| by Barry Purcell |
As humans, we have visited the most horrible cruelty on dogs. Although some recent self-serving studies (commissioned and conducted by humans) indicated that it may originally have been a mutually beneficial arrangement, there is no doubt that we have selectively-bred a perfectly reasonable wolfish animal into a myriad of ratters, hunters, retrievers, killers, sled-haulers, badger-baiters and whatever the hell a chihuahua is supposed to be for.
Apart from long-term genetic modification projects for the purposes of cheap labour, we lock these animals, who have been selected on the basis of their compliance with our unilateral terms, in the stone boxes we regard as our abodes. We control their food supply, enforce arbitrary rules about soft furnishings, strictly regulate their bathroom activities (often using acts of violence, screaming, and nose-shoving), and we perversely call this “love”.
There is a chasm, therefore, between our ideology of love and its practical function. We “love” our dogs. But if a sufficiently-advanced alien asked us what it might look like if we hated dogs so much that we were willing to engage in a ten-thousand-year campaign of mockery and debasement that has resulted in the Bichon Frise, how would we explain? The ignominy we have visited on dogs is a workable example of how we can not just miss the target, but travel at full speed in the opposite direction of “love” while assuming that we live there.
When I say I love my dog, what does that mean? It’s certainly not a description of a reciprocal arrangement. Despite the counter-claims of millions of emotionally-vulnerable middle-aged men and women and even some scientists who should know better, dogs have no meaningful understanding of emotions. In fact, no animal has ever demonstrated any consciousness (please note: as humans understand it) whatsoever.
Why should they? It’s a waste of a sparrow’s tiny bird-brain to devote any mental energy at all to why he gets up so early, or what the experience of his morning meal might be like from the perspective of the worm he is industriously tugging from the wet field. A badger who can do calculus is a broken badger.
Occasionally we will hear an inspiring story of an elephant in a remote part of a third-world country who paints pictures of elephants, only to later discover that he had been violently coerced, perhaps with electro-shocks, to demand of him the precise series of trunk movements necessary to produce an image of an elephant convincing enough for a gang of culturally-illiterate wildlife-loving tourists who enthusiastically applaud the torture of animals before scurrying back to the safety of their minibars and ceiling fans and CNN.
Those of us who believe that animals should not be treated as merely sub-optimal humans construe the love owners feel for their pets as a form of projection. An owner will project his own hopes and expectations onto an animal and pretend (or in the sadder cases, genuinely believe) that they are experiencing a relationship.
A dog bares his teeth as a stress warning to get out of his personal space: “He smiles when I hug him!” Your dog is not smiling at you.
A dog acknowledges the lower, louder vocal tones by avoiding eye contact to indicate submission: “He knows exactly what he did — that’s his guilty face!”
He does not feel guilty, and probably has no idea what you’re annoyed about.
Occasionally we will hear an inspiring story of a chimpanzee who uses a twig to get termites from a mound, or a crow who drops stones into a narrow jar to raise the liquid to an achievable level. This is interpreted as intelligence, and characterized as “tool use”, with the implication that it’s an analogue of human tool use.
There are three arrogant assumptions here. The first is that all animals can be placed on a track of progress from zero to human. The second is that animals can be placed discretely on that track by doing anything at all which looks like something humans do. The third is that the closer they are to ‘human’, the more intelligent they are.
I have a watch that tells me the time in Alaska, not because I need to know, but because some Japanese watch designers thought it might be fun. And they were right. This is not remotely in the same category as a crow dropping stones in a jar. To confuse them is a category error.
Occasionally we will hear an inspiring story of the relocation of a family across a continent, only to be joined by the erstwhile family pet some weeks later, apparently having trekked the distance alone. If a human did something like that, we’d have no hesitation in calling it Stockholm Syndrome and sending in a team of psychotherapists to unravel the messy ball of counter-productive coping mechanisms. But a dog following his pathetic, conditioned responses is regarded as semper fi and the story as a whole is charming: a paragon of Man’s Best Friend. A man’s best friend, then, is a projected construct to account for his emotional failings which, in most men, are legion.
Occasionally we will hear stories of people in the Philippines or Korea who eat dogs and we instinctively balk. There is no sensible reason to prefer cow meat over dog meat; we just feel closer to dogs. We imagine that dogs have (perhaps marginally) more intimate relations with us than cows do. But why should the cattle of the world be slaughtered en masse due to our lack of imagination? Besides, if there is a proportional inverse relationship between how much I like an animal and how acceptable it is to use it for meat, I should find it perfectly acceptable to fry up bits of my worst enemy and have him with noodles.
Let’s say the aliens mentioned in the third paragraph above come to our planet, and that they are as advanced beyond us as we are beyond cows. The word “advanced” here can mean whatever you need to make this happen. What could we say to these aliens to convince them they shouldn’t farm us for food?
We need a radical overhaul of our relationship with animals.
Barry lives in Ireland and writes about philosophy, humor, politics, language and how they intersect. He writes and edits (inter alia) a philosophy blog called What’s The Point of Philosophy?, an atheism blog called Atheist Cartoons, and a Irish political satire blog called In Other News. You can connect with him on Twitter @solo1y, or via email: email@example.com.
Header Photo: Jairo Alzate