Un-Dominion

Mar 19 2013 @ 12:05pm

In a review of two books about our relationship with dogs, What’s a Dog For? and The Puppy DiariesSue Halpern considers the power dynamics at play:

When humans breed dogs, we breed them for us—to suit our fancy, primarily, and sometimes to help us accomplish certain tasks. Snout-compressed dogs like the bulldog have been bred to appeal to a particular human aesthetic, even though this means that they sometimes have trouble breathing. The Cavalier King Charles, which in the twentieth century was rejiggered to resemble dogs in royal portraits, is, as a result, often born with a brain too big for its skull, with excruciating consequences. And bulldogs, as handsome as their oversized heads may be, are typically too large now to descend through their mother’s birth canal and require surgical extraction to be born. The soft mouth of the retriever is a human invention, and so is the tail of a pointer. The labradoodle—a cross between a poodle and a Labrador retriever—was initially made to create non-shedding guide dogs because the standard guide dogs—German shepherds, Labs, and golden retrievers—could not be used by people with allergies. …

The human–canine bond is inherently unequal. Like it or not, it is a power relationship.

And yet, I still feel my own dogs have power over me. I’m sure this is because we haven’t been the sternest disciplinarians; and because one of them is a beagle. They have different strategies for controlling humans. Dusty, the pure beagle, just insists on one simple thing: getting her way. If you’re late for her dinner, she will whine in a way that sears through the brain like the Time Warner Cable announcer. If you crate her, she will howl until the neighbors complain. She’s older than fifteen now and yet can stop a large grown man dead in his tracks if she decides she has found some elemental trace of a former pizza crust in a sidewalk crack. I know I have the power of food and medicine over her; but that’s about it. She seems to me to live in her own world, with us as her personal assistants and chefs. And, yes, of course, we ceremoniously and punctiliously follow after her sphincter and pick up her crap. I’m not sure even Marie Antoinette had such a service at hand.

Our other dog just guilts you into surrender. She’ll gaze at you with such tender love you are rendered completely helpless. She’ll just pee in the apartment if one of us is away too long. She worships Aaron as a sun-god, while I am the moon, something to see by during the nights of his physical absence. Now that I no longer have a boss, she easily has the most power over me of any other living creature, including my husband. I know this is all a terrible paradox and that their obedience should reflect what Cesar calls our “calm dominance.” But I tend to agree with Montaigne:

At home, he extended his perspective-leaping to other species. “When I play with my cat”, he wrote, “who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?” He borrowed her point of view in relation to him just as readily as he occupied his own in relation to her. And, as he watched his dog twitching in sleep, he imagined the dog creating a disembodied hare to chase in its dreams – “a hare without fur or bones”, just as real in the dog’s mind as Montaigne’s own images of Paris or Rome were when he dreamed about those cities. The dog had its inner world, as Montaigne did, furnished with things that interested him.

To see the animal world not as something to be exploited, but to be engaged with, even taught by, was, of course, legendarily attributed to Saint Francis who saw animals as his brothers and sisters. Montaigne took it further, although the best historical book I’ve ever read on changing attitudes toward nature is Keith Thomas’s Man and the Natural World. He charts a shift in human consciousness toward animals that led to this disposition:

For 2,500 years it has been known to the students of nature that the more one learns about animals, the more wonderful they become. The observation stands confirmed by the instruments of both science and art, but the animals are most instructively perceived when they are seen, as they were by [American writer Henry Beston] from the beach on Cape Cod, as other nations complete in themselves, “gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.”

If you have ever gone whale-watching on the Cape you’ll know what I mean. You see not just another creature, but intimations of another world, another way of grasping – or mercifully not grasping – the whole, a model for us primates, as well as a mirror into our own species’ ugly aggression. And a constant element of surprise. Check out Ken Layne’s interview with Derek Lee of the Wild Nature Institute:

I’ve seen so many crazy things in my life: orcas toying with a bird, elephant seal bulls battling to the death, lions killing impala, grey whales exhaling in my face, a million shearwaters feeding over humpbacks, a million wildebeest migrating after the rains, dolphins making phosphorescent trails around our boat during a midnight sail, but I still wake up every day expectant of what new wonder the world is going to surprise me with.