On wolves and humans, colony dogs, other beastly tales
Date: 7/14/2012 4:33:00 PM
[Unorganised notes on some things that have been on my mind in a post-Fox world]
I’ve been reading Steven Kotler’s A Small Furry Hope: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life (originally published in the US as A Small Furry Prayer) – this is an intimate, probing work that moves between the author’s experiences running an animal rescue shelter with his wife in Mexico and larger philosophical and scientific questions about animal intelligence, the difference between art and altruism, the human-animal bond and its ecological repercussions. Kotler covers much ground on these subjects and does it compellingly, interspersing them with his own personal growth as a dog-lover.
One very interesting passage is about the history of human cohabitation with dogs – or rather, with the wolves that eventually became dogs. Archaeologists once believed that humans and canids began living together only around 14,000 years ago, but subsequent DNA analysis (tracing the genetic split between wolves and dogs) suggests that the relationship goes back much further – to a time, more than 100,000 years ago, when our small-brained ancestors made their way from Africa to Eurasia and began hunting with wolves; and that this had a big effect on the development of both species.
Tracing the co-evolution of humans and wolves, the Viennese zoologist Wolfgang (yes!) Schleidt has observed: “There is something in the bond among wolves, and between dogs and humans, that goes beyond that between us and our closest primate relatives, the chimpanzees.” Recent research suggests that early man may have “learnt” much of his social behaviour from observing wolves. From Kotler’s book:
Scientists can trace intelligence, self-awareness and long-term planning to our chimpanzee ancestry, but as Schleidt points out in “Apes, Wolves, and the Trek to Humanity”, traits such as patience, loyalty, cooperation and devotion to both one’s immediate family and to a larger social group are not prevalent among primates. “The closest approximation to human morality we can find in nature is that of the gray wolf, Canis lupus,” he writes.
Chimpanzees are individualists. They are boisterous and volatile in the wild. They are always on the lookout for opportunities to get the better of each other. They are not pack animals. If you watch wolves within a pack, nuzzling each other, wagging their tails in greeting, licking and protecting the pups, you see all the characteristics we love in dogs, including loyalty. If you watch wild chimps, you see the love between mother and offspring, and the bond between siblings. Other relationships tend to be opportunistic.
Some of this is necessarily speculation, but there are strong indications that some of the “human” qualities we most value today are by-products of our ancient interaction with this other species. Recently much good research has been done on the physiological benefits of being in a relationship with a dog, and as Kotler puts it, “we have evolved to co-habit with dogs. Their presence is part of makes us feel safe in the world. Remove them from our lives and there are bound to be consequences.”
But of course, urban development is specifically geared to weeding out the natural world from human lives; it’s based on the hubris that we are exalted creatures, capable of leading autonomous lives in our concrete bubbles, never mind the consequences for the ecology and for our own health. Some years ago I did this interview with the author Vandana Singh, where she spoke of the self-absorption of human beings, our inability to “see” other creatures and our cosy certainty that our destinies are unrelated to those of “lesser” beings (except of course when they can be exploited for our benefit). Singh wrote eloquently about all this in her piece “The Creatures we Don’t See: Thoughts on the Animal Other”.
In recent times I’ve often had cause to think about the determination with which some people cut themselves off from other life forms. Nearly each time I took Foxie down for her walk, I had to ignore hostile stares from people in the neighbourhood: what should have been uncomplicatedly happy, quality time often became a dispiriting experience where I was constantly feeling defensive, constantly primed for a confrontation. Frequently, old people (people who may well have led decent, moral lives but who never in all their decades had the enormously uplifting experience of being close to an animal) looked at us darkly and muttered things under their breath; this when Fox was doing nothing more offensive than running around after a tennis ball. There were occasional fights with residents who didn’t want to see dogs in the tiny excuse for a park we have downstairs (this is a cut-off segment of a larger area that was a green park when we moved here in 1987, but which is now exclusively a car park). Even when I assured them that she never used this section of the grounds as a toilet, there were sullen expressions or pronouncements about how they would be forced to “handle this situation in our own way”.
Our colony has had its street dogs for years now – their numbers have always been under control and a small but devoted group of animal lovers have taken responsibility for their vaccinations, sterilisations and food; these dogs are docile and a couple of them even spend part of the day in the garden or courtyard of a dog-friendly resident. Their ancestors were dominant inhabitants of this terrain as recently as 40 or 50 years ago – before the land-clearing and DDA construction boom began in Saket in the late 60s. But that scarcely counts for anything now; if you’re sold on the idea that man “has dominion” over all other creatures, you don’t have to be troubled by something as trifling as conscience. And for as long as I can remember, these animals – and their very few protectors – have faced the ire of the vast majority of households in the colony.
|Fox with one of the local boys|
When we first moved here, my mother was regularly screamed at by the people in our building because she would put food out for a couple of dogs (who would sometimes sleep at the bottom of the stairway). A divorcee living alone with a 10-year-old son, she was seen as being essentially helpless, and some of the abuse that came her way (from the married women in the building, no less) had threatening undertones that I won’t spell out here – except to say that I was reminded of it recently when I heard that a young girl who feeds street dogs had been menaced with an undisguised sexual threat by the “humans” living near her house.
(My wife, when she was staying alone in a Mayur Vihar flat in 2006-07 before we got married, was subjected to similar hectoring – culminating in an episode where a group of at least 15-20 people were practically at her doorstep, waving their fists at her. Single women are ripe targets for this sort of thing, which makes one wonder if the animals are just a pretext for the playing out of socio-cultural bullying and other dark imperatives.)
It’s worth spelling these things out, because from conversations with friends who are indifferent (not hostile) to animals, I realise that many well-meaning people have no idea just how marginalised and hounded animal-lovers can become in these situations. A few months ago members of our Residents’ Welfare Association attempted to have the local strays taken away and destroyed by coercing children to put tick-marks on a paper with the questions “Are you scared of the strays? Have you been chased or bitten by them? Do you want them removed?” That includes the majority of kids who were not scared (because they had no reason to be). The matter was resolved – for then – when one of our dog-Samaritans got the children together, had a candid conversation with them, asked if there had been any disturbing incidents, and told them exactly what would be done to the dogs if they were taken away. Some of these children – displaying the honesty, compassion and common sense that appears singularly lacking in adult homosapiens – then went and politely asked their parents to back off. It worked for the time being, but we aren’t deluding ourselves that this was anything more than a tiny battle won.
There is a tendency, among those who don’t like animals, to get all bleeding-heart about “the many human beings who are in an equally bad state – shouldn’t we do something to help them first?” There are obvious logical flaws in this argument: is this a zero-sum game? Is human welfare unrelated to that of other life? And are they saying that we need to completely eradicate all human suffering from the planet – as if that is ever possible – before we turn our attention to non-human animals? But beyond that I find this self-serving argument funny because, in my experience, many of the people who use it are just as apathetic to other human beings - the ones they don’t count among family and friends, or at least “equals”. True compassion isn’t a quality that can be neatly rationed out by withholding it from one species (or social class, or religion, or caste – you pick the group). Those RWA goons who jump up and down when they see dogs in their precious manicured parks... I find it no surprise that they yell just as loudly when the colony’s ayahs, drivers and other domestic staff sit down to have lunch together in that park. So much for being more concerned about “human beings”.
Flipping through the papers yesterday, my eyes fell on an advertisement for 3M Car Care. I initially misunderstood the tone of the ad, but it turned out to be a sardonic comment on “desi ways to keep your car new”, with accompanying illustrations. One of the stated methods was “Don’t allow pets in your car” and the drawing alongside showed what to my eyes looked like a little dog being flung out of a vehicle (a marginally kinder interpretation is that the admonishing hand reaching out from inside the car was warning the dog to stay away).
To put it very mildly, I haven’t been in a cheerful mood the last few weeks, and seeing an image like this was not going to get me feeling better. (Apart from everything else it reminded me of how, the day after we took Foxie to her burial site – in our car – I found myself in the back-seat of the vehicle, trying foolishly to gather bits of fur so I could store it in a little box. Whenever I’m in the car now, I feel a measure of irrational comfort from the knowledge that she so often travelled in it. The car – otherwise an ugly metal heap that I rarely use and have absolutely no emotional attachment to – has become more valuable because of its associations with her.)
|A blurry, unintentionally arty camera-phone photo of Fox |
in the back-seat, taken through the front mirror
Even so, looking at that drawing, an involuntary snort escaped me. The picture was such an apt representation of the cheerfully callous way in which many people treat their “pets” in this city. In the litany of abandonment stories one keeps hearing, a common theme is that of dogs being thrown out of moving vehicles when their “owners” decide they can no longer take responsibility for them. Such things happen dozens of times every day (and animal-welfare organisations like Friendicoes get flak because they don’t have the resources to deal with this quantum of cruelty) – it’s a transparently obvious manifestation of an attitude that considers non-human animals as disposable property with no feelings of their own - not “special”, like we humans apparently are.
[Some related thoughts in these posts: vindication of the rights of "brutes"; Temple Grandin's Animals in Translation; dogs and dog-owners]