New York Magazine asks and answers the question with the article “The Rise of Dog Identity Politics,” wherein John Homans probes the life of dogs as fashion accessories, the perfect companion, how city life has changed them from working animals, the Victorian mindset of the AKC, the disagreements between rights groups and how we deal with our pets’ deaths. It’s a great article, but Homans neglects the bizarre cognitive dissonance necessary to treat a dog as both a human and non-human animal simultaneously.
The most interesting point, for me, was Homans describing how dysfunctional a lot of the human-animal relationships are precisely because we mis-perceive dogs as having more personhood than they do. He returns again and again to the same basic idea: many people love dogs because they seem like perpetual children that many owners see as the perfect friend – someone they can completely control and who will love them unconditionally. The sadness inherent in Homans’ piece is that we both treat dogs as people and utterly neglect them. I was disappointed to see Homans’ didn’t cite Donna Haraway’s most recent work When Species Meet, because she hits on this very point when talking about feral cats. In the book, Haraway advocates recognizing these species for what they are – limited persons – and against shoehorning them into the role of little people.
Pets are not people, but they are limited persons, which is a distinction that both grants the animal more respect and requires more responsibility on behalf of the owner.
Consider this: dogs, in the case of most breeds, have been bred to the point of retardation, disease, and disability. Dog breeds are entirely human creations, yet there is little sense of responsibility for the grotesque features and disabilities of many of these animals. Homans could talk about how “human” dogs seemed to their owners without addressing the cognitive dissonance necessary to justify our vast genetically engineering the species and the virulent loyalty of people to various breeds.
Or, to take another example, Homans talks about how people like dogs because they are similar to the “little dictatorships” parents have over children. Read that again. Imagine an article on parenthood about a child being described as living under a “little dictatorship.” Stories like that are often about parents like Joe Jackson’s torment of his children in an effort to get fame and wealth for himself, or the parents of youth beauty pageants, so perfectly parodied in Little Miss Sunshine. Our society recoils at people who manipulate, control, and basically abuse their children in the name of their own entertainment, but to treat a dog this way is seen as endearing and normal.
The problem, of course, comes from our society’s lack of a middle ground between a full-person, that is, an adult human, and a non-person. Dogs, cetacean, great apes, elephants, parrots, pigs, and pinnipeds all fall into the non-existent middle category of non-human persons. But because we lack a cultural and legal understanding of this category, the companion animals, dogs in particular, are forced to straddle the line between the two, ultimately ending up with more problems than benefits. The result is people buying clothes for their dog and giving it an outrageous, trendy diet while still advocating canine eugenics in the name of appearance, at the cost of health, intelligence, and quality of life for the dog.
The result is people buying intelligent, high energy, loving companions that they kennel for 8 hours a day and refuse to socialize properly. The result are animals that get dressed up in clothes and carried in designer bags and exist merely as a prop, receiving affection at the owners discretion, neglected and ignored when they lose their fashion capital.
If we see dogs as humans, we shouldn’t be practicing eugenics on them, neglecting their basic needs – like training and exercise, enjoying “little dictatorships” over them, or subjecting them to the latest trends. Homans’ article reveals that, for many dog owners, dogs allow for a dysfunctional, one-way relationship in which the totalitarian owner takes and takes from an animal that is only too happy to give, never once questioning the cruelty and neglect it suffers.
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