Monday, December 7, 2009

written on the (pit bull) body

i am sitting here listening to Antony & The Johnson's "Cripple & The Starfish" over and over and over.

it's true i always wanted love to be
it might be that my emotional response to this song has a little to do with my husband's sweet adult daughter coming to live with us this past week. she has left an abusive relationship, one where she was isolated and beaten over the course of years. of course, we didn't realize. she and Mr Muscle hid it well. i'm feeling very protective of her.

but i've also been reading and re-reading the awesome Eva Hayward's essay on this song - which is actually how i learned of it - Lessons from a Starfish in the anthology Queering the Non/Human. it's the most fascinating essay and so difficult, i've almost taken to reading it upside-down. it's as artful as the song - thankfully someone as brilliant as she is covered this song.

i really can't summarize the essay here, and i hope you'll read it. but we are familiar here, i think, with the fact that gender and sex and species all exist within discourse. they are all based on relationality and are mutable. inspired by the song, the examples taken up are the starfish and the transsexual/transgender person. eva is considering how the act of cutting can be potentially regenerative, a beginning of healing, an opening of the way to trans-gender or even trans-species re-formations.

so alongside this trajectory, i'm also thinking about cutting in trans-species relationships. specifically, spay/neuter and the deafening mainstream mandate to alter one's pets. i'm less interested in debating the need to sterilize pets, but in the way our society has chosen to accomplish it: through invasive cutting and removal of all reproductive organs. these surgeries are not necessary to prevent reproduction.

when humans decide not to reproduce, they might have a vasectomy or tubal ligation, and those procedures are equally possible in animals, and they accomplish the same goal. a vasectomy is especially easy, an outpatient procedure with local anasthetic. the doc makes small incisions, cutting vas deferens tubes which carry the sperm. the castration of a human male is typically performed only in cases of cancer (or SRS).

of course, the reason is that the goal of spay/neuter is not just to control reproduction, it's to control reproductive behavior. to stop male dogs from chasing females, and stop females from attracting males (and bleeding all over your carpet). and vets will try to sell you on the whole cancer-prevention angle, which i just reject outright. but there are lots of other factors, including surgery risks and well-known but unpublicized health problems that come with spay/neuter.

IMO the seeming "need" for cutting out all these organs has more to do with vets making money, coupled with the typical pet owner's desire to infantilize pets, and along with that, an anxiety around sexuality that is triggered by our pets' all-too-visible genitalia.

i have friends who giggle nervously about their dachshund's "dog-gina" every time she rolls over for a belly rub. and there are the doggie butt-covers available on etsy. but those examples are nothing compared to the ugly stares you get if you walk an uncastrated male pit bull around town. apparently dog balls (and especially pit bull balls) engender a lot of horror, not to mention lectures from spay/neuter advocates. i just want to say, "what's the matter, you've never seen nuts before?!" they might toss out a few neuticles to appease the manly dog owner, but basically it's a war on testes. you might scoff, but i know a vet who makes her christmas garland out of all the nuts she's snipped.

for those of us who are trying to honor the agency and subjectivity of animals, the removal of all reproductive organs might resemble other debates around the politics of sexuality. dare i liken it to other historical examples of the forced sterilization of disabled women and third-world women, or female circumcision? maybe, maybe not. but this is clearly another case where "scientific" or "medical" discourses around spay/neuter are undergirding certain ideologies that have nothing to do with science or (veterinary) medicine.

scary when most people who drop their pets off for these supposedly routine and much-needed procedures really have no clue what's involved, and that includes the legislators. btw, i really did review a draft of a proposed mandatory spay/neuter law, and it required that all pets be neutered or "spaded" by 6 mos.

i wish spading had something to do with starfish, but i don't think it does.


  1. That video was wonderful.

    I used to buy into the whole spay/neuter at six months is the healthiest, most responsible thing, but then I started reading and thinking for myself.

    You say in your post that the side-effects of spay/neuter are well known. That has not been true in my experience. I absolutely believe they're well-known in certain circles, and I completely believe that they should be more well-known in the veterinary community, but I was absolutely gobsmacked that my vet, probably the smartest person I know, boarded in small animal general practice, had no idea that spay/neuter increased the risk of certain cancers. Given that she owns and loves a breed absolutely riddled with cancer, I would have thought she'd be more knowledgeable about it. But I suspect she learned "what is right and healthy and good" in vet school and has never really been given reason to think beyond that.

    IMO, that's unacceptable. It kills me that we are still recommending spay/neuter of 6 months old Rotties, despite the HUGE risk of osteosarcoma that it brings, and if you don't do it, especially if the dog is male, then you're frowned and considered questionable.

    It has been completely subversive for me to choose to not neuter my puppy at six months. It has downright offended one person I work with, and everybody else just doesn't understand. One person is afraid he's going to chew his scrotum off after surgery since I waited until he matured. For crying out loud. I wouldn't neuter him at all except he's cryptorchid.

    It's totally bizarre to me. The testicles being referred to as tumors thing bewilders me. I just don't get it.

  2. ooh! i hadn't heard of testicles as tumors! that's totally fascinating..

    i guess you're right, that the risks of S/N are not well-known except in certain circles. it seems like the info is out there and so easy to learn - so yes, ignorance on this is totally unacceptable, especially among vets.

    btw i saw a vet last week about my rabbit's cataracts - i like her a lot, but i asked her whether she could do a vasectomy on him (he's only a year old, so it's really strange that he has such early cataracts), but she was flummoxed. she said all she could do was neuter him like she learned in vet school.

    it's amazing how your choice for your dog - based on his own health for chrissakes - has been so subversive, but i guess it doesn't surprise me. good for you for doing what's best for your dog!!

  3. finally finally finally got around to writing my response to this really awesome post! you guys are always so thought provoking- keep it up!

  4. My supervisor at the radio station forced an Antony and the Johnsons cd down my throat and claimed that it was probably the best new music out today. Sadly, I strongly disagree.

    I use to disagree with your stance on fixing pets, but this was due only to lack of evidence. I'm still not 100% on the subject, but I'm slowly opening up to other possibilities.