A most fitting guest essay after yesterday. The following is published with the kind permission of the author, Jeremy Nathan Marks. I have done a ‘screen grab’ of the image associated with his blog post so you can experience it as you would see and read it from The Sand County. It seemed perfect as a follow-on to yesterday’s post Life, and mortality.
The Sand County
My Wish for the World
If I could leave behind but one lasting accomplishment from my life it would be to have changed the hearts and minds of all those people who accept or practice cruelty towards animals. Now there are a great many worthy causes in this world which fully deserve the attention of all those who believe in justice, in fairness, and in mercy. But I also know that each of us -perhaps- has a cause that stands above and beyond all of the other noble concerns that we know exist. For me this cause is the humane treatment of animals. And when I say animals I mean ALL animals. Permit me to explain. My wife and I have two dogs. Both are mutts and both were adopted through the Animal Rescue Foundation of Ontario (ARF). I have blogged about ARF before and can only offer the highest praise for the organization. Courtesy of ARF, we have been provided with free dog training classes which have proved to be an invaluable resource in learning about dog behaviour. Better yet, the dog trainer we have worked with has made herself available for our questions outside of class. Whenever we have encountered a behavioural challenge that we have not understood or have been unsure of a proper method of approach, this trainer has been very obliging. Importantly, she believes in positive reinforcement and does not believe in the use of pain, dominance, or stress as a means of conditioning dogs. For my wife and me, this fits in with our moral beliefs and our ethics. Our eldest dog, who just turned one year old, is a 60 lbs. shepherd mix who has a “leash anxiety,” if I may call it that. When we are out on a walk and she sees another dog she becomes quite agitated and will bark loudly and lunge at the other dog. This has puzzled us because our dog loves to play with others and is frequently socialized. We grew increasingly concerned because our use of treats and positive reinforcement was not working. And because our dog is a large shepherd, we both have worried that she might develop a reputation and become a source of fear or suspicion by other people in our neighbourhood. In due course, we contacted our trainer for advice. She suggested that rather than putting our dog in a stressful situation by repeatedly walking her past other dogs (and trying to control her behaviour when she becomes agitated) we should take her out of the situation instead. So, when we see another dog approaching we turn around and walk in a different direction, all the while rewarding our dog with treats and telling her she is a good girl. We have recently started doing so and the improvements are showing. So, let us fast forward to today. . . This afternoon we took both of our dogs on a 20 km hike along the Thames River. The trail is like so many other trails; it forms a narrow path through the woods which makes passing other trail goers challenging at points. If another dog were to come toward us this narrowness would pose something of a challenge because we cannot turn around (and head home). Also, because the trail runs through the woods, there aren’t often places to step aside and let other dogs pass by without our oldest detecting them. Inevitably we encountered another dog. We were approached by a small dog that was off leash (which is posted as unlawful, actually). We heard the dog before we saw it and prepared ourselves for some nervousness on the part of our oldest. When the dog approach some barking ensued and I tried to move our dog, as best I could, off the trail to let the family that was approaching us pass by with their dog. When we informed the family that our dog is uncomfortable around other dogs when she is leashed they did not seem to understand that we wanted them to pass by us quickly. When our eldest became excited one of the women turned to us and said that we should “knee our dog in her side to show her who is dominant.” I was appalled. Some woman, whom I have never met, who knows nothing about our dog or our relationship with our dog, was suggesting we use violence against her to show her who is boss. . . And this is a woman with a dog of her own! My wife later remarked to me, as we were driving home, that she would not feel entitled to the love and affection our dogs offer us if we used violence on them in any way. I thought what she said was beautiful and captured the principle of the matter perfectly. We want our dogs to love us and to trust us. How would we have any right to their love and affection if we were to lead them to believe that -at any moment and for no apparent reason- we might use painful force on them? Dogs do not understand why you use violence against them. They do not reason or understand cause-and-effect the same way that humans do. This is not a fault. It does not mean they are stupid or of lesser value than human beings. It does not mean they deserve to be treated with cruelty or brutality. Dogs experience violence as pain and suffering that is inflicted out of the blue. They are not only unprepared for it, but are often completely defenceless against it. How could we ever defend such an inhumane practice? It troubles me immensely that someone, whom I do not know, could so nonchalantly counsel me to violence against my dog. Her arrogant presumption aside, this was a monstrous act. It was barbaric. Nowhere in polite society would someone get away with counseling violence against a child. . . or against someone who is weaker. Yet violence against animals, even against dogs who supposedly occupy a place closer to human hearts than most other animals, is countenanced and even endorsed. (I won’t even begin to explain why the Dog Whisperer horrifies and saddens me.) If a young child was caught torturing animals we would all raise the alarm. The torture of animals, by a young child, is seen as an early warning sign of severe mental disturbance and has been linked to homicidal tendencies and highly violent behaviour. One of the great villains of American literature, the character Popeye from William Faulkner’s novel Sanctuary is depicted as a torturer of animals in his youth. Now I know that increasingly there are laws on the books in many nations that are designed to prevent cruelty to animals and to prosecute perpetrators. This is a positive development that I certainly applaud. But I would argue that there is something broader, more troubling in our relationship with animals that goes beyond the bounds of this current posting. It is a topic I will return to time and again at this blog. What troubles me is how animals are frequently seen as objects if they are even seen or thought of at all. The damage that our destruction of the forests, deserts, plains, and oceans of this world does to countless species is something that has been well documented. We do this because we are interested in acquiring the resources we feel are vital to ensuring our survival. . . but often it is our comfort or our “way of life” that really is the central reason for our pursuit of these things. There is a deep seated human arrogance which treats animals as inferior forms of life. We see them as less sophisticated because they cannot compete with us for power on this planet. We suffer from what Aldo Leopold called an “Abrahamic view” toward the land. Somewhere biblical “dominion” over nature became domination. This is tragic. And it is not necessary. I was deeply troubled by what I experienced today and it reminded me that if I could leave behind but one lasting accomplishment it would be to somehow awaken a sense of love, of mercy, and a thirst for justice where the animal life on this planet is concerned. Just imagine what realizing that love would really mean. By achieving a love that transcends the will to power, the will to control, and the will to domination our embrace of animals really is, after all, the achievement of that revelatory love that is at the heart of the great religions and the religious spirit. Love for animals is love for justice and mercy. It is reverence for life. And it is peace. I think Henry Beston captures these sentiments beautifully: “Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate in having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren; they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.” -from The Outermost House, by Henry Beston (quoted from Farley Mowat’s A Whale For The Killing)
I’m sure you will join me in thanking Jeremy for writing such a beautiful and heart-felt essay.