1 November

Rescue And Abuse: Animals As Teachers

by Jon Katz
What Animals Teach Us
What Animals Teach Us

I believe animals are our teachers and friends. They have changed my life, taught me how to love people,  taught me different ways to be and think. They challenge us to understand and respect and love them, and thus teach us to do the same for human beings, if we can listen.

Yesterday, Emily Browning, a Midwestern blogger – she writes a great blog called “One Woman’s Attempt At Living A More Sustainable Life On 1/10 Of An Acre In The City – and is a member of the Creative Group At Bedlam Farm, posted a piece on her blog about the now epidemic use of the terms “rescue” and “abuse” when it comes to dogs. Browning said she doesn’t call her foster or adopted dogs “rescues.”

The term “rescue,” she wrote, “in my mind,  deems a dog “less than.” Do adoptive parents walk around introducing their children as: “This is my biological son, Michael, and my adopted son, “Joseph?” No!”

To think of a dog as a “rescue” dog, wrote Emily,  “automatically labels it and puts you in the frame of mind to feel sorrow, or to excuse it’s behavior, and that label holds the dog back from moving forward in life. I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard an owner say: “Oh, he bites because he was a rescue dog.” Or “We don’t make her do that because she was abused in her last home.” I have some advise for you: Get over it! The dog has. And if the dog  hasn’t it’s because of the emotional baggage you have now place on it buy trying to save it from it’s past life.”

The post outraged at least one person on the Creative Group, who said she was sick of people who “demonize rescue,” which she said she does every day of her life, and she resigned from the group in a cloud of outraged,  nasty comments.

This often happens when the emotionalizing of animals is talked about in public. Discussions are usually shut down by angry or defensive people who are quick to decry human cruelty but slower to look at their own emotional baggage. I happen to agree with Emily, it is no better to emotionalize or patronize dogs than it is to emotionalize children. Dogs do not care what they are called,they do not label themselves. The only reason to identify an animal as “rescued” or “abused,” in my mind, is to make the human owner feel good about him or herself.

Words matter. What you think about a dog is what the dog senses and sees and smells. Your view of  her will become hers. A rescued dog is, as Emily suggests, no better or worse than any other. And neither are we better or worse for rescuing them. Rescuing animals is not, as is often suggested, a pathway to heaven or a reliable indicator or nobility.

When you “rescue” something, that is quite different than adopting it, purchasing it, or finding it on the street. It implies superiority, obligation and condescension. When you “rescue” an animal that is “abused,” you are casting the relationship in a particularly narrow context.

The use of these terms is very new in the animal world, it co-incides with the recent – about a generation ago –  fragmentation of human society: the rise in divorces, the mobility of American life and the family structure, the decline of leadership and political discourse, the fading of religion as a source of inspiration, the explosion in disconnecting technologies, the ruination of meaningful and secure work by greedy corporations run amok. We have been using animals for a long time to make us feel loved and connected in a world where we increasingly feel neither.

This is not as good for animals as you might think. About 400,000 dogs are now on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication, millions languish in shockingly cruel “no-kill” shelters where they spend years, even their whole lives, in the most unnatural and confined – and cruel –  conditions so people can feel virtuous about themselves. I would rather see Red put down than live a life like that. The best-selling dog story on earth is “The Rainbow Bridge,” a celebration of the idea that the best possible fate for dogs is to spend all eternity waiting for their humans and playing with them in heaven.

I hope my dogs do much better than that.

It is not healthy to see our animals through this intensifying prism of “abuse” and “rescue.” Like Emily, I never use those terms on my dogs or other animals, many of whom have been saved from dire circumstances, adopted or fostered to save their lives.

When you see an animal mostly in terms of pity and lament, you are diminishing them, hobbling them and your expectations for them. There is nothing worse in training an animal than to see it as pathetic or abused.  They do sense what we are thinking. If we expect little of them, that is what we will receive.

Pitying an animals is the worst thing you can do for them once they enter normal life.These terms are often excuses for people who cannot see their dogs and cats in any other way than through this narrowing lens of pity. We are not doing dogs a favor if we rescue them for us, only if we truly do it for them. And if that the latter is the case, they can be called and introduced by their names and treated like any other dog.

It is sometimes difficult to learn from something you pity.

Like Emily, I too often see this labeling used an excuse for bad behavior or inept training. She was thoughtful to write about, I imagine she knows she will draw some fire. Blessed are the strong and brave bloggers of the world.

Dogs and other animals – cats, horses, ponies, sheep, goats – are our partners on the earth, nor our piteous dependents. We are not their saviors or masters, we are their partners in the joys and travails of life. We have the right to demand respect from them, sometimes obedience, but in exchange, we must  return the favor.

No psychologist would ever urge a parent to introduce a rescued or abused child in those terms, it is simple to see how unhealthy would be. Dogs are different from children, but the principle is the same. Whatever their history, their is a time to move on. They do. We need a wiser and more mystical understanding of animals than this. Nice job, Emily.

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