Sunday, September 14, 2014

Puppy Love

Recently, a Facebook friend shared a news article about the funeral of a police dog in Oklahoma. According to the report, on August 28 more than a thousand people attended a funeral for a three year old Belgian German shepherd named Kye, an Oklahoma City Police Department K-9, that was mortally wounded "in the line of duty." In attendance was the dog's "partner," Sgt Ryan Stark, who was shown in a photo kissing the animal that was lying inside an open casket - made for a human being - that was ceremonially draped with an American flag. The report also mentioned that "dozens of police dogs gathered at Kye's funeral." The interment was performed with "full police honors" and a 21-gun salute.

I've heard of many other such police and military ceremonies for K-9s killed in the performance of their "duties." I've also seen ceremonies in which military and police K-9s were presented with medals for their "valor." And every time I see one of them I can't decide whether to cry or to laugh. The people attending the dog's funeral were clearly, to me, actors in a popular fairy tale - the fairy tale that many people tell one another, based on an unspoken conviction that dogs are people trapped in the bodies of animals.

I don't own a dog, but my siblings and many - in fact nearly all - of my friends do. (And I'm sure that I'm pissing them off as they read this.) On Facebook, they share cute photos and videos of dogs, and recount stories about their strangely human, and sometimes superhuman, traits. I take every one of their shared offerings with a grain of salt, since I have never bought into the cult of dogs. It's a very ancient cult, that extends to long before recorded history, when human beings and dogs first made their unique acquaintance. I've written before about how dogs are afforded a quite special status in many people's lives, far above that of any other animal. To me, dogs never ceased being animals, but to my siblings and friends, dogs seem to occupy a special middle ground between animals and people - higher than animals but never quite as high as us.

To me, these claims have sometimes seemed endearing, but always grossly exaggerated. The power that people have of projecting onto their pets qualities that they don't possess is evidently inestimable. One of the reasons why I've learned to see through them is my experience of living in a poor country, where dogs seem to be of little use to people. The dogs' diet consists entirely of what they can scrounge - leftovers from people's meals. And since there is so little left uneaten by these poorest of people, the dogs have to fight for what few scraps are available. Even the ownership of dogs is questionable, since they're all strays. Their adoption by a household is comparable to the dog's adoption of its fleas. 

The stunted, mongrel canine specimens that I see all around my house are never much bigger than a terrier, and they all carry the scars of survival among all the other half-starved dogs, that piss so much around my stoop that on rainy days the stench of ammonia is overpowering. Whenever a female is in heat, male dogs come from all over the area to have a go at her. And the melees that ensue are terrible to witness. Once I stood looking out of my kitchen at a crowd of male dogs swirling around a female, all of them biting one another, and I threw a stone to break them up. Alas, the stone struck the beleaguered female, who gave me a look of such beleaguered sadness that I had to turn away and close my door. If a member of PETA were to visit my neighborhood and watch how the dogs have to live, they would realize how impossible it is to expect animals to be treated ethically in a place where the people aren't much better off.

The police funeral that took place in Oklahoma City was part of a fairy tale in which only people living in prosperous countries can indulge. The dog's fellow policemen would be indignant if anyone were to suggest that the term "in the line of duty" is nonsensical when applied to K-9s. 

I remember watching the TV series Lassie when I was a boy, about a clever collie involved in weekly adventures, saving peoples' lives, foiling attempted robberies, and fostering love and understanding among humans beings. The handler of the dog (or dogs, since there were several Lassies over the years) that was enlisted to perform in the series was clearly a genius. He could elicit actions and poses from the dogs that appeared to communicate actual emotions, convincing the viewing audience that Lassie was feeling happy or sad or worried or whatever the scene required. The dog did nothing but respond to commands from the handler, and do whatever it was trained to do. 

K-9s are doing exactly the same thing - obeying commands and training. The only difference is that the situations in which the police handlers take their dogs is potentially lethal - something of which the dogs have no comprehension. When the first NASA astronauts were introduced to the press in the Sixties, some reporters wondered what made them any different from the chimpanzee that was sent into space on a prior mission. The differences were many, but the most obvious one was that the chimp had no understanding that it was sitting atop a rocket ship about to be shot into outer space. At the end of every Hollywood movie in which animals are used, there is a disclaimer from the Humane Society stating that none of the animals were harmed during the making of the movie. Unlike stuntmen, who voluntarily expose themselves to hazardous situations, the animals were there because their handlers - or wranglers, as they call themselves - had been hired to supply them for the production. 

Obviously, K-9s are used by the police because they are much more intimidating. A snarling dog, baring it's teeth, is terrifying. Is it "bravery" they exhibit when they chase down a criminal or is it simple obedience? A human cop knows when his or her life is in danger, and knows the risks the job often involves. Does the dog? Or is it, like Lassie, simply following its training and its handler's commands? 

Of course, the ultimate stage of dog worship is a pet cemetery - although I suspect that Kye, and other K-9s who die in the line of duty, are being buried in proper cemeteries, alongside their fellow policemen or soldiers. Or am I, in this case, projecting too far?*

*One more obvious question: was the dog's body sent to an embalmer or a taxidermist?     

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