Red velvet femme and I met in grad school, in Women's Studies. There we talked a lot about how gender - even our physical bodies - are produced and shaped according to the norms of our culture. Every so often we would look at how biological sex plays a role in gender, but mostly we focused on all the ways gender is taken for granted and used to perpetuate social hierarchies. Before that program, I had always straddled the nature/nurture debate, and even bought into the "Men are from Mars" view that men and women tended to have certain "natural" tendencies, at least on the whole. But the program was eye-opening and mind-blowing - it helped me see how insidious and overwhelming are these cultural messages, and how we are hailed to do gender in very specific ways.
So with this background, I'm always inclined to downplay biological sex. But in the last few years, I've spent a lot of time learning about farming. Anyone who has farmed knows that male animals require different care and handling than females of the same species. "You can only have one cock of the walk," a friend told me when my first hen hatched a bunch of little yellow puffballs. I didn't listen, unable to part with (or even sex) any of the tiny fluffy angels. But within a year, the brothers and the father were scrapping. As soon as I heard the dogs barking, I'd know the roosters were going at it, and I'd have to rush outside to break up those bad boys. When one rooster was injured more than a little, I admitted to myself that I had to do something with all the dadgum roosters. I advertised in the farmer's market bulletin, but no-one wanted roosters. I think everyone else knew what I was just then learning and having themselves a pot of coq au vin. I couldn't house each rooster separately, so I took all but one to the feed store where I was paid a whopping $5 per rooster. The nice man took pity on me and assured me that people wouldn't eat these roosters, they were too handsome. I just had to steel myself and not worry about what might happen to them. Biology had won out; those roosters knew nothing of social construction. I was broken-hearted but my hens were much happier.
That's just one small example. It's rare to keep an uncastrated male animal as part of a herd, and with good reason. People don't usually ride stallions, or use donkey jacks to pull carts. No-one wants a stinky billy goat ramming its head into their house until there's a huge hole in the siding. Even male bunnies can't live together without bloody battles. I don't want to be reductive or essentialist, but there is this biological thrust to farm life that can't be ignored.
Dogs (and humans) are different from most farm animals in that they are not prey animals, but predators. Because dogs have prey drive, aggression has played a greater role in the evolution of dogs than in herd animals like sheep. And yet many people seem to expect dogs - even adult, uncastrated, untrained, unsocialized, male dogs - to have social inhibitions and skills. Before we even start to discuss all the complications of pack structures or dog aggression, I think it's important to situate dogs within a context of domestic animal populations. It seems as though the more urbanized and anthropomorphized pet ownership becomes, the farther we get from treating dogs as complex creatures.
This is not to play into the hugely overblown fear of dogs like pit bulls, but to say that it's just the flip side of treating them like all those little singing stuffed animals that line every shelf at Wal-mart. I'm also not a sterilization nazi - although spay/neuter is definitely the best choice for most pet owners. I know this is all very obvious to many of you, but I am often shocked how little dog owners seem to know about dogs. Sharing one's life with any animal, much less a dog, much less an uncastrated male dog, much less a dominant and powerful dog, it requires a good deal of knowledge and care. So many safety issues can be reconciled by actually learning about these dogs that we claim to love so much.
And another caveat: none of this is meant to support the fucked-up notion that that humans are better than animals or have dominion over nature. When people talk about dogs needing to be treated as dogs, it usually prefaces a lecture about animals being placed here for man's use (never woman's use), and how the rightful place of humans is at the head of the natural order. No and no. Somehow though, even while working to undo tired humanist notions that have undergirded centuries of animal abuse, we have to act as guardians of our non-human companions. We can't elide our differences or abandon our responsibilities in our quest for justice for animals. Categories of race, class and gender - uniquely applicable to humans - I'm not sure they provide good models for thinking about human-animal relationships. Or maybe there another view that emphasizes mutuality and commonality along with stewardship. I'd love to hear what y'all think.