Sunday, May 17, 2009

No more pit bull smiles?

Well, red velvet femme is still having internet issues, and I've been traveling, so I'm not sure when blogging will resume in earnest. But I've been thinking a lot about some discussions that are happening on the human-animal studies listserv. There are some animal welfare advocates who fervently believe that all animal breeding and pet-keeping involves exploitation, and that the end of domesticated animal populations is a worthy goal. It's easy to dismiss this as some kind of ivory tower insanity or fringe freakery, but I've watched this debate unfold for years and the argument continues to gain steam and the people who believe it gain power.

This iteration of the debate has been more heated discussion than what usually takes place on this (mostly academic) board, with a fair amount of snark involved. Some sensible folks have rightly pointed out that all kinds of relationships involve some aspects of utility, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

What has been most striking to me lately is the very serious ways in which people are describing domestication of animals in terms of slavery and also imperialism. In animal studies circles, this idea that domestication of animals should be abolished is known as the "abolitionist" approach. The comparison of domesticated animals to human slaves is hardly new, and comparisons abound, but when this is brought up it's usually done cautiously and with qualifiers out the arse. It may not be that every animal welfare advocate who identifies as an abolitionist believes that domestication is tantamount to slavery (or that it simply *is* slavery), but the reference is surely there.

I'd like to articulate some kind of response to all this that goes beyond mute horror. It's definitely fair to remind ourselves, over and over again, of the power imbalance and inherent inequities involved in animal-keeping. I'm not sure though that it's fair to insert cattle into the same position as African slaves or colonized people in a new vegan freedom narrative. It's just not the same. It's just not. But why?

It's not just because I can't imagine life without my animal companions. That would be true, and I also pity all the poor saps that will live in future generations without rabbits doing binkies in their living rooms if these new abolitionists win out. I don't want to imagine life without family farms (there are few enough of those left anyway), with sheep for wool and cows for milk, chickens for eggs and goats for laughs. Did slave owners feel the same way? Maybe the tradeoff would be worth it if it would in fact be a world without cruelty, or at least without the same institutions and cultures of cruelty.

It bothers me to think that the eventual goal of these abolitionists is that domestic animal populations and breeds would die out. Only animals that could survive in the wild would continue. And I don't know what would become of self-domesticating animals like dogs under this scenario. To think of dogs being cast out of human society is approaching the realm of the bad sci-fi novel. But stranger things have happened, are happening. Not that history is ever a justification, but we've evolved together for a long, long time. Who would we be without each other?

Part of the abolitionist argument seems to be that breeding animals to fulfill human needs is especially problematic, more so than companion animals. And it's true that there is something vaguely fascist about the fetishization of purebreds - at least when those that aren't purebred are devalued (or worse). Still, I feel like we haven't really figured out what it means to compare (animal) breeds with (human) race. And besides, is there no room for all the diversity of domestic animal breeds or hope for compassionate stewardship, if not human-animal partnerships? Does animal welfare really dictate a complete reboot?

I guess I find it especially ironic that while so much prejudice against pit bulls only barely disguises anti-black racism, with the result being the extermination of pit bulls, now we're holding up the emancipation of slaves as a model for freeing domesticated animals, with the same result - but for all breeds. Race is alternately effaced and trotted out, whatever suits the argument for animal welfare, in this bizarro world where freedom equals death and white privilege equals moral superiority.

Monday, May 4, 2009


Here's another story of interest - pit bull puppies seized in Elkhart Indiana. From what is reported, it sounds reasonable that the pups were seized, especially since the person was given a prior warning. But what bothers me is this quote:
"I mean you wouldn't keep your children in a situation like this, and animals deserve the same quality of life that we as humans [do], and they are looking to us for that quality of life,” said Anne Reel of the Humane Society.
I don't entirely disagree, but I try to be critical when people use the parenting analogy for human-animal relationships. I think it's useful in some respects, since (hopefully) we don't take children from their homes without a serious assessment, or euthanize them. But are human standards always appropriate for animals? And should it be the new legal standard of care?! Anne Reel isn't even limiting this to just dogs or companion animals, but animals, period. So I guess my donkeys will each be needing their own bedroom soon.

Let's talk about the Alabama bust

I can't resist playing devil's advocate with the media from time to time. I hesitate because it sucks when people I take up for end up being guilty, which has happened before. But the level of ignorance displayed in many dogfighting bust stories does not fill me with confidence in the judgment of law enforcement. Most of the time, even with the best of training from HSUS, they don't know what they looking at when it comes to pit bulls, dog yards, and equipment.

Let's take this recent bust in Alabama as an example. This situation has many of the hallmarks of a dogfighting operation. But - I have to say But - there's a lot of misinformation and possibly a healthy dose of pit bull prejudice here as well.

The key to thinking this person is a dogfighter seems to be the fact that police uncovered a treadmill. I could repeat myself with almost every supposed dogfighting bust story - but treadmills, springpoles, and so forth are also used by breeders and pit bull enthusiasts who want to exercise their dogs. They do not equal dogfighting.

Ok, so I'm looking at the condition of the dogs which is mostly good and normal. We can see that the one dog has a skinned nose. That happens, and it's not a big deal. Dogs can scrape their noses on chain link, on their houses or digging. Needs a little peroxide and neosporin. I wonder if they've taken care of that at the shelter? I kind of doubt it since shelters, if they even use vets at all, are busy taking care of *serious* injuries and illnesses.

The dog that is missing hair on the back legs looks bad. That can happen from fleas, demodectic mange, chain rubs, and just living in the dirt. It needs to be treated, yes, and it seems likely that the owner was neglecting this dog. But these minor, non-life-threatening marks on the dogs do not equal dogfighting. As an aside, I knew some folks who had a dog that ended up losing hair on his back legs like that after they started feeding Canidae. The hair didn't grow back until they went back to TimberWolf. This may be a very unlikely scenario, but the point is, we just don't know. Anyone who raises or houses a number of animals will have some animals with minor injuries. Critters get in scrapes just like kids get banged up; it can be from abuse, but it isn't necessarily. If there are other wounds or scars on these dogs that somehow add up to dogfighting (in addition to neglect or cruelty), the camera doesn't show them, which makes me think that maybe they aren't there.

The story says that the dogs are malnourished, and although it doesn't look like it from the short video, it's hard to tell. But malnourishment would not be typical of fighting dogs. What that is typical of is neglect - AND - animal rescuers who do not know the difference between an athletic dog and a malnourished dog.

There's also the perpetuation of the idea that chained dogs must be fighting dogs, or bred for fighting. The dog warden is saying that the dogs were all on heavy chains and they can't play with each other. I hear something like this and I just want to stab myself. Chaining dogs separately is one way - maybe not the preferred way - but it's one way of keeping dogs safe and secure. Then there's the shelter worker saying that the dogs want to "eat other dogs up" (which does not bode well for those dogs). But dog-aggression doesn't mean the dogs were bred for fighting. Really, it doesn't. Chaining dogs along with some amount of dog aggression is just not unusual among people who have gamedogs, but very, very common -- much more common than dogfighting.

Certainly, this dude might be guilty as fuck, and if what is being said is true, he is a huge asshole for sure. But there are enough chinks in the story that it really makes me wonder. The misinformation in regard to pit bulls, chains, slight injuries, body condition, and exercise equipment - it's ridiculously rampant among supposed "animal professionals" when the truth is out there on any number of websites, message boards and books. These officers and prosecutors know enough to be dangerous - enough to take people's dogs and inflame the public. Most of them don't want to hear the other side that I'm presenting because it's all about wanting to seize the dogs and get that conviction. Dogfighting is the go-to red herring when (1) the animals in question look to be pit bulls, and (2) the people in question look to be working-class and/or people of color. Throw in some chains or a treadmill, and the people and the dogs both are fucked.

The perspective I'm sharing is usually dismissed as an attempt to provide a cover or smokescreen for dogfighters - but at least in my case it's actually about protecting the dogs and also some semblance of civil rights. The question that everyone should be focused on is whether dogs in cases like these are better off being seized. It's not the only option. The owner could be required to seek veterinary care for the dogs, or the dogs could be carefully monitored and evaluated by behaviorists and veterinarians on-site, as the evidence of dogfighting or other crimes is evaluated. There is some risk of evidence tampering or flight in doing this, but if the priority is in fact the safety of the dogs instead of convictions, it's worth considering. I can tell you with almost complete certainty that the dogs are not better off languishing in the shelter for possibly a year or more as the case drags on.

I think that most people feel that regardless of whether the owner is a dogfighter or not, the dogs are better off either in middle-class homes or dead (and most people would prefer dead). And that's really the crux of the issue and a huge problem for anyone concerned with animal welfare and social justice.