On being fit to cherish our dogs and our children

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"I wish I were the person my dog thinks I am,” is a bumper sticker that should more likely read, “I wish I were the person I think my dog thinks I am.” We love our dogs—and our children. In each case we are responsible for everything from basic needs to self esteem to economic advantages. In both cases we are given unconditional love, absolute loyalty, and perfect trust. Those invaluable gifts are ours to cherish or to trash.

In Austin and the rest of the United States, dogs are integrated into our lives. We live with them, sleep with them (apparently 42 percent of dog owners let their dogs sleep in the bed with them), feed them premium quality foods, buy fancy and functional collars, leashes, sweaters, and flotation devices among other accoutrement, spending $51 billion a year on our pets. I must agree with a 2007 Businessweek article that the most extreme expense seems to be “Neuticles, a patented testicular implant that sells for up to $919 a pair. The idea, says inventor Gregg A. Miller, is to ‘let people restore their pets to anatomical preciseness’ after neutering, thereby allowing them to retain their natural look and self-esteem.” Can anyone say “anthropomorphism”?

Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia-Marquez rendered a more eloquent and poignant aspect of anthropomorphism in his story “Maria dos Prazeres” from the Strange Pilgrims collection (Vintage, 2006). Maria, a prostitute with many regrets, has a vision of her death and so invests time teaching her dog, Noi, first to cry and then to take the two-hour pilgrimage from her apartment to the cemetery plot she has purchased so that, upon her death, the dog may cry over her grave.

Dogs were first domesticated 15,000 to 20,000 years ago but most breeds date back only a few hundred years. Adam Boyko, a Cornell post-doc now at the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine whose work researching the “village vagrant” dogs was featured in National Geographic (Feb. 2012), has discovered that most village dogs are equally closely related to both wolves and fully domesticated dogs. His study suggests that African village dogs were just as diverse as the East Asian ones and that the Middle East is the likely cradle of dogs.

Various cultures evolved to regard dogs in radically different ways. Both the Islamic and medieval European cultures historically held black dogs to be ominous. In Saudi Arabia, dogs could be used for guarding or hunting but were otherwise considered unclean. There are some differences we may find unbearable. While Koreans seem to have a reputation for eating dog meat, the Korea Animal Rights Advocates, who fight for its abolition, claim it is “a Chinese tradition that was copied by Koreans at some stage.” Most sources say the Chinese have eaten dogs for about 7,000 years. But in September 2011, Chinese people cheered when, according to the New York Times, officials ended “a 600-year-old local custom: the slaughter of thousands of dogs to be eaten at an autumn festival. … The Jinhua Hutou Dog Meat Festival, as it is called, was abruptly canceled.” The recent growth in China includes pet ownership and an increased consciousness of animal rights.

If only Afghanistan and other less-developed countries could make similar leaps in human rights. Female children in Afghanistan today are the tokens of punishment for the crimes of their adult relatives in the form of justice known as “baad.” A recent New York Times piece illuminated the harrowing ordeal of an eight-year-old girl who was taken as property and beaten for misdeeds her uncle had perpetrated against a fellow (male) Afghan. The more chilling part of the story is that her father was angry, not that his daughter was punished for his brother’s actions, but because he had already promised her in marriage to someone else.

These international examples (Michael Vick notwithstanding—again voted the most hated athlete in America for his dogfighting ring) stand in stark contrast to our privileges of loving and spoiling our canine companions and our children. How fortunate we are to live in a culture where animal and human rights are honored and defended. This is the vital foundation of a “fit” culture.

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