Our Peculiar Institution: Why Urban Dog Ownership is a Twisted Practice
When I come home from whatever it is I do during the day, my roommate’s clumsy and rambunctious mutt, Yoda, faithfully greets me with an ear-shattering bark and two front paws jammed directly into my crotch. Living with a stinking and psychotically energetic dog, in a small apartment, is not ideal, but over time I’ve grown fond of the mangy wretch. As Yoda’s significance in my life evolved from mere annoyance to annoyingly dependent friend so did my thinking on our relationship.
When I walk Yoda I never use a leash. I do this, partly because I have no desire to yank at his neck, but mostly, because I don’t enjoy being dragged around. I don’t fear for the safety of Yoda or others because he is remarkably adept at distinguishing sidewalks from the road, doesn’t jump on people (other than me), and never gives chase to other dogs. He may sprint ahead of me at times but he never gets too far. It’s a good opportunity for him to expend his pent up energy. Although I live in Jersey City, a densely populated city with narrow streets, I’m always confident that Yoda will be safe and leave others in peace.
On one of these strolls, a decidedly shrill and disagreeable woman noticed my free-spirited canine care and she thoroughly disapproved. Normally, I try to avoid unpleasantries with strangers, but her righteous anger demanded a confrontation.
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“You need to put that dog on a leash. He could get hit by a car,” she squawked sanctimoniously.
Unable to suffer her remark silently, I replied, “So could you. Should I put you on one as well?’’
Shocked by my rather unimaginative quip, she fumed. As Yoda returned to me, she noticed the planetary set of testicles hanging stridently between his haunches.
“He’s not even neutered! You are an irresponsible asshole!”
She then huffed so forcefully, I thought her lungs might collapse. She trudged off with heavy footsteps to display her pious rage. I wish I could’ve told her that it’s not even my dog.
Perhaps you think the woman from that story is justified. I found her to be just a miserable person. This is less important than trying to understand why this woman or anyone else thinks this way in the first place.
The more historically literate among you may recognize the allusion in my title. Our peculiar institution was the polite term used by antebellum southerners in reference to slavery. Before you tar and feather me, know that I am not suggesting any sort of moral equivalence between the hideously cruel institution of human chattel slavery and pet ownership. However, I will propose that the instinct and justification for both stem from similar inclinations. The only way either practice could have ever been conceived is through the desire for control over other beings and an assumption of superiority over them.
It’s amusing how negatively dog owners react when confronted with this concept. Yet, they control if, when and how their hounds reproduce, eat, urinate, defecate and interact with their own species. Dogs are sterilized “for their own good” although it’s apparent this is done out of human convenience; scolded or hit when they communicate vocally in a manner unsuitable to the owner; fed dry pellets they clearly do not prefer so that their master doesn’t have to suffer the stench of a putrid dog fart. Hell, we even refer to a dog’s human companion as its master.
We feel vindicated in making decisions for our dogs because we assume that we know what is best for them. Stray dogs with the freedom to move, eat and fuck as they please are rounded up by the thousands and placed in tiny filthy cages, so they can be rescued by people who want their balls chopped off and have microchips placed under their skin. The one’s not cute enough for adoption are dealt with in the most humane way possible and gassed to death. Not only won’t dog owners accept that they do these things out of personal and societal convenience, they fervently insist that it is in the dog’s best interest and vehemently condemn people who do not subject their dogs to this.
This odd relationship with dogs is further bastardized in an urban setting. In an agrarian environment a dog has real utility. They help with hunting and can ward off dangerous intruders. Also, more often than not, the dogs have space to run and interact with other dogs. In an urban locale, however, the entire existence of a dog is reduced to that of a toy; a source of entertainment for its master to be put away when not in use. These dogs are often locked inside apartments or cages, for hours on end, alone, while master gallivants around town doing people things. No matter how much love they get at night and on weekends, the life of a city dog is lonely and tedious.
I know, I know. You’re different. Your dog only eats what he wants, has a pack of friends and a harem of bitches, genitalia intact, and gets plenty of time at the dog park. Let’s assume for a moment this is true (although we both know it’s not). He lives a life of luxury and wants for nothing. You assume that he is happy and fulfilled. Why wouldn’t he be? What more could a dog want? It makes perfect sense to you. Based on the sets of assumptions you have about dogs that you’ve developed through your human experience, biology and notions of superiority, your furry four-legged friend floats about in a state of exalted bliss. All thanks to your generous guardianship.
This line of thinking is problematic. I do not claim to have greater insight into canine psychology than any other layman, though I have observed a pattern in human behavior that could be relevant. When humans make decisions about the lives of other humans, ignorant of their wishes and without their consultation, the result is rarely mutually beneficial and most often exploitative to those acted upon.
There also exists a pattern, that when confronted with the uneasy morality of controlling others without consent, perpetrators tend to become defensive. Insisting that not only are they not unethical, they are unequivocally altruistic. Owners and masters will usually claim to provide a better life for their charge than it could possibly do for itself.
You may be thinking, “well asshole, what would you do?” My suggestion is to simply open the gates and see what happens. Though our society stubbornly refuses to believe it possible, people and other animals can coexist peacefully without ownership, even in a city. There are many bustling cities across the world where citizens share their urban space with other species. Living in New Delhi, I was set aback by the ease in which we shared our streets with dogs, cows, pigs, monkeys and goats. Of course there are inconveniences. I have been caught in traffic behind a cow and monkeys will steal food right out of your hand. The dogs are filthy and you definitely wouldn’t want to pet them. The point is, if there is the will and tolerance, it is possible for them to live freely amongst us.
Even if this approach is too radical for our time and place, there are small steps that can be taken to incrementally liberate our canine buddies. We could start by not forcibly subjecting them to genital mutilation. Allowing them greater freedom of movement in our homes and communities would also be an important step. At the very least starting to recognize that love for animals doesn’t require their capture and dominance would constitute a radical shift in thinking. True animal lovers can admire them from afar.
I may be wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time. Dogs may be sublimely content with the arrangement we have worked out for them. But like so many other arguments where the evidence is not sufficient to prove either side, I think it’s wise to err towards the position with historical moral precedence. Ultimately we may simply be unwilling to change the dynamic of our relationships with our dogs but it deserves at least a reexamination. If nothing else it may explain the reflex to call our best friend “boy”.
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