If a dog’s been chained up and starved, there will be comments that say “The owner should be chained up and starved!” If a dog’s been beaten, the comments will say “The person who did that should be beaten!” If a dog’s been set on fire, the comments will say “Set the person who did that on fire!”
I’ve read stories of animal abuse where I had that initial gut reaction too. I’m not proud of that, and I struggled with those emotions; feeling that to react violently was no better than the abusive action that caused my outrage. I wrote about that internal struggle once already in an earlier blog post, and how I came to terms with my own cognitive dissonance.
Somewhat recently, when I was being attacked over the story I wrote about the Fairfield County Dog Shelter in Ohio, one of the bloggers* commented rather sadly that he didn’t understand why people had such violent reactions to the stories on our website. He even went so far as to comment that the fans of the website where the article appeared are “violent psychopaths.”
But that’s a little bit like the pot calling the kettle black.
The reactions the readers have may be extreme, but they are not sad and are not inappropriate. (Acting on those reactions would be inappropriate.) The only sad thing is that the blogger/critic doesn’t understand why people react so strongly and with such outrage. That inability to understand shows a lack of empathy on his part.
Empathy is the capacity to recognize feelings that are being experienced by another sentient being. It is the forerunner of compassion. Empathy is considered a desirable human trait and lack of empathy, in contrast, is one of the outstanding traits of violent criminals, sociopaths, sadists, psychopaths and those with narcissistic personality disorder.
And now, since we’re Up on the Woof, let’s get specific about dogs.
There happen to be some very good reasons why dog lovers have eye-for-an-eye or violent reactions when they read stories of dog abuse. In the book The Dog Who Couldn’t Stop Loving, by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, the author writes about how humans and dogs have evolved together. He writes about how there is something very special in our bond with dogs, more intense than with any other animal.
Many dog lovers treat their pets like surrogate children, and it’s no wonder, since as humans domesticated wolves to become the dogs we know today, we neotenized them; breeding them to retain juvenile characteristics.
Renowned animal behaviorist Temple Grandin explained in her book Animals in Translation:
Dogs stop developing emotionally and behaviorally at the wolf puppy equivalent of thirty days.
In her book Animals Make Us Human, Grandin writes:
Dogs need parents, not pack leaders, because genetically, dogs are juvenile wolves, and young wolves live with their parents and siblings. During evolution dogs went through a process called pedomorphosis, which means that dog puppies stop developing earlier than wolf cubs do. It’s a kind of arrested development.
Consider dogs as surrogate children: dog’s never grow up and leave home, they remain completely dependent on humans for their food, their shelter, and their medical needs until the day they die. In return, they love us unconditionally– in spite of our flaws. They protect us, help us, and bring comfort and joy to us. They do not hold grudges or seek revenge. They do not judge us. They are innocents. Dog abuse and cruelty is a vile betrayal of trust.
This special bond that we have with the dogs that share our homes and our lives is profound. To love a dog is to be entrusted with his well-being and very survival. That’s why we see stories of dog abuse as so remarkably evil. Youth and innocence naturally arouse a desire in us to protect. When a dog owner reads about a dog that has been abused it becomes personal; they are able to relate the story to their own beloved pet – to imagine their own dog suffering the abuse, and their natural reaction is to cry out for justice.
Feeling too much or too strongly is always preferable to feeling too little.
* The blogger I’ve written about here posts under the pseudonym of “Topher Mackenzie.” He uses a pseudonym because he’s way too much of a coward to stand behind his criticisms using his real identity. His pseudonym is taken from the teen romance novel in progress The Pretty Devils where Topher is described as: The”[T]he famous Topher Mackenzie strutting towards them with a cheeky grin on his face … Everyone knew Topher. Every guy wanted to be him, and the girls wanted him.”
You know what else struts? Cocks.