Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Stylizing Dogs

When some dogs are infants, most of their ear flaps are amputated and the remaining fragments are braced so they will stand at pointy attention. Tails are cut off to mere nubs or to finger-length proportions in certain breeds and vestigial toes are removed from dogs of any breed. These surgical alterations are done in a variety of settings and procedures that may or may not include licensed veterinarians, tissue numbing or pain relief. Most of these ear and tail amputations are actually required for dogs to represent their breed’s standardized appearance. I find it interesting to consider that we could produce such disparate forms as teacup Chihuahuas and huge Great Danes, dwarfed, long-backed Daschunds and flat-faced, bug-eyed Pugs, but we couldn’t figure out how to breed for foreshortened tails or ear flaps. At some point, breed clubs dictated that they just be cut off instead and the Kennel Clubs in America, Canada and England upheld their decisions.

Things began to change in these countries when in 2007, it became illegal to exhibit dogs with cropped ears in England and Wales and dogs with docked tails could not be shown in England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. Recently in Canada, the Veterinary Medical Association announced its intent to completely ban docking, cropping and dew-claw removal in the country. And in the U.S., the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has promised to get crop-and-dock ban-bills passed in 34 states before this year ends. Cropping and docking bans are not really new; they have existed in Norway and Switzerland for nearly 30 years. But they're new here and some people are vehemently opposed to them.

Are these amputations necessary in some way, or are they unnecessary? Sporting-breed clubs have argued that dogs used in working roles often injure tails, ear flaps and dew claws, therefore, amputation prevents these painful eventualities. In reality, very few dogs of any breed actually fulfill these roles today, those who do can gain exemptions, and medical care is widely available in case of injury. This seems to argue that the amputation of the body parts of millions of infant canines is necessary in order to prevent injuries in a very small percentage of dogs. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that we amputate ears, tails and vestigial toes because we like the way the dog looks with these surgical alterations so they are unnecessary stylizations done for the sake of appearance alone!

If we could all agree that this is so then the amputation practices should stop without laws and bans. Would they? Is answering the necessity question enough? Apparently it isn't and in reality, it isn't even the real issue. The real issue is rights. Do “owners” of dogs (breeder-owners or buyer-owners) have the right to unnecessarily amputate, or cause or promote the amputation of infant canines’ body parts? Do we have the right to surgically alter dogs to fit our sense of beauty and style?

It might be easier to answer this question if the human-dog relationship was as simple as that of an owner or legal possessor and the thing which is owned or possessed, but it isn't. While laws may define them as owned property, dogs are certainly not things. They are conscious; they think. They have emotions and physical sensations and this makes them beings. Few would deny that. If ownership or legal possession of animal beings conferred upon owners the right to maim or injure them unnecessarily and as they wished, should we allow the amputation of drooping eyelids, elongated hound-lips or long and lolling tongues? And what if an owner of a quadruped happened to be partial to three-legged dogs? Where would we draw the line? Whose sense of beauty would we choose to uphold and whose would we deny?

This ownership-rights issue has deep roots and in a recent online debate when a woman argued that "...owners have the prerogative to crop and dock dogs - no questions asked," I saw them. Prerogative! This one word says it all. It explains how we could possibly feel that we have the right to cut off infant canines' ears, tails and toes. It explains how we feel that we have the right to stylize dogs through breeding and inbreeding--creating hundreds of genetic defects in the process--and to cage, confine, isolate and/or keep numbers of them inside our monotonous homes with no species-appropriate stimulation. Prerogative confers power, exclusive rights and privileges by virtue of greater rank, significance or sovereignty. Many of us unconsciously believe (and others consciously) that this describes the human in the human-dog relationship. Our words, thoughts and actions demonstrate that we actually see ourselves in this way – greater in degree, having more authority, importance, significance, rank and value than canine beings, and other animal beings as well. Is this really true?

I believe that this is a vital question for us to ask ourselves. Without its answer, we can only engage in endless debate, spewing forth our opinions, biases and arguments, conflicting and attempting to convince each other of the propriety of our views about rights. This is a question that existed long before that issue and the others to which it is herein related. It's answer can't be found in some study or in a library, myth or doctrine. Only through an experience of beingness in its pure, authentic and utterly whole and natural state can we know if beingness exists in values or degrees. The best example we could possibly find of this inviolate state is in the dog who stands before us. If we empty our heads and just be--just be a being there with the being of the dog--we'd surely find our answer.

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