noun (plural symbioses /-ˌsēz/)
interaction between two different organisms living in close physical association, typically to the advantage of both.
An example of such a phenomenon is a plant that has brilliantly colored flowers and nectar that attracts hummingbirds who, while feasting on the nectar with their long, thin beaks, pollenate the plant. The plant and the hummingbird depend on each other for survival.
Humans have no such symbiotic relationship with animals or plants. We exploit nature for our own benefit. Livestock animals depend for their survival on us, but not vice-versa. Over the millennia, animals have been enlisted to provide us with fodder and hides, and also to bear our burdens.
Our relationship with dogs - easily the most privileged animals among us - has gone through numerous permutations. Originally, it is likely that wild dogs were captured and kept in human settlements, fed leftovers (giving the dog a bone), used to pull sleds across the ice and snow, and to guard against intruders. This dependence on humans brought about - in an animal more intelligent than any other domesticated animal (even if pigs are reportedly smarter) - a much closer relationship, a devotion or loyalty to an individual's family, or to a group. But the limitations of the relationship have always been clearly defined, since, for one thing, the lifespan of dogs is not even as long as one human generation.
People have shown a profound love for dogs from the beginning, but lately, and perhaps only in the most technically developed societies, dog loving has reached unprecedented proportions. As an adjunct, I suppose, to veterinary medicine, people calling themselves "dog psychologists" are popping up everywhere, and it has become a big business since the success of the "reality" TV program "The Dog Whisperer," and its star, Cesar Milan. Milan's show demonstrates - powerfully - how little dog owners understand how dog's think. It also shows the incredible amount of room that some people are prepared to set aside in their lives for their dogs.
This remarkable accommodation of dogs in people's lives is relatively new, and I think it can be traced to the fall in birthrates in the most developed countries. Single men and women and older couples whose children have grown up and left home adopt dogs for obvious reasons. Some even admit that they prefer their dogs to husbands, live-in partners, or children.(1) It's clear that an exaggerated love for animals goes hand in hand with a certain amount of misanthropy.
Probably nothing else illuminates the true dimensions of the accommodation of dogs in people's lives than a pet cemetery. There is a scene in the unforgettable 1962 Italian "documentary" Mondo Cane (Bestial World) in which images of old ladies visiting a pet cemetery in the U.S., with old women tearfully placing flowers on the graves of their departed poodles, were juxtaposed with shots from a Singapore restaurant yelping puppies crammed into cages were on the menu, like live lobsters in aquariums at the supermarket.
The helpless, instinctive devotion of dogs to people is exploited to some extreme instances. The superiority of a dog's senses of smell and hearing is routinely employed by police and rescue personnel. When dogs are used in law enforcement or combat situations, in so-called K-9 units, the situations are potentially lethal. When these units award medals to their dogs for "valor" or "courage under fire", whether or not they're still alive, their handlers are being downright obtuse. Such ceremonies make it hard to determine who is more oblivious that the use of dogs in K-9 units is exploitation, pure and simple - the dogs themselves or their handlers. It's no different, really, from the use of dogs in scientific experiments. When the first American astronauts were asked by an obtuse reporter how they differed from the chimpanzee that NASA had shot into space, they had to point out that the chimps had no idea they were sitting on top of a rocket about to be shot into space. Before the chimp could comprehend his hazardous situation, he would have to understand how a rocket ship works and what outer space is. Similarly, dogs in K-9 units are doing nothing more than following the commands of their handlers, with no comprehension of explosives or ballistics.
When American movie productions use animals, there is usually a disclaimer from the American Humane Association stating that no animals were harmed during the making of the film. They make no mention of the occasional harm to people during the filming, like injuries to stunt-people, simply because the people are involved in the production voluntarily and the animals are not. Recently, the hit HBO series Luck was cancelled because three horses (the film is centered on a race track) were killed during the shooting.
But the exploitation of dogs goes much further than most people realize. In 2011, a documentary called Project Nim was released that was an account of a Columbia University experiment in the 1970s in which a baby chimpanzee, named Nim Chimpsky (after Noam Chomsky, who has claimed that humans are the only animals that use language), was raised among humans just like a human child. Problems started to arise as the chimp grew in size and strength. In the middle of the experiment, funding dried up and Nim's handlers were told they would have to give hand him over to an animal shelter. When one of the handlers, a young woman, started to leave the protective compound in which the experiment was being conducted, Nim turned violent and savagely beat the handler's head against the pavement. With no serious injuries, the woman later observed, "You can't give human nurturing to an animal that could kill you."
In his review of the documentary, Michael Wood, film critic for the London Review of Books, wondered:
"We can refuse to recognize the otherness of other animals by pretending they are like us, versions of us; and we can, it seems, understand their otherness only by a more refined use of the same method. But what constitutes the refinement? ... But then what I really want to know is not what a chimpanzee would feel if he was human but what I would feel if I was a chimpanzee."
But what dog owners practice all over the world is a kind of rehearsal of the experiment in Project Nim - they invite animals into their homes and treat them like family members, without for a moment comprehending what it must mean to the animal. When the chimp Nim was finally settled into a wildlife ranch where several other chimps were kept, it took him awhile to grasp the fact that he was a chimpanzee himself and that he belonged with other chimps and not with people. When one of Nim's handlers visited him years after his "resettlement" among chimps, she made the mistake of entering his enclosure. Nim, who apparently recognized her, went berserk and threw the woman around his cage like a rag doll. The woman was rescued and survived the attack.
Animal shelters reveal a great deal about what people really think and feel about dogs and what the actual status of dogs is in human society. According to American Humane Association calculations, "56 percent of dogs ... that enter animal shelters are euthanized." Actual numbers aren't available, but it's estimated that "approximately 3.7 million animals were euthanized in the nation’s shelters in 2008. This number represents a generally accepted statistic that is widely used by many animal welfare organizations, including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)." Only about one-quarter of dogs that enter shelters end up adopted. This is a direct result of dog-owners' refusal to get their pets spayed or neutered.
Animal shelters use the word "adoption" when people remove a dog, for a small fee. there is never any real confusion about the nature of a dog owner's ownership of the animal. The dogs are property, pure and simple. They wear collars identifying the names of their owners. They don't "run away" from their owners so much as they escape their captivity. To facilitate their recovery, many dog owners are having microchips implanted in their animals.
More and more in prosperous countries, people are bestowing on dogs a status far above all other animals, while never quite redeeming them from their condition as animals. In his inimitable way, Rilke caught the heartbreaking poignancy of our relationship with dogs, and the full extent of the crime we unwittingly, and repeatedly, commit on them: "We help them up into a soul," he wrote, "for which there is no heaven."
(1) When I left home for the Navy, and after my father died, my mother, who always called me "Danny Boy," adopted a West Highland Terrier that she named "Donny Boy." She could've been more subtle, but I suppose that might've ruined the symbolism.