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The Rise of Dog Identity Politics


In the animal-rescue world, each individual animal is sacred, each dog deserves its sunny day, and euthanasia, while perhaps safe and legal, should be extremely rare. These people are believers in the Universal Rights of Dog, extrapolated from the near-human status of their own pets. In another way, the animal-rescue movement is an offshoot of the civil-rights struggles of the sixties, a final frontier for universalist ideals. Animal rescue is also one of the opportunities of ordinary Americans for real heroism—and more and more, they’ve taken it. The dog’s innocence amplifies empathy, because there’s no ethical static, no human otherness to contend with. It’s less complicated to love a pet than a person. The risk and conflict and cloak-and-dagger swagger that some of these missions entail can give lives a life-in-wartime meaning they otherwise wouldn’t have. There’s selflessness here, but just as in wartime, there’s also addiction, the oxytocin mixing with adrenaline.

Some of the most vivid images in the aftermath of Katrina were of dogs—on roofs, in the water—awaiting rescue or struggling to survive. After the catastrophe, Barack Obama spoke of an “empathy deficit,” but there was no deficit when it came to the animals. An army of animal rescuers descended on the city, and their work is legend in the animal-rescue community. But among some locals, their intervention was further proof, if more was needed, that not enough value had been placed on human residents.

The rescuers have done their work remarkably well. Twenty-five years ago, some 12 million dogs and cats were euthanized, according to the ASPCA. Now the figure is between 3 and 4 million, about half of them dogs. Partly thanks to public education about rescuing dogs, a much lower percentage of dogs taken into the shelter system are eventually euthanized. And both because of the effectiveness of spay-neuter programs and the fact that dogs seldom are permitted to run loose, there are many fewer adoptable dogs. In many places on the East Coast, the demand for rescue dogs exceeds the supply—which means that, one way or another, the red states are supplying more and more of our dogs. A flood of dog refugees like Stella are coming from points south and west and places like Puerto Rico, where there are more-traditional dog cultures.

What the blue states are exporting to the red states is, often, ideology. It’s the same town-country conflict Seamus Heaney wrote about, on a gigantic scale. Newkirk, along with Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society of the United States, advocates strict, mandatory spay-neuter laws across the country, along with much stricter regulation of breeding. Pacelle is the silky pony of the animal-rights world, a Yale graduate who looks tremendous in a suit. The Humane Society of the United States is blessed with a great name, and partly because of its well-publicized raids on puppy mills, it has a massive fund-raising footprint and $125 million to spend, which can buy a good number of small-state lobbyists (the HSUS too has been trying to get its share of the Helmsley fortune). But Pacelle drives many dog people nuts because they see him as an enemy of traditional dog cultures, possibly an animal-rights ally of PETA masquerading as a friend of the dog: a wolf in sheep’s clothing. “The biggest problem with HSUS,” says Janeen McMurtrie, a Minnesota dog trainer who has a widely read blog called Smartdog’s Weblog, “is that they hide their goals so well. I have clients who are avid dove hunters and they’ve given them money.”

Here, too, there is a sense that the ground is shifting, that the World of Dog may be on the verge of irrevocable change. The spay-neuter laws that Pacelle and Newkirk advocate, while no doubt reducing the numbers of dogs that have to be put down every year, have the potential to change the dog itself. “The thing about mandatory spay-neuter,” says James Serpell, “is that those who are most willing to have their dogs spayed or neutered tend to be responsible people. And often, their dogs also happen to be nice animals in temperament. So what you’re doing essentially is taking those dogs out of the breeding population.” McMurtrie echoes Serpell’s concern. “It’s hasn’t gotten widespread enough yet,” she says. “But if it did, it could be catastrophic.”

The ancien régime is also having its troubles. On an October weekend, the American Kennel Club held a “Meet the Breeds” event at the Javits Center. There were some 160 breeds represented, along with booths for every conceivable dog accessory and dietary regimen: organic behavior aids, chewable dog toothpaste. The idea is to connect breeds with their ancestral homelands. Behind the Cavalier King Charles spaniels is an oversize photograph of a castle surrounded by woods. The borzois lounge on pillows in a tented area, long and elegant but probably not the brightest bulbs, like the czars who bred them. A man in a tartan kilt holding a shepherd’s crook stands with a small pack of Shetland sheepdogs, alert, confident creatures, like little collies. The dogs don’t herd sheep so much anymore, the man tells me, though sometimes they’re used to herd geese on golf courses.


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