Cats and Dogs

Cats and Dogs

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
March 19 1998 3:30 AM

Cats and Dogs

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Dear Marjorie,

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       As usual, I've got much to say and precious little space to say it in, so on with it.
       The advancement of animal (or civil) rights in any society depends, I think, largely on the conditions present in that society. When economic times are looking up and democratic institutions are firmly in place, both animals and people fare well. But during times of poverty or persecution, animal rights fall right off the "must do" list. Recent Somali refugees almost certainly did not have the time or inclination to cogitate on the plight of rhesus monkeys in university labs and probably (and justifiably) only thought of animals in terms of how nutritious they might be. By and large, animal activism is borne of societal plenty. In other words, it's a luxury for most.
       Freed from the need to feed and protect our families, we are able to let our egalitarian natures evolve. But in Nazi-occupied Europe or war-torn Afghanistan, the populations, however enamored of pets during peacetime, could not have had the welfare of Fido or Felix very high on their list of concerns. Bottom line: As the society fares, so do its pets.
       I don't think that our dogs have been "humanized" as much as you might believe. True, they have adapted to our culture, one very different from that of the wild wolf or coyote. But are we really all that different? We form somewhat hierarchical groupings (though not as much as we did five decades ago). We participate in elaborate struggles for dominance (an understatement) and practice interpack warring. Our child rearing practices are usually as committed as the dog's, and we display intense loyalties to the causes or groups we love. In my opinion, today's dogs have simply assimilated themselves into a larger pack with a more complex social structure and a larger territory. Be it the noise of a plastic bag rustling or the sound of deer hoofs on dry birch leaves, dogs are still true to their nature and masters of the conditioned response. To prove my dog point, let loose 10 domesticated German shepherds into the wilds of Montana sometime in the late spring, and watch what happens. I'd be willing to bet that most, if not all, of them would survive quite handily for years, much like their wolfish cousins.
       The cat, of course, has never really been domesticated but is, I believe, just "visiting" with us for a few thousand years. We are nothing but a big human "oasis" to them, I'm sure. They do love us, make no doubt, in a slightly patronizing way. We are their big, clumsy siblings who happen to have food at our disposal. But if our end ever comes, the domestic cat will easily step back into the wild and survive, without changing its personality one iota. I think this is the reason we humans either love them or hate them. We admire (or envy) their effortless powers of adaptability. Wild cats inhabit nearly every ecological niche in the world. Rest assured, the domestic cat has not had its "truer nature" usurped by us.
       On the question of overbreeding, I concur. Over 140 American Kennel Club registered breeds of dog now exist in the United States alone, compared with about 40 breeds of cat worldwide. The proliferation of dog breeds was a direct result of economic need on our part; we needed herders, guards, hunters, retrievers, and trackers to aid us in our daily lives. Unfortunately, fads now often control which breed becomes an overnight success; in addition to your mention of Dalmatians and collies, Rottweilers, cocker spaniels, American Staffordshires, and Jack Russell terriers have been at least temporarily damaged, due to "backyard" breeders trying to cash in.
       Lastly, I do believe that blond dogs have more fun. The "blondest" dog of them all, the golden retriever, is the most playful, happy, capable, and loving breed I know. The exception to this blond theory, though, would have to be the Afghan, who, though often blond and always beautiful, tends to be ditsy, anorexic, and bitchy as heck.

Stay in touch,
Steve

Marjorie Garber is the William R. Keenan Jr. Professor of English at Harvard University and director of Harvard's Center for Literary and Cultural Studies. She is author of Dog Love

The Everything Cat Book

Show Biz Tricks for Cats

To purchase Dog Love from Amazon.com, click here. To purchase The Everything Cat Book from Amazon.com, click here.