Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Revisitations: A Dog's Life

[I have commented occasionally on the Philippines - the country in which I now live. The following is a post from March 2009. One of the points I tried to make, somewhat too mildly, is that the concept of "humane" treatment of animals only makes sense in a society that has a degree of faith in human dignity. The notion that "you can tell a lot about a people by how they treat their animals" is actually a quite dubious one. Some of the worst human beings in history were known to have a way with animals - in fact afforded animals more "humanity" than they extended to people. In an essay on Jack London, George Orwell wrote: "There seems to be good reason for thinking that an exaggerated love of animals generally goes with a rather brutal attitude toward human beings."("Introduction to Love of Life and Other Stories by Jack London", 1945) In his essay "Misplaced Tenderness", the Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy relates that

"Lord Lytton, quoting M. Georges Duval, tells us that fondness to animals was a distinguishing trait of the bloody heroes of the French Revolution. Couthon, we hear, was greatly attached to a spaniel which he invariably carried in his bosom even to the Convention...A propos of the spaniel of Couthon, Duval gives us an amusing anecdote of Sergent, not one of the least relentless agents of the massacre of September. A lady came to implore his protection for one of her relations confined in the Abbaye. He scarcely deigned to speak to her. As she retired in despair, she trod by accident on the paw of the favourite spaniel. Sergent, turning round, enraged and furious, exclaimed, “Madame, have you no humanity?”

Watching episodes of The Dog Whisperer on the National Geographic Channel, I am increasingly astonished, living in the boondocks as I do, at the lengths to which Americans will go to accommodate a dog in their lives. Clearly, Man is Dog's Best Friend.]

A Dog's Life

On Good Friday - Biyernes Santo - last year a 6 year old girl in my barangay was bitten in the face by a dog. It caused something of a stir, and since I knew the little girl, I fetched my machete, which is a standard tool in these parts, and went over to where a crowd had gathered, expecting to participate in the dog's destruction. The crowd had gathered merely to hear what was to be done about the rabies shots that the little girl would have to get, since the dog had not. The decision was made that the shots would be paid for by the dog's owner and that the dog was to be "watched" for fourteen days in case it showed any symptoms of rabies. Only then, I was told, would the dog be destroyed. I tried to explain to whomever would listen that it didn't matter if the dog was rabid or not, that it had bitten a child in the face and could no longer be trusted around people - let alone children - and should, therefore, be destroyed.(1) Even if anyone understood my tirade in broken Taglish, they could not see the sense in destroying a perfectly good dog, provided it didn't have rabies. I took my astonishment home with me along with my unused machete.

The experience taught me a curious lesson about the relative value placed on human and animal lives in the Philippines. It wasn't as if anyone had placed the welfare of the dog above the welfare of the little girl. The people who live on the barangay level "adopt" dogs in roughly the same way that the dogs themselves "adopt" fleas. Their purpose has always seemed undefined to me. They make noise at night - that is the only function I have seen them perform. Since they are allowed to roam freely, which is a blessing since they would certainly be killed by other dogs if they were restrained, whatever property protection they might provide is eliminated. There is never an avowed intention that the dog is to be cared for in any decent manner, i.e., fed regularly, sheltered against foul weather, and given rudimentary veterinary attention.

While it is true, as animal rights groups always claim, that you can tell a lot about a people by how they treat their animals, what it tells you is far more political than ethical. If even the minimum standards for the humane treatment of animals were enforced in the Philippines, at least half of all dog and cat owners would be cited for animal cruelty. But there is simply no way that the same standards for the treatment of animals being enforced in prosperous countries can sensibly be applied in countries whose economic status is classified as emerging."(2) Organizations like PETA or PAWS, the Philippine Animal Welfare Society, are looking at the problem through the wrong end of the telescope. Countries with spotty human rights records cannot be held accountable for the rights of animals.

One of Charlie Chaplin's short films, A Dog's Life (1918) features a man (Charlie) and a dog leading virtually identical lives. Charlie obviously feels sympathy for "Scraps," who eats out of garbage cans and sleeps wherever she isn't chased out, because he recognizes himself in the dog. Rilke once wrote about dogs that we "help them up into a soul for which there is no heaven," but Chaplin isn't so much worried about souls when lives are in peril. Chaplin's message in A Dog's Life is clear: when the world is unfit for a dog to live in, how can it be fit for man?

(1) By "destroyed" I do not mean "euthanized." I mean killed with a sharp or a blunt instrument. There is no money provided for any kind of "humane" destruction of animals in this country, such as gassing or lethal injection, except in the higher reaches of wealth and privilege. And since human birth control is not sanctioned, except the ridiculous "natural" kind, by the Philippine government, animal birth control is not supported either.
(2) Many of those standards are long overdue for reassessment even in countries like the U.S., in which more than half a million dogs and cats have to be euthanized every year because too many pet owners will not spay or neuter their pets.

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