I'm a dog fan, always have been. What boy isn't? Trump; it's part of what made me think he's a freak. I've had two dogs I had long-term relationships with-- Princess and Autumn Haze. I loved them; they loved me. The whole experience of their deaths helped make me decide I couldn't have children.
Do you know what anthropomorphism is? Let's forget the religion part and stick to how it applies to our relationship with animals. Basically it's about how we attribute human traits, intentions and emotions to animals. Any pet owners not guilty? I was born in Brooklyn and my parents moved to the Nassau County suburbs when I was 2. They moved back to Brooklyn was I was around 10. My dog was Princess. They decided to just leave her behind without consulting me. The ride from Roosevelt to Kings Highway was long and complicated-- maybe an hour, mostly by highway, by car. Two days after we moved into our new house, Princess showed up. My father was in such a state of shock that he let her stay. (He and I were never close but this betrayal of Princess pretty much ended our relationship forever. I feel badly about that now.)
NPR is always doing stories about anthropomorphism: Do animals grieve? Do animals love? Do dogs have the capacity to form strong emotional bonds to members of other species? If you ever had a dog, you know the answer, no matter what a neuroscientist's research says, right?
Yesterday, the Washington Post published a reminder-- Why do people mistreat their dogs? Because they can-- of a lengthy exposé of dog abuse by Gene Weingarten that the paper published earlier this month. "Dogs," wrote the editors, "are naturally social beings. They need interaction with humans and/or other animals, but it sadly is commonplace for owners to leave their dogs outside in all weather extremes, attached to some stationary structure or imprisoned in a pen. 'It occurs all over the country,' Mr. Weingarten wrote, 'the pitiless 24-hour-a-day chaining of dogs to lifelong sentences of misery and madness.' In addition to the psychological effects-- otherwise friendly dogs becoming neurotic, unhappy, often aggressive-- there are the physical ailments that result from being continuously chained. Necks become sore and raw; collars can grow into their skin, and they are vulnerable to parasites and insects. Often they are denied food and water."
The Post noted that "'There is a terrible power that comes with being human. But there is a potentially beautiful power in that, too. In this brutally unequal world, isn’t that part of the covenant with our pets? Don’t we owe them that much dignity?' Animals are helpless, but when it comes to making their lives more bearable, people are not."
Weingarten's piece, A Dog's Life, is mostly very personal-- and horrifying. One dog after another being mercilessly abused by humans. "The practice," wrote Weingarten, "is not the province of any race or any age or any nationality or any region of the country, though it is most prevalent, by far, in areas of rural America where resources are limited and opportunities are slender [and where people voted for Trump and refuse to help the country end the pandemic by getting vaccinated]... It would be tempting to call this an epidemic, except epidemics usually have a clear starting point, and they eventually end. This particular cruelty has been going on as long as anyone can remember, and no one knows when it will stop, or if it ever will. If you’ve never heard of it, or had no idea of its ubiquity, that’s probably because humanity has ample tragedies of its own to report on, and because news organizations prefer to avoid these depressing, nonessential stories. They repel readers and listeners and viewers.
These rural neighborhoods are physically flat and economically attenuated. The least approachable homes, the homeliest ones, are the ones most likely to have “No Trespassing” signs. That’s also where most of the tethered dogs in No-No Land seem to be.
The dogs’ imprisonment often is located in what Nachminovitch calls “the backyard of the backyard”-- as far from the house as possible, as though their existence is a disagreeable inconvenience. They tend to live at the center of a dirt circle with a diameter twice the length of the chain around their neck, which is often 10 feet or less. That’s their world-- the dirt universe they’ve carved out with their paws as they run in circles, testing centrifugal force, straining futilely to escape, like a moon corralled by gravity. Beyond the circle is grass they seldom if ever get to touch or sniff. Most of these dogs have been deemed unworthy of entering the family home.
The tethered dogs have common patterns of behavior. If you approach, they will joyfully run toward you, full speed until their chain snaps taut and yanks them back with a stranglehold. They know it is coming, and that it will hurt, but are frantic for connection.
They are literally and figuratively at the end of their rope. Some are sullen and vicious, but most are filled with anxiety, and unnaturally needy: When you are there, they don’t want you to leave. They will hold on to you with their front legs in a bear hug that seems to defy the natural limitations of a dog’s skeleton and musculature. Unprotected by preventive medicines, they have fleas. They have heartworm. They swarm with maggots and flies, which opportunistically attack the softest and most vulnerable portions of their bodies-- ears, eyes, mouth-- and eat away the tissue, which swells and bleeds and rots. Many have open sores, and the necrotic flesh makes them stink. Sometimes you’ll smell them before you pet them.
They will sometimes consume their doghouses, if they have one-- gnaw off and digest the wood-- simply because it is something to do during their stultifying days. The wood often grinds their incisors-- the front, nibbling teeth-- down to painful pulp.
It is not uncommon to find a dog in a collar that is slowly garroting him or her. No one has bothered to let it out a notch or three as the animal grew. Sometimes you can barely fit a pinkie under the collar. Those are the better cases. In others, the collar has fused with the skin and must be surgically excised.
The dogs will walk back and forth along the circumference of their pitiable circle, compulsively, like death-row inmates pacing their cells. At some point, inevitably, the chain will upend their water bowl, a mishap that can go unnoticed for hours or days, which is particularly perilous because they can’t get to the early-morning grass and its dew.
You learn to keep your voice low; they tend to cringe at raised voices, which, in their experience, are often followed by discipline, and discipline can be corporal. Many cower at raised hands-- even the pit bulls, shepherds and mastiffs, who could dispatch a tormentor with one strategic chomp and neck-whip but don’t. They are too broken.
...Anthrogologists believe they understand the origins of the bond between humans and dogs. It is an ancient alliance, forged from mutual need in Paleolithic times. There is debate over the specifics, but, simplifying ruthlessly:
Prehistoric human couples had each other’s backs, meaning you would sleep back to back, so you had eyes in the back of your head and a few extra seconds of warning from invading predators. But it proved mighty helpful to also have a wolf near the entrance of your yurt, one with fangs that was motivated to like and protect you.
Primitive people fed the wolves; the wolves stuck around. In time, a bond developed. You can call it taming, which sounds a little cold and manipulative, but you can also call it love. Modern science has shown that when people and their dogs look into each other’s eyes, oxytocin levels spike in both species. Oxytocin is a hormone linked to positive emotional states.
This bond came naturally: Humans and wolves are both pack animals. We are both built to team up with others to survive.
How has this relationship gotten so corrupted, then, and so profoundly, and so often? Is it about promiscuous anger: lack of resources and social powerlessness, leading to impotent rage-- the kick-the-dog phenomenon? Are the dogs an emotional tool-- something people can control in a life otherwise almost empty of control?
Maybe. Sociological studies have tended to confirm that as a factor. But it’s a tenuous connection. Privileged people do cruel things to dogs, too. Some examples are notorious: Michael Vick, NFL star and multimillionaire, ran an illegal dogfighting ring and hanged dogs who underperformed; he served 21 months in federal prison and, upon his release, became a spokesperson and lobbyist for organizations that oppose animal fighting. Jay Fabian, a NASCAR exec, was recently arrested at his home and charged with killing a dog and nearly killing another, by willfully starving them. He has temporarily stepped down from his job to deal with the charges.
John P. Gluck, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of New Mexico, knows firsthand about the ability of anyone, at all social statuses, to rationalize cruelty. As a scientist, he once tormented monkeys for a living.
They were rhesus monkeys, kept in little cages, subjects of experiments in human behavior. One day Gluck noticed that one monkey-- known to him as G-49-- was oddly energized, intent on examining a back corner of her cage, which was a solid steel wall.
“She would run up to it, make facial expressions, then pull back, then run up again,” he told me. Gluck says he investigated, and it turned out that a bolt had fallen out of the rear wall, leaving a half-inch hole. Gluck looked through it, and he saw that it had turned into a peephole to other monkeys in other cages, animals G-49 couldn’t ordinarily see. “She was fighting hard against her limitations,” he says. “Monkeys are highly social.”
Gluck pauses. Many years later, this is still not easy for him.
“I recognized how much I was crushing a life. I had built an intellectual and emotional structure that allowed me to escape what I was doing.” Gluck is now an author and lecturer in human abuse of animals.
Some behavioral scientists see all of this as a Darwinian misfire, a hiccup in the system-- an unfortunate side effect of meeting primal needs. Human brains are hard-wired to concentrate on one thing at a time and block out other things. We compartmentalize. We couldn’t really exist without this because it allows us to filter out distractions that could otherwise be crippling.
“If we couldn’t do it, we’d never get on an airplane or into a car,” says Melanie Joy, a social psychologist who writes about how humans rationalize cruelty. “We’d be focused on how vulnerable we are. So we have to engage in a degree of psychic numbing. It is an adaptive trait but can become maladaptive when it results in violence.”
She says: “People will go to a petting zoo. They would never dream of harming a piglet or a chick. If they saw an animal suffering there, they’d leap over the pen to help. Then they’ll go to a grocery store and leave with bags of bacon and eggs.”
This, of course, identifies only the propensity for cruelty-- but having a pet is elective. Why get a dog just to abuse it? If you talk to experts, and to the abusers, you get a constellation of answers, none entirely satisfying. To some people of limited means and meager possessions, dogs become a piece of property. If you think of an animal impersonally-- as, say, a sofa-- you are less likely to see it as being capable of physical suffering or having an emotional life. As property, they are something to be accumulated and guarded and abandoned at will, out there in the yard, among the rusty old cars, air conditioners, washing machines and toilets. That explains those “No Trespassing” signs in No-No Land. There are eerie echoes here, I realized: Tethered dogs, rendered desperate and neurotic, tend to do the same thing. The phenomenon is called “resource guarding”-- they’ll defend their possessions ferociously, however modest they are. Abused dogs will sometimes resource-hoard their water.
Some other owners see their dogs as protection, but when you point out to them that the animals, restrained by eight-foot tethers, are pretty useless as protection, they’ll tell you, without guilt or apparent self-awareness-- or further explanation-- that at least they can be a burglar alarm.
Some tetherers breed dogs for status: Supposedly fierce breeds, like pit bulls, convey power. And finally, some people tether because their dads and granddads did, too. You tend not to question it. No malice is intended.
Nicholas Dodman, a veterinary behaviorist who co-founded the Center for Canine Behavior Studies at Tufts University, doesn’t buy the Darwinian argument, or all the ancillary explanations, which he sees as excuses for the inexcusable. This sort of cruelty, he says, is, at its dark core, a heartless character flaw: Some people suck.
I can't believe Weingarten didn't ask the animal abusers he met if they voted for Trump. Anyone doubt that they did? He wrote that Dodman told him some people have empathy and some don't and that "there is also a political component to this: Red states are more likely to have no laws against tethering, or laws that wanly attempt to limit the practice without addressing its inherent cruelty. Purple states, too: Pennsylvania 'limits' tethering to an excruciating nine hours a day and primly stipulates that the tether must be at least 'three times the length of the dog as measured from the tip of its nose to the base of its tail or 10 feet, whichever is longer.' The whole thing is sadly familiar-- even universal. Under the rubric of being righteous and compassionate, some countries institute laws limiting how hard you can strike your wife to discipline her. 'People who mistreat animals,' Dodman concludes, 'are the same ones who mistreat people.'"