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The Rise of Dog Identity Politics

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Dogs used to be a part of the farmyard ethic. The lucky ones got to grow up, and got all the love, and the others were dispatched with as little sense of tragedy as possible, though the suppression of empathy isn’t easy work. Seamus Heaney’s bitter coming-of-age poem, “The Early Purges,” gets at this sense: “And now, when shrill pups are prodded to drown /  I just shrug, ‘Bloody pups’. It makes sense: / ‘Prevention of cruelty’ talk cuts ice in town / Where they consider death unnatural / But on well-run farms pests have to be kept down.”

But we, or most of us, are a long way from the farm these days. What, though, should a dog’s rights be? Not to suffer is the basic one on which pretty much everyone is in agreement, and where dogs are concerned, the last four decades are mostly a story of enormous progress. Canine suffering has been criminalized across the board. The vivisection cases that gave PETA its powerful boost a couple of decades ago are rarer now, partly because dogs are less desirable as research subjects. In many labs, they’ve been replaced with a breed of South American pig that is as docile and controllable as a dog, and shares more, anatomically—skin, heart valves, etc.—with people. A much better arrangement, except for the pig.

As often happens, the success in moving toward some of the movement’s most basic goals has only increased the doctrinal conflict among various groups. They’re empathy enemies, at each other’s throats like so many packs of wolves. The rescue people don’t agree with the animal-welfare people, and both can’t stand the animal-rights people, as traditional dog regimes like the American Kennel Club try to hold on to their privileged positions. It’s a struggle for the Future of Dog— a little like Russia in 1917, with weakened conservatives and radicals of many stripes, all trying desperately to invent a future.

The hospital takes your credit card in advance, possibly because, after a dog’s death, questions of its worth arise: What was it? Why did I love it so much?

Famously, the touchstone of the animal-rights movement is Peter Singer’s 1975 book Animal Liberation. The book’s title seems evocative of some future peaceable kingdom, as if suddenly all the cattle and sheep and pigs and rats are going to be set free from their jails, wandering the streets like cows in India, grazing happily where they please, forever free from harm. On reflection, this doesn’t seem likely. But if the animals are liberated, where will they go? Well, the strongest possibility seems to be that they’ll go to the country … to that same happy farm where parents have always told children unwanted animals go. The guiding idea of Singer’s book, and of the animal-rights movement in general, is to lessen animal suffering—that’s an animal’s overriding interest, according to Singer. And one way of lessening canine suffering is to lessen the number of dogs. Ingrid Newkirk, PETA’s leader, seems to dream of a world in which pets have been abolished, and she is a particularly reviled figure among many dog people. Although PETA’s mission statement includes language suggesting that each animal life is intrinsically valuable, the organization’s actions describe a more nuanced picture. PETA kills a surprising number of the animals it takes in. In the decade beginning with 1998, PETA euthanized 17,000 animals—85 percent of those it rescued.

Dog-rescue people oppose PETA and its ilk bitterly. They see numbers like this and think mass murder. Nathan Winograd, the leading no-kill advocate, is a particularly fierce critic of Newkirk’s. His aim is to reform the shelter system, and he points to successes in San Francisco; Tompkins County, New York; and Nevada as evidence that it’s possible to increase adoption rates, to find a home for every healthy pet. At bottom, he’s accusing Newkirk of the same kind of fecklessness and waste and lack of responsibility that she sees in, say, factory farming. He’s also, essentially, an optimist, believing that people are capable of being responsible for their animals.

Regarding human nature, Newkirk is a pessimist. In her view, we’ve botched this whole dominion thing, creating an Island of Dr. Moreau of animal horrors. So the best thing to do is to end our agency over animals, to disengage, build a wall around nature and stay on our side. The dog, in particular, is polluted by human influence. The animal-rights movement can seem as much about keeping humans free of guilt as keeping animals free of suffering, which is another kind of solipsism. (The rules are different on the philosophic frontier: For Singer, and for Newkirk, bestiality is not, in all circumstances, prohibited. “If it isn’t exploitation and abuse, it may not be wrong,” she has said.)

But Newkirk is certainly correct that pets complicate the animal-rights picture. If you want to disentangle humans from their carnivorous legacy, the dog’s leash is going to get caught in the knot. The dog world is as red in tooth and claw as ever—but the red is mostly in the same industrial slaughterhouses where we get our meat. The vast dog-food industry is based on “meat by-products,” that alarming euphemism. Of course, Winograd and a growing number of no-kill people have found a way to square this circle: vegan dogs.


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