Canines, Carnism, and the Grip of History

» March 3rd, 2013

It’s a perennial irony, one cited as a matter of course by animal rights people, that, to paraphrase Melanie Joy, we love dogs but eat pigs. This irony not only reflects a glaring case of selective moral consideration—we spend billions a year to pamper canines and just about that much to kill and eat swine–but it also, less obviously, represents a huge if unacknowledged fissure in the foundation of human civilization. How can any society hope to become more just and compassionate when it’s built on a bedrock of hidden and avoidable violence?

It’s perfectly natural and understandable for ethical vegans—those who have internalized the inequity of this irony—to condemn the meat-eating masses for loving dogs and eating pigs. It’s so obvious, we think. Why can’t people simply open their eyes and recognize the injustice that’s right in front of us? Wake up! It’s our collective failure to do so that leads so many vegan activists, I would venture, to become nihilistic ranters about the impending fall of humanity.

Two recent books, if read the right way, help illuminate the core of this irony as well as the complaisance with which we accept it. John Homans’ What’s a Dog For: The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man’s Best Friend and Jill Abramson’s The Puppy Diaries: Raising a Dog Named Scout remind us in varying ways (sometimes unintentionally) of a critical point that bears directly on our contemporary speciesist behavior.

More than anything else, these books drive home the important reminder that ideologies—including ideologies of oppression—have their roots in material realities. When those roots and realities run 130,000 years into the past, as does the human relationship with dogs, they can, to say the least, be tenacious enough to suppress rational thought and moral consistency in the present. Our failure to treat species with equal moral consideration derives as much, if not more, from past behavior than present-day realities.

Several aspects of the human-canine relationship—aspects that are unique to dogs and dogs alone—help explain why Westerners in particular won’t eat them.  Heaping irony upon irony, the first aspect is that dogs, more than any other species, have elicited from humans a habit of compassion possibly more intense than that evoked by our fellow humans.

As Sue Halpern recently pointed out in an excellent New York Review of Books essay, neoteny—the retention of cute baby-like features into adulthood—has enabled dogs in particular to trigger “ human’s innate caretaking impulse.” In eliciting love from our hearts, dogs have taught us to spare them while slaughtering other species that are just as capable of suffering. Smart animals.

A second aspect of the human-dog relationship forged in the crucible of time is the unique ability of dogs to reflect and embody human aspirations. A well-trained and well-bred dog could serve powerful aspirational functions in any status-driven culture. In this respect, as Homan’s writes (and Halpern quotes), “Dogs in the Victorian Age . . . were stand ins for humans, replicating their master’s inner excellence and class pride.” Pigs, for a wide range of reasons, didn’t accomplish this goal quite as effectively.

A third factor among many others is that dogs have proven to be, again in the words of Homans, “instantly customizable.” The physiological range of today’s canine, in addition to the species’ relative docility and neoteny, has thus appealed to the inherent human desire to shape the world around him. One should never underestimate the intoxicating nature of this power.

Humans have essentially stretched the grey wolf into a spectrum ranging from the dachshund to the Doberman and, in so doing have with god-like arrogance invested each breed with specific functions and meanings. Because dogs have so dutifully fulfilled those functions and meanings, all the while looking terribly cute, dominant human cultures have kept them off our plates.

None of these historical factors are in any way meant to downplay the horrors that flow from our contemporary carnistic hypocrisies.  We are right to hammer away at the contradiction of eating pigs while loving dogs. It’s just to acknowledge what I am coming realize vegan activists too often overlook: the power of the past. It’s a power that’s as genuine as it is distorting, invisible as it is conspicuous, and, however unintentionally, intent on excusing our daily refusal to be better people than we are.

Should you downplay this power I would draw your attention to the scene in Abramson’s book—a book attentive to the issues raised here–when, to spoil her dog, she cooks him a piece of chicken.


Tomorrow: more good news for vegans and the environment

12 Responses to Canines, Carnism, and the Grip of History

  1. Linda Norris says:

    James I am proud to say I am on my 3rd week of eating no meat. I’m not perfect by any means and I have known for a long time this was the right thing to do, but being weak, just could not break that string. What made me finally take the plunge: one of my friends just rescued two small piglets and is keeping them as pets. These animals come when called, wag their tails, and sit on command. And they love Apple Jacks. Another reason? I had the bad luck to get behind a chicken truck bound for slaughter. The chickens, crammed into small cages piled one on the other broke my heart. A petting zoo with a cow who loved to get her head scratched. A cow which is one of the most docile creatures on the earth. So now here I sit. Do I still love the taste of bacon? yes! But I cannot bring myself to eat it. I love baked chicken also. But cannot look at it without seeing those crates crammed with chickens, having no clue what was awaiting them. Steak? Oh the cow that loved to be petted. The guilt still remains of the untold amount of animals I have eaten in the past and yes, I too have been guilty of cooking my little dog a piece of chicken. So what do we do?

    • James says:

      Thanks for your personal insights. The best kind of comment. If I spent my time recalling my past habits of exploitation I’d be a sad case indeed. The best we can do is remain cognizant of but not smothered by the past. It’s a delicate and never-ending task.

  2. km says:

    In regard to your last sentence, I recently learned about this site:

    I have wondered how the dog vs pig argument plays out in some Asian countries where it is acceptable to eat dogs. What role does logic play in that scenario? Add the horse meat detected in ground beef scandal currently playing out in Europe and we have “why we love horses and eat cows.”

    • Linda Norris says:

      Just had time to scan the link but I will def be reading it more in depth. I have wondered about all the warnings of vegs in dog food and how it should be all meat. This should be interesting. Thanks

  3. Lori says:

    As an unabashed dog lover, I have and would do just about anything for my dogs. And that includes cooking chicken for them even when I myself wouldn’t eat it. It took me awhile to transition my dogs to vegans and even now, not always quite there. (My never-to-be-a-vegetarian father feeds them all kinds of meaty and cheesy junk when I’m not in the room.)

    One of my dogs won’t touch dry food, and so I’ve been in the habit for years of making their food. I also do this so I can buy local, sustainably sourced or organic food when possible. Every time I’ve put in something not vegan, I cringe, but try to justify it to myself that dogs are omnivores. I’ve done enough research now to feel comfortable with feeding them vegan, but I still wonder if I’m doing them a disservice by denying them bones to chew on. I’ve tried every alternative vegan chew I can find and they aren’t interested.

    I don’t have cats thankfully, because I know vegan diets are even more problematic with them. I know this post isn’t really about what we do, or should, feed our dogs, but I find it problematic all the time. Simply put, my dogs like and want animal products. I am now denying them that for the larger good. But I feel guilty. Is that conditioning or is it practicality?

    • Rebecca Stucki says:

      Instead of bones to chew, have you tried carrots? My dog who used to have a rawhide roll every night has been eating a carrot every night instead since I became vegan.

      • Lori says:

        Yes. Two of my dogs won’t touch them and the other gobbles them down so quickly as to be useless as a chew. Thanks for the thought. :-)

    • Jennifer says:

      Lori – I don’t feel bad at all about feeding the dogs vegan food and treats. But I do feel guilty for feeding them all those years dog food and treats that had so much garbage in them (growth hormones, chemicals, arsenic, etc.) even when it was so-called premium products. I characterize their eating now as “clean eating”. If they want a treat, I will give them broccoli bones, kale ribs, popcorn, fruit or dried sweet potatoes. And they love them all. Because their bodies do not have the extensive processing abiliies that humans do, it helps to do a bit of processing for them. So, the fiber from a juicer added into their food is excellent. They love lentils and rice. I cook a bunch of rice and add it to their dry vegan kibble. There is also Green Mush from Healthforce Nutritionals that I found out about after reading about a similar algae product helping animals to recover at The Gentle Barn. I also give them milk thistle supplements to help cleanse their liver from toxins (from the many years).

  4. Lori says:

    As to the issue closer to the post, James is right on point when he talks of how dogs have become what we want and need them to be.

    Since I’ve been volunteering a Animal Place farm sanctuary, I’ve been able to get to know some goats, pigs, cows, sheep, turkeys and chickens in a way I was never able to before. I’ve been able to get to know them as individuals and see their varying personalities. But I do have to admit, my favorites are the ones that tend to interact with me the most. The turkeys are much more friendly and interactive with humans than the chickens, so I can’t help feel a special attachment to them. Of course, the animals who came to the sanctuary young, are the ones who like to interact with humans most, in all of the cases, no matter the species, but some species are more drawn to humans than others, even of considering their backgrounds.

    This brings me to the dog issue. We are designed as humans to respond more to animals (and other humans) that respond to us. Just because wild animals or farm animals are neutral or afraid of us, doesn’t mean we should consider them less, and yet, we do.

    So yes, consider the history, but consider the personality too. (I agree, we are partially responsible for that personality, but not entirely. Wolves seem closer to humans in basic personality than most animals other than primates and maybe some birds.)

    Discussions and writings on the subject of non-equal consideration of species is probably the only way to really get people to look at the hypocrisy of how differently we consider the needs of and value of dogs and pigs. So bravo again James.

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