It’s Not About Dogs…
January 10, 2009 at 3:47 am
I’ve had a nagging suspicion that an increasing number of dog-related laws were being passed across the country. Apparently (and unfortunately), I’m not crazy. Last month the HSUS reported that a record number of animal “protection” laws were passed in 2008. Their website brags that; “The nation’s largest animal protection organization ushered in a whole new era of policies for animals by helping to pass 91 new animal protection laws this year, surpassing the previous record number of 86 new laws enacted in 2007.”
But do we really need more laws? A post on “The Tyranny of Relativism” I read today at Never Yet Melted got me thinking, once again, on the function of culture in society (it’s an excellent piece BTW – go read it). As I commented there:
It’s that constellation of fixed values otherwise known as culture that gives us the security and cohesiveness that allows us to recognize and accept those whose values are different from ours.
What the relativists seem to have forgotten (or prefer to overlook) is that the unwritten rules and sanctions of culture are fluid and mutable. Allowances are made. Slights are remembered and often forgiven. But in a governmental or relativist system we are forced to endure rigid, compulsory laws and regulations. We can’t make allowances (that wouldn’t be fair, now – would it?) and transgressions are always punished but then supposed to be forgotten.
Though they may seem to be more rigid and restrictive at first glance; culture and ethics are much more fluid and adaptable than relativism and regulation.
Because they are fluid, mutable and forgiving, cultural mores are a much healthier way to guide general group behavior (i.e. things like excess barking, picking up poop and pet limits) than laws and regulations are. But if we don’t need more of them, why are increasing numbers of laws and regulations controlling life with our four-legged friends being promulgated? A thought-provoking answer comes from a piece written by Michael Brandow in today’s New York Yimes about the city’s poop-scooping law:
I believe that many dog “problems” are symptoms of other concerns that have little or nothing to do with dogs. Like rabies paranoia, these fears tend to be culturally based. Why did a large number of cities suddenly decide to get tough on dog owners after 2001? Just as anti-dog sentiment in the 1970s was a way to express anger over the urban crisis, believe it or not, the new wave of canine waste laws seems to be inspired by the threat of global terrorism. New attitudes on how far we have the right to go in dictating personal behavior, and to monitor compliance with laws, are leading to cleaner surfaces — but at what price? People are taking age-old grudges and dressing them as public safety issues. Suddenly the whole world is on orange alert for sidewalk bombs.
We’ve got all this unresolved stress related to abstract, diffuse, on-going pressures like “is there anything left in my 401K?” “did they really put melamine in Oreos?” and “will Al Queda bomb shopping malls?” Add in the fact that we have an enemy that is, for the most part, nameless and faceless — and even the Department of Homeland Securityadmits that the potential health risks of unresolved fear and stress may outweigh the benefits of government terrorist threat alerts. So, we cope by bitching about what a jerk our neighbor is and vote to pass a law that will make the ignorant b***ard get rid of his stoopid barking, crapping dog.
But do these laws regulating general group behavior really accomplish anything? Referring specifically to New York’s dog poop law Brandow writes:
You are never going to catch one in a thousand people, not even if you live in a police state. Believing otherwise is only going to give you high blood pressure. Worse, every time you dial 311 and complain, you are giving government yet another opportunity to point a finger at those terrible dog owners. This serves a political purpose, just as it did in the ’70s. It distracts from matters weightier than a few stray piles, and gets government off the hook on the real problems that seem beyond its grasp.
Breed specific legislation, limit laws, mandatory spay-neuter and similar regulations don’t really accomplish much — but, compared to important things like campaign finance reform or balanced budgets these kinds of laws are really easy to write, enact and then — conveniently — forget about. The legislators and lobbyists who “championed” the laws get their sound-bites. The wack-jobs at HSUS get another notch in their Naugahyde belts and life goes on. Well, that is, except for dogs and dog owners who are now forced to endure yet another set of rigid, compulsory (and often non-sensical) laws and regulations that complicate our lives without solving any problems.
In the current state of things, dog-related legislation mostly affects law-abiding citizens who license their pets, give them regular veterinary care and engage in other activities that put them in the system’s database. The irresponsible morons whose untrained, uninnoculated, unrestrained, unlicensed, unsocialized animals bark incessantly, have unwanted litters and attack the mailman fly under the radar until after they’ve committed the offenses these laws are designed to prevent.
Increased respect for and adherence to (gasp!) mainstream cultural mores would greatly reduce problems caused by things like noise and dog poop. The very un-sexy options of education and increased enforcement of existing laws could significantly mitigate issues related to animal suffering, but these kinds of actions don’t generally lead to newspaper and TV interviews. Unfortunately, increased enforcement results in media reports that arrests have gone up — which will, of course, be spun by the press to say that problems have gotten worse. And no politician wants to be associated with that kind of publicity.
So instead of dealing with our pet-related problems within a flexible, forgiving system of common-sense cultural mores – we regulate them in a completely rigid legal system. The politicians win. The lobbyists win. And dogs lose.
Entry filed under: animal rights, behavior science, cynicism, dogs. Tags: animal welfare, culture, ethics, legislation, poop.