Sea Kittens and Getting Bitten
The clever folks at PETA decided that the best way to convince people to stop eating fish was to RENAME THEM AFTER A CARNIVORE. (Not only that, but a carnivore famous in popular culture for eating fish. Gosh, that was clever.)
With apologies to BluntObject I’m going to argue that PETA’s idea was clever. Our culture has, to a frightening extent, succeeded in romantically recasting cats and dogs as harmless, helpless, Disneyesque caricatures instead of the living, breathing, complex (and sometimes flawed) animals they really are. Like Rousseau’s noble savage they’re increasingly seen as more innocent, more noble – and to some – more worthy – than we humans are.
And when they inevitably ‘betray’ our romantic image by, well, simply behaving as animals instead of noble savages, we tend to react in fear and avoidance just like we did when presented with that other famous character from romantic fiction – Frankenstein’s creature. And when, like Frankenstein’s creature – who started out as an innocent, loving being; then turned into a monster from torture and neglect – our pets behave aggressively… we demonize them.
An interesting example of this kind of cognitive dissonance was reported in last week’s news when Barney the Whitehouse dog “attacked” Reuters reporter Jon Decker. Check out the video clip below and carefully watch Barney’s posture and demeanor in the beginning of this little misadventure:
In the seconds before he bit Decker Barney laid his ears back, tucked his tail, lowered the front part of his body, partly averted his gaze, held his mouth closed — and probably threw other fearful and distance-increasing gestures easy to miss when viewing a black dog in poor quality video. In other words, he did everything in his power to tell the reporter “I’m stressed out, stay away from me!” Decker, obviously clueless when it came to recognizing and reading those important signals, moved into the danger zone anyway because “he just wanted to pet Barney.” And, very predictably – the dog bit him.
More interesting information can be seen in the still shot below, captured from the video immediately before the dog bit:
Note the dog’s expression. His eyes are wide open with the sclera (white) showing, the corners of mouth pushed forward, upper lips pursed, and ears still pinned back. These are classic signs of the fear-biter.
And all of this because a clueless reporter “just wanted to pet the dog.”
All too often today people see a dog as a sort of adorable, animated stuffed animal that can be approached and handled at will. And where did that come from? I mean – do the same people who treat dogs like this go out and grab strange children so they can fondle them? I think not (and if they do, they usually get ‘removed’ from society). So why then do they assume that they are entitled to behave this way with dogs?
We have somehow created a cultural ideal where we believe that ‘good’ dogs are incapable of violence. Because we can’t imagine that they’ll hurt us, we don’t take take precautions to prevent bites. And when – inevitably – they do bite, we are utterly unprepared for it. We blame them for our ignorance and mistakes instead of taking responsibility for our own actions.
Dogs are wonderful, social creatures. They make excellent companions – and I believe that the social lives of both of our species are more complete when we spend them together. But a vital part of that shared life needs to be an awareness and respect for what they really are – animals. And as the nut-jobs at PETA have so annoyingly (but accurately) pointed out – in our Rousseauesque desire for purity or Disneyesque search for innocence – this is something that we have managed to lose track of.
To gain an important – and somewhat sobering – bit of perspective it might be wise to consider the words of ethologist Konrad Lorenz:
“One day, during a hard winter, a deer crossed our snowed-up garden fence and was torn to pieces by my three dogs. As I stood horror-stricken by the mutilated corpse I became conscious of the unconditional faith which I placed in the social inhibition of these blood-thirsty beasts, for my children were at that time smaller and more defenceless than the deer whose gory remains lay before me in the snow. I was myself astonished at the absolute fearlessness with which I daily entrusted the fragile limbs of my children to the wolf-like jaws.”
Konrad Lorenz – Man and Dog
And, oh yeah – “sea kittens” don’t just eat fish, they kill them too. Even in the wonderful world of Disney.