S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 27 July 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
This Shouldn't Happen to a Dog

 

[i know that bishop the dog would agree with this essay]

The word is out: Lassie actually

didn't run to fetch help when

Timmy fell down the well. As

many of us already suspected,

she just sniffed around for a

pile of appetizing feces to nosh

or an enthralling stick to gnaw,

as the towheaded tyke's mortal

soul was reclaimed by the murky

depths, his fading pleas ignored

so that the legendary collie

could return to nibbling yet

again at the flea that had been

pestering her haunch all day.

 

As if to confirm our suspicions

of mongrel malfeasance, Stephen

Budiansky's article in this

month's Atlantic Monthly posits

dogs' genetic predisposition to

be tongue-lolling,

testicle-licking mooches. We'll

spare you the Island of Dr.

Moreau mumbo jumbo, the

mad-scientist speculation on

what the true function of the

US$3 million Dog Genome Project

could be (possibly to saw off

Buddy's head and swap it with

Socks'). Suffice it to say that

Budiansky holds no truck with

the cozy image of Fred Basset

glowing at the foibles of his

daft but lovable human

familiars.

 

To be fair, the author shows no

overt desire to decant Fido's

lovable internal elixirs into a

frosty test tube or chop up his

golf-ball-sized brain (not that

he could get away with it all

that easily; dog-fancy cults

tend to take a dim view of

neo-Pavlovians). "Dogs are

extraordinarily beautiful

animals," Budiansky gushes in a

clear attempt to deflect his

image as a heartless bastard,

preparing, in one of man's

oldest journals of opinion, to

deliver a swift kick to man'

best friend. "[T]hey are

extraordinarily interesting

animals too, and as a devoted

student of animal behavior, if

nothing else, I certainly find

the rewards of living with dogs

worth the cost."

 

Nevertheless, Budiansky's

argument could just as easily be

made by a moustache-winding

nefarioso with a kennelful of

shivering beagles in a basement

laboratory. His first order of

business is to discredit our

prehistoric bond with the beast

that would chew up your shoes if

the Alpo bag were too low. You

know the old story. A caveman

spots some snaggletoothed,

half-starved runt wolf shunned

by the altogether bosser wolf

pack and then — with a

prehistoric bulb going on above

a thick, sloping brow

chucks the miserable animal a

hunk of mastodon gristle from

the latest kill, thus earning a

loyal interspecies companion for

the ages. Well, that's just a

diorama at the Museum of Natural

History. What really happened

was that "proto-dog" —

Budiansky's Jetsonian term for

the aboriginal domestic mutt

— did a little hunting and

gathering of his own, eyeballing

the hirsute dimwits assembled

around the campfire and, with a

flicker of conniving

evolutionary insight and a

lovable tilt of the head,

identified a home for life. The

wolf pack might have been cool,

but it was never going to invent

Petco.

 

[but only the part about the food and walks]

Such revisionist zoology is

sweet, cold water heaved in the

face of the

dog-as-slobbering-human-slave

school of thought. Even better,

though, is its refutation of the

growing field of canine lit that

has come to epitomize human

self-regard at its most craven.

 

The '90s wave of co-dependent

pooch lit — all that Our

Dogs, Ourselves palaver,

sniffing the information-rich

anus of the bestseller lists

— has produced considerable

intrusions on the secret life of

dogs. There are titles from the

scientific-sounding, like Why

We Love the Dogs We Do, to the

more narrative, like Lost and

Found. If prime offender

Caroline Knapp, who unwisely got

a dog soon after she kicked the

bottle, is the self-absorbed

center of the publishing trend,

then Budiansky is someone she's

probably already taught her

beloved Lucille to attack on

sight. "I have fallen in love

with my dog," she moons in Pack

of Two. "I'm thirty-eight and

I'm single, and I'm having my

most intense and gratifying

relationship with a dog."

 

[truth is, he knows where the food is kept but needs the humans around anyway]

For people who keep dogs around

the homestead — out in the

barn, up in the penthouse, under

the trailer — the animals

represent episodes of highly

destructive, endearingly

uncoordinated entertainment

infrequently spliced into a

broad tapestry of napping, the

inhalation of expensive kibble,

and a steaming brown "gift"

deposited on the Persian every

few months. The sort of

flagrantly sentimentalized

excess this behavior provokes

among weaker sensibilities is a

wonder to behold. But it's

hardly a mystery. The case has

been made that elevating dogs

above their natural station robs

them of an innate dignity. But

as Budiansky reveals, dogs

flipped off natural dignity back

before humanity had invented the

missionary position. Their

treachery runs deep. Their

subterfuge isn't even all that

calculated, anymore than our own

narcissism is; the centuries

have hard wired it into their

furry DNA.

 

But the question is why we

really need Budiansky's tour of

the greedy canine genome to

learn this. With the exception

of those dog obsessives who have

transformed their pets into

proxy children, experience —

and now evidence — has

commonly revealed the grinning

hound to be little more than a

thief without thumbs.

Furthermore, much of the

pop-culture landscape has

reinforced this previously

crackpot hunch. Scooby wasn't

going to protect Shaggy from

anything, and he certainly never

hesitated to heave his quivering

bulk into his goateed "master's"

slender arms. Charlie Brown

might have fervently believed

that happiness was a warm puppy,

but most of the time it seemed

that Snoopy only had eyes for

Woodstock. Still, there was

Chuck, panel after panel,

delivering the food bowl. Maybe

the most perversely prescient

twist on this

dog-as-evolutionary huckster was

the relative Darwinian hierarchy

on which Goofy and

Pluto were ranked. Both were,

putatively, dogs, but the former

walked upright, got to enjoy

connubial bliss from time to

time, and made time with a

shirtless mouse and a duck

dressed as a sailor. The latter

cartwheeled around in plausible

imitation of the chien

ordinaire Goofy must once have

been, before he inked his savvy

pact with those lower-species

stand-ins for humankind.

 

[maybe just to reassure him that his place in life, as companion is secure]

A common thread uniting the rank

sentimentalists who ignore these

obvious precedents is a

desperate quest to build dogs up

as the gap-fillers that the

animals themselves can't be. As

Bridget Jones and the rash of

romantically underfed single

women currently witnessing their

day in the media-tropic sun edge

toward gruesome parody, the

celebrants of dogdom are pushing

their otherwise innocuous

affections to a nonsensical

limit. Unwittingly, Budiansky

has joined this frantic march:

If dogs aren't friends,

substitute children, or better

boyfriends, then they must be

genetic automatons. By taking

dogs down a peg, he

inadvertently lifts them up.

It's one thing to make dog lit

look stupid from a dog's

perspective, but another to take

human prerogative out of the

picture. In a few places, after

all, the population still

routinely chucks its beloved

hounds into the barbecue pit. If

we want to go all mushy and

teary when Rover licks our face,

then we ought to be able to get

away with it — especially

since a thin line stands between

Rover and the Weber. It's our

call, in the end, if we wish to

keep parasites as pets. What we

can eat, we can also love. In

fact, it might only be because

we've been taught to love dogs,

irrationally, that all of us

don't eat them all the time.

 
courtesy of hammer and anvil
 
 
 
 
 
 



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