Breeds apart: Animals are not substitute humans, two new works remind us

October 09, 2005|By VICTORIA A. BROWNWORTH | VICTORIA A. BROWNWORTH,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Katz On Dogs: A Commonsense Guide to Training and Living with Dogs

Jon Katz

Villard/Random House / 272 pages

Raising the Peaceable Kingdom: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Social Origins of Tolerance and Friendship

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson

Ballantine/Random House / 192 pages

Humans love animals. Nearly half of all U.S. households include one or more pets. Cats are the most common, living in more than 55 million homes, having edged out dogs (52 million) about five years ago for the top spot. The popularity of cats, however, has not altered the time-honored adage that dogs are man's best friend.

Two new books by writers who know animals better than most present challenges to that axiomatic perspective.

Jon Katz has written extensively about dogs in books, magazines and a regular column for Slate.com. Katz On Dogs may be one of the best books ever penned about why one should have a dog and what to do with it once you get it.

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson will forever be linked to a scorching literary scandal over the Sigmund Freud Archives, but in the past decade he has turned his considerable psychoanalytic skills toward the investigation of animal behavior as it relates to humans and to the emotional landscape of the animal kingdom. His books on the society of mammals - most notably the breathtaking When Elephants Weep - are simply fascinating. In Raising the Peaceable Kingdom, Masson poses intriguing questions about anthropomorphism as he attempts a social experiment among his own household pets.

Both books have at their core one truism about people and pets: We attribute to animals a humanity they do not possess.

This may incense those currently shopping for Halloween costumes for their pooches, but Katz and Masson - approaching the issue from quite divergent vantage points - mean no disrespect. Rather, they want us to remember that animals are indeed animals. When we expect them to be human, we do them and ourselves a disservice. The result is often unhappiness and, increasingly, abuse.

Katz lives on a working farm in upstate New York with his three dogs, two border collies and a yellow Labrador. He has spent an extraordinary amount of time training these dogs to live, work, play and rest together and with him, an arduous but rewarding process.

Katz on Dogs discloses his trials, errors and ultimate successes in training his dogs (he has had more than a few, not all successful relationships). The book also provides a manual of what to do and not to do with a dog. (He explains that most people shout at their dogs when they bark, which Katz says dogs perceive as their owners "joining in the fun.") It is a well-crafted dissertation on how we can ruin animals by projecting our needs onto them instead of learning to accept their animal natures and live with and enjoy them for the animals they are - not expect them to fill the gaps left by failed human relationships.

Katz is succinct: "Dogs are not human, remember. They don't think in human words or terms. ... A bedrock notion of my approach to living with dogs is that we need to be realistic, flexible and creative, harder on people but easier on dogs."

Masson lives on a beach in New Zealand with his wife, two young sons and a coterie of pets. Amidst his many musings on the nature of animal behavior and human society, he decided to try an experiment: He would acquire several animals of different species known to be predatory of each other, raise them together from babyhood and see if the natural instincts signaling fear (predator) or food (prey) would dissipate and connections would form.

He acquires a puppy, a kitten, a rabbit, two chickens and two rats and builds a variety of enclosures for them to live in together. Everyone gets on - sort of. One rat comes to a mysterious end. The chickens never really bond with the others, the dog is skittish, the cat territorial and ... the peaceable kingdom never really evolves. Nor, alas, does a book of the caliber of Masson's previous work on animals.

However, a mediocre book on behavior by Masson is still noteworthy because Masson's hyper-intellectuality and enthusiasm are infectious. Embedded among the cutesy stories about kids and baby animals is some compelling inquiry into what impels behavior - ours and animals'.

Masson was careful in acquiring his kingdom - he wanted to rescue animals that would otherwise be euthanized, and except for the kitten, which he bought from a breeder, he did. But Katz argues that altruism isn't always the best guide in choosing a pet, because rescued animals have nearly always been abused (such was the case with Masson's puppy, which did skew the experiment) and demand more care, love and work than healthy, cleanly bred animals.

Katz makes a clear case against impulse acquisition of animals: Know who you are and what you want and have time for in a pet. Masson's experiment underscores Katz's point. Animals are vulnerable - particularly to humans.

Even if they aren't human - or most precisely because they aren't - animals provide intense joy and fervid companionship. But both these books attest to the responsibility humans have for animals and serve as guides, as well as cautions, as we attempt our own peaceable kingdoms at home.

Victoria A. Brownworth is an author and editor. She also runs the Foundation for Feline Urban Rescue in Philadelphia, a nonprofit, no-kill agency dedicated to saving abandoned and abused cats and kittens.

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