Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Hidden Life of Dogs

I'm delighted to share The Hidden Life of Dogs by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas with you, because it gave me an excuse to read it again.

The Hidden Life of Dogs is a captivating record of observations about what dogs do, thoroughly mixed with a creative anthropomorphization of the dogs' motives. Ms. Thomas herself writes in the introduction that

A book on dogs must by definition be somewhat anthropomorphic, and reasonably so since our aversion to the label is misplaced.

It is a clever diversion to lend credibility to your words by acknowledging their biggest flaw, but it doesn't dispel the fact that this book needs a large WARNING: DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME.

Ms. Thomas kept a dog pack in her house. Contrary to the advise of dog experts, her pack was not carefully managed or controlled. It was instead allowed to morph and spar as naturally as possible. We get to watch the pack cohere and tear itself apart through a rose-colored window behind which our pets and our wild canids, the wolf and coyote, seem to exist in a state of tantric but terse equilibrium. We are left there to judge the good from the bad.

The pugs, Bingo and Violet, monstrosities of mankind, merely exist on the outer edge of the tantric circle. Tragic characters from a human folly, Bingo pines for the "real" dog, Maria (a husky), a natural canid and one of the 'beautiful people', while Violet pines for Bingo. It is Bingo and Violet who begin to raise questions about right or wrong.

When Bingo passes, little Violet is allowed to live the last year of her life crouching and trembling under a table in a self-imposed prison. We must conclude that this is what nature has decreed for Violet. But there is nothing natural about Violet, from the intentional design of her ancestors to the (most likely) artificial insemination of her mother, to her life in a home with a dog pack not of her choosing.

One could argue that leaving Violet to the caprice of "nature" was only wrong in the sense of abdicating for her the self-imposed responsibility humans took in the creation of the pug. But how is that Ms. Thomas' fault? Should she be responsible to the sins of past show breeders?

In Ms. Thomas' world, dogs only want each other. And so she reminds us frequently how her role in the dogs lives was only to allow, as much as possible, those natural canine interactions.

Should she have intervened? If dogs are self destructing, do we have a moral obligation to intervene? What about an owner/pet obligation to intervene? Ms. Thomas tells us humans are mere "cynomorphic substitutes" - outsiders in the canine inner circle. That is something to be thankful for. The canine inner circle is brutal, and Ms. Thomas interprets the canine conscience as a mirror of our own, mixing attachment and pain.

Consider the case of Viva, the dingo outcast who, like Violet, was unable to integrate into the dog pack. When Vivas' pups were born, Ms. Thomas anthropomorphizes a "single mom" figure, alone, frightened and utterly incapable of stopping the horror that was about to consume her.

The death of Vivas' pups is painted as merely the unavoidable consequense of being born to the lower ranking dog. Do dogs commit murder? It is Koki, the murderess, who emerges as the sympathetic figure because she didn't want to kill -she just had no choice.

But what about Ms. Thomas? She is the outsider, the observer, the human. Did she have an obligation to prevent the slaughter?

Ms. Thomas doesn't try to answer the tough questions. She writes her story for what it is.

I will confess to not being entirely sure of her intent. Is she advocating for humans to withdraw from the lives of animals? Or is she illuminating our similarities to remind us of our forgotten interdependence? Ms. Thomas writes that dogs have shared our lives for twenty thousand years, our world is their natural habitat. Interdependence, it seems, is our existence.

The Hidden Life of Dogs was first copyright in 1993, right before the clicker training popularity boom. If Ms. Thomas thought excessive training was "brainwashing" before the advent of shaping and luring and working for every mouthful of food, we can only guess at her reaction to the modern uber-focused canine performers.

If nothing else, Ms. Thomas does succeed at getting us to look again at our dogs basic canine nature. And perhaps, after all, that was her only intent.

Ms. X recommends: The Hidden Life of Dogs is one of my favorites. But perhaps the best thing about it is that it sparked my all-time favorite Dave Barry column.

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