This recent MSNBC commentary on the conversation that reportedly occurred between President Obama and the owner of the Eagles concerning Michael Vick is certainly insightful, measured and nuanced. Melissa Harris-Perry certainly makes salient points about the racist legacy of our justice system and the American story in general. But at one point she questions the way we respond emotionally to Vick’s crimes, alleging that it is in part due to the “fetishization” of canines, setting them apart from other animals because they are our pets. Jim Gorant provides a better explanation as to why we respond with such emotion in the introduction to his book The Lost Dogs, which chronicles the story of Vick and his dog fighting ring:
…“Why does it matter, they’re just dogs?” The more verbose in this camp might elaborate: “People are dying and starving every daybigger problems. No one cares if you kill cows or chickens or hunt deer. What’s different about dogs?”
What is different about dogs? I had not directly addressed the question in the article. On some level it seemed obvious to me, but at the same time I couldn’t put a satisfying answer to words. As I started work on this book, the question hung over my head. As I was interviewing experts, reading books on canine history and behavior, touring shelters, and talking to dog lovers, I processed a lot of the information through the prism of that question.
The answer, cobbled together from all those readings and conversations, took me back to the beginning. Men first domesticated dogs more than ten thousand years ago, when our ancestors were hunting for their meals and sleeping next to open fires at night. Dogs were instant helpers in our struggle for survival. They guarded us in the dark and helped us find food by day. We offered them something, too, scraps of food, some measure of protection, the heat of the flames. In an article about the origin of dogs that ran in the New York Times in early 2010, one expert on dog genetics theorized that “dogs could have been the sentries that let hunter-gatherers settle without fear of surprise attack. They may also have been the first major item of inherited wealth, preceding cattle, and so could have laid the foundations for the gradations of wealth and social hierarchy that differentiated settled groups from their hunter-gatherer predecessors.”
Certainly, as man rose in the world, dogs came with us, perhaps even aiding the advance. They continued to guard us and help with hunting, but they did more. They marched with armies into war, they worked by our side, hauling, pulling, herding, retrieving. We manipulated their genetic makeup to suit our purposes, crossbreeding types to create animals that could kill the rats infesting our cities or search for those lost in the snow or the woods.
In return we brought them into our homes, made them part of our families. We offered them love and companionship, and they returned the gesture. From the start it was a compact: You do this for us and we’ll do that for you.
Our relationship with dogs has always been different than it has been with livestock or wildlife. The only other animal that comes close is the horse, which has undoubtedly been a partner in our evolution and a companion. But a horse can’t curl up at the bottom of your bed at night, and it can’t come up and lick your face when you’re feeling down. Dogs have that ability to sense what we’re feeling and commiserate. There’s a reason they’re called man’s best friend.
Melissa Harris-Perry is right to point out that our sensitivities to any form of animal cruelty ought to be higher. But the natural horror that the story of the dogs abused and murdered by Vick evokes is not the product of a recently developed fetish that could have only emerged in a consumeristic society of excess and decadence. The story is so horrific because it involves dogs, creatures that we can easily empathize with because they have developed, through the evolutionary process, the ability to empathize with us. They understand human emotion and that very capacity makes the depth and breadth of their suffering so painful.
In the Problem of Pain C.S. Lewis describes the process of training a dog as follows:
…the association of (say) man and dog is primarily for the man’s sake: he tames the dog primarily that he may love it, not that it may love him, and that it may serve him, not that he may serve it. Yet at the same time, the dog’s interests are not sacrificed to the man’s. The one end (that he may love it) cannot be fully attained unless it also, in its fashion, loves him, nor can it serve him unless he, in a different fashion, serves it. Now just because the dog is by human standards one of the ‘best’ of irrational creatures, and a proper object for a man to love—of course, with that degree and kind of love which is proper to such an object, and not with silly anthropomorphic exaggerations—man interferes with the dog and makes it more lovable than it was in mere nature. In its state of nature it has a smell, and habits, which frustrate man’s love: he washes it, housetrains it, teaches it not to steal, and is so enabled to love it completely. To the puppy the whole proceeding would seem, if it were a theologian, to cast grave doubts on the ‘goodness’ of man: but the full-grown and full-trained dog, larger, healthier, and longer-lived than the wild dog, and admitted, as it were by Grace, to a whole world of affections, loyalties, interests, and comforts entirely beyond its animal destiny, would have no such doubts. It will be noted that the man (I am speaking throughout of the good man) takes all these pains with the dog, and gives all these pains to the dog, only because it is an animal high in the scale—because it is so nearly lovable that it is worth his while to make it fully lovable. He does not house-train the earwig or give baths to centipedes. We may wish, indeed, that we were of so little account to God that He left us alone to follow our natural impulses—that He would give over trying to train us into something so unlike our natural selves: but once again, we are asking not for more love, but for less.
Dogs have a capacity to be taken up into a web and world of relations that is theirs not so much by nature as by grace. And being taken up into that relatedness can also cause them more suffering and pain than could be borne by their evolutionary ancestor the wolf.
Many animal rights activists wanted all of the Vick dogs destroyed citing the potential danger they could do to the already sullied reputation Pit Bulls. But in the end only 2 of the 51 dogs seized from the Bad News Kennel had to be euthanized. Many were fully rehabilitated and some even serve as therapy dogs today.
In the end of the introduction to The Lost Dogs Jim Gorant relays the feelings of one of the team members that worked with the rescued dogs:
To this day, I believe Donna Reynolds, one of the founders of Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pitbulls (BAD RAP), a rescue organization at the center of the Vick case, said it best. “Vick showed the worst of us, our bloodlust, but this [rescue effort] showed the best. I don’t think any of us thought it was possible—the government, the rescuers, the people involved. We like to think we have life figured out, and it’s nice that it can still surprise us, that sometimes we can accomplish things we had only dreamed of. We’ve moved our evolution forward. Just a little bit, but we have, and I’m happy to have been a part of that.”
Perhaps our bloodlust is also revealed in the vengeful outcry against Vick. Certainly what he did was inexcusable, but Vick wasn’t born wanting to do this. He grew up as part of a broken family system in an area plagued by poverty and crime. His sins were certainly shaped by being sinned against. Reading the story of the redemption of the Vick dogs gives me hope for the redemption of Michael Vick, and for every human soul.