Sea Kittens and Getting Bitten

November 9, 2008 at 9:04 pm 6 comments

Via AtomicNerds, a bit of entertaining and insightful commentary on the latest bit of pointless ranting PR from the morons our friends at PETA courtesy of BluntObject (go – read it now):

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:

 barneybitesafp

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.

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Entry filed under: behavior science, cynicism, dogs, pets. Tags: , .

This -n- That A New Form of “Dog Power”?

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Caveat  |  November 10, 2008 at 6:26 am

    Great piece and closing quote from Lorenz!

    People take way too much for granted with dogs. I don’t understand their constant desire to handle strange dogs, not to mention take obvious risks.

    This seems to be a fairly recent change in human behaviour.

    I had sea kittens for dinner yesterday. Am I a bad person?

  • 2. bluntobject  |  November 10, 2008 at 7:16 am

    Good. Foxtrot. Lord.

    That poor dog. (I can’t imagine how many butts Barney had to sniff to get the scent of reporter out of his nostrils!)

    My first kitten — I’d been around cats since I was born, but this was the first cat with whom I’d been entrusted — woke me up one night early on by nibbling on my arm. I think he was as surprised that “sleeping human” does not mean “dead (food) human” as I was that a carnivorous predator could possibly, well, want to eat me.

    We both learned quickly, and I loved that furry little misanthrope until he died two years ago. He took shit off of no-one. (Our dog, on the other hand, had the patience of a saint.)

    Speaking of dogs: look at the feet of the guy handling Barney in the first half-minute or so of the video. That looks to me like a boxing stance: he doesn’t look happy to see a bunch of reporters, and I imagine Barney took an emotional cue from him. I’d hope that Decker would catch that… but then again, I have a nasty and suspicious mind.

  • 3. Lianne  |  November 10, 2008 at 8:10 pm

    Thanks for the mention. The point of the campaign is to encourage people to think of fish (sea kittens) as creatures just as deserving of love as cats and dogs, even if they’re not the most cuddly. At http://www.peta.org/sea_kittens/index.asp you can find out more about Sea Kittens and their endearing habits which will hopefully make you less likely to eat them.

  • 4. Audie's Gramma  |  November 12, 2008 at 2:07 pm

    Re: Sea Kittens

    Wow, PeTA freak who hides behind a screen name and has no individual identity. You are a moron. Enjoy a life untroubled by the ravages of intellect.

    There are, by best estimates, over 32,000 species of fish in the world — as different from one another as a vole from a walrus. I’d be shocked if a PeTAN could correctly identify ten of them on sight. Which ones are “kittens?” Are “sea kittens” that come into PeTA custody slated for the same fate you dole out to real kittens? How many “sea kittens” have you all killed and dumped behind the Piggly Wiggly?

    I thought the Jeff Goldblum character in Jurassic Park was rather annoying, but there was a great line, which I cannot find in the “memorable quotes” online (maybe it was in the book?), but was more or less memorable to me — in which the character berates the dino-makers for not even knowing the correct name of the thing they were manipulating, much less what it is.

    Which goes back to Janeen’s point. Infantalizing animals does them no favors, and gets you bit.

    Poor Barney. Of course he bites. Like the rest of the country, he has spent eight years with an incompetent leader who surrounds himself with toadies and cronies. Barney, being a dog, and therefore quite forgiving of human flaws, was probably even later than some Republicans to admit the obvious.

    Unlike the rest of us, Barney has to put up with it for the rest of his life.

    Bite, Barney, bite. But look closer to home.

  • 5. SmartDogs  |  November 12, 2008 at 5:40 pm

    Well, I think that bunnies and lambs are a lot cuter than kittens – and that certainly hasn’t stopped me from eating them. Even many that I knew before I ate them.

    And “LIanne”, if what you got from my post was that I in any way, shape or form support peta — you’re dumber than, well… a ‘sea kitten.’

  • 6. Caveat  |  November 14, 2008 at 10:40 pm

    Yes, fish are deserving of love, just like dogs and cats, because they totally respond to it. Uh huh.

    How about ‘pit bulls’? Are they deserving of love, Peta-wanker?

    Of course in Petaspeak, love = death, no? So I guess I love me some sea kittens from time to time but I don’t love dogs and cats. Gee, now I’m confused. Like Peta.

    Peta – always running stuff up the flagpole, even though nobody (whose IQ is higher than room temperature) ever salutes.

    Audie’s Gramma. Yeah.

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