Lady Princess was not spayed right away and soon came back into heat. The pack of male dogs in Valier (which is not supposed to exist since we have leash law) drove this female away from the family so that she began to look for burrows around town. There were enough feral and pet cats in town and enough pheasants and grouse in the surrounding wheat fields, that she was able to produce the ten-pack of pups, but lactating pushed her into being more and more bold until I looked out my back window to see her nearly nail Squibbie, my cat. This got my attention. Also, Valier is not a town that tolerates big dogs of unknown origins in their yards. Most people are grass-proud and do not have fences. And they keep their garbage tightly controlled.

The sheriff’s deputy as well as “Petunia,” and I began to work on the problem. At first we women could almost hook a finger under her collar (no tags) but when Petunia did that, the dog went crazy and threatened to bite. In the following weeks people yelled at the dog, threw things, chased her -- then no one could get near. We began to feed the pups as soon as they came toddling out, so eventually we could catch all of them but one. The original family took them back out to Heart Butte. I don’t even want to know. One pup was left, grew waddling fat, and was finally captured, going off in the back of a squad car, curled up on the seat. “I hope he don’t throw up,” said Petunia.

“Oh, the drunks do a lot worse back there,” said the deputy.

In the end the Lady Princess came back into heat, began to fight other dogs and scare people, and by that time she was scabby all over with mange. Mange among dogs and horses has been a sort of animal non-deadly smallpox on the prairies, killing mostly by leaving an animal hairless in a harsh climate. At various times mange plagues have triggered mass killings to try to eliminate it. There are terrifying historical descriptions of whole tribal horse herds gunned down while the people wailed. So the Lady Princess was eliminated. This is a country town. Most people are not sentimental.

I googled “pye dogs” and was startled to find that they have fan clubs and there are even efforts to declare them a “breed” in that stubborn insistence to force reality into human-defined categories. In India there are efforts to capture, sterilize, vaccinate and return them to the street, in the same way that groups hereabouts are treating populations of feral cats.

Rez dogs, pye dogs, call for a whole new way of looking at animals that we think of as “domestic,” meaning “owned.” Our most overriding category is always “property.” The idea is to assign ownership to every creature and kill or exclude the rest of them, rather like the Dawes Act divvying up the prairie, assigning plots and taking the rest. That’s far-fetched, but not by much. The next step is "my dog is better than your dog -- therefore I am also better than you!"

Rez dogs are a survival of the wild pre-white prairie and nomadic settlements. Once again I recommend the “Rez Dogs” video produced by Robert Hall. (Not to be confused with Ironman Mitchell’s vigorous comedy/mocumentaries.) The video explains how dogs are woven into tribal life historically, mythically, and practically. One of their themes is that the dogs are so much a part of the lives of the street people that they might be reincarnations of dead winoes. Another is that rez dogs take responsibility for themselves, rustling for food, finding niches for sleep or warm walls for sunning. They are like a parallel and interwoven tribe with its own rules and ordering principles.

It made a major impression on me that when all the dogs actually WERE eliminated from the streets of one of the small rez towns, the bears and cougars felt free to prowl all night. Ecological niches are always filled by something. I have a friend who suggests that getting rid of all the deer in town is simply a matter of suspending the leash law.

I try to be anti-romantic and not overly idealistic. Rez dogs, pye dogs, may have a lot to teach us about our need to impose ownership and neatness on the world. And what about this: is there such a thing as “pye people” who live like pye dogs all through our human settlements, not belonging, living off our leftovers?

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