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Romanticizing the Life of Street Dogs
Some are calling for the intentional “reintroduction of free-ranging dogs in those places where they have been wiped out in the name of civilization.” Doing so would be a mistake.
A recent article in Psychology Today features an interview with “free-ranging dog researcher and trainer Marco Adda.” Mr. Adda studies community dogs in Bali. By researching “streeties,” Adda hopes “we can exponentially expand our ‘dogness’ and ‘dog literacy’” and advocate for their protection. These are goals I wholeheartedly embrace. But unlike Adda, I do not idealize the life of street dogs and was taken aback by his advocacy “for the progressive reintroduction of free-ranging dogs in those places where they have been wiped out in the name of civilization.”
He believes that village dogs often live better lives than dogs in homes. He also suggests that the widespread belief that the more advanced a society, the fewer dogs we should find living on the streets is backward and “reflects a society where humans control nature and separate from her.”1 Finally, he suggests a truly “civilized society” requires “free-ranging dogs around.”
While I agree with him that we should have never rounded up and killed community dogs in the United States, now that they are largely gone, there is no compelling reason to intentionally reintroduce them — and many reasons not to.
Adda’s views are part of a disturbing trend of scholars unduly romanticizing the past by appealing to “ancient wisdom” as better, more conducive to happiness, and more “natural.” In subservience to this golden age thinking, they argue that modernity undermines human and animal flourishing — a claim at odds with clear evidence of progress regarding people and dogs. In addition to arguing that dogs should be allowed to roam freely, some authors even call for an end to living with dogs (“pet-keeping”).
For example, University of California at Riverside Professor Katja Guenther envisions a “utopia” by replacing cities with small village-like neighborhoods where dogs are no longer considered “private property.” Instead, these dogs have what she terms “intimacy without relatedness.” They can choose to come and go by running around as free-living dogs. Guenther and her ilk ignore that dogs (and cats) want to live with us, choose to live with us, and should live with us, given all the benefits humans bestow upon them, our proven potential for ongoing improvement, and our immense capacity for love.
Through self-domestication, dogs sought out humans to maximize their chances of survival. In doing so, they “successfully adapted to us and our ways, seizing the opportunity that our planetary dominance presents, greatly increasing their numbers, and extending their range beyond what was possible in the absence of people.”
While authors like Geunther and researchers like Adda argue that the relationship between people and dogs is one of inequality and dependence, these claims often obscure more than they illuminate. Unlike other relationships between humans and animals, our relationship with family dogs is built primarily on mutual affection, not exploitation. Indeed, the relationships are decidedly one-sided, with humans doing all the work and dogs not expected to do anything other than grace us with the pleasure of their company.
In a shared community of social animals — including those of different species — varying degrees of dependency are ultimately inevitable and inescapable. When these relationships are based on love and built for mutual benefit, they aren’t necessarily wrong. Indeed, they are often necessary and beneficial. For example, when we leash dogs near busy streets or prevent them from eating a discarded piece of chocolate, our gifts of foresight and intellect protect them from dangers they may be incapable of perceiving and shielding themselves from. Such limits on autonomy protect and enhance their well-being.
We also don’t have a choice as to whether we want relationships with dogs. The only option is the kind of relationship we have. Assuming we could end “domestication” (and we would want to), we could never end human-animal relationships. Those relationships would inevitably re-develop as animals continued to seek us out. How we respond to those overtures and opportunities is up to us. We can ignore our best, most compassionate instincts and keep our doors firmly closed — or we can obey those noble impulses and open them.
Most people would and ought to choose the latter. Indeed, people throughout the United States consider dogs a part of their families. Sometimes they choose to live with dogs over having human partners and children. Arguing that something is fundamentally wrong with doing so threatens to cut off humans and animals from profound, meaningful, and loving relationships of great mutual benefit.
That is my view. But which point of view do the facts support?
A literature review in Applied Animal Behaviour Science compared the experiences of the “typical village dog” with the “typical modern suburban or urban dog” to determine which leads to happier outcomes, healthier results, and longer lives.
The authors found village dogs suffer from a “lack of sufficient and adequate food” and a “lack of veterinary care.” Consequently, puppy mortality is high (as much as 70%), and life expectancy is low (3-4 years, on average). Tragically, they also face human hostility. Female dogs are subject to targeted killing to prevent maternal aggression, mating, and the birth of more puppies.
[T]he typical modern suburban or urban companion dog experiences good welfare in a number of respects. This is especially the case when it comes to security, satisfaction of nutritional needs (though companion dogs have problems with a high prevalence of obesity), and proper veterinary care.
Their average lifespan is north of 10 years.
Village dogs may be free to choose when and with whom to interact, but they are also chronically hungry, suffering from treatable conditions, and have a lifespan one-third that of homed dogs. Of course, we can do more to improve the lives of street dogs, including veterinary care, food, and other protection, but the most important thing we can do is find homes where they can join a loving family.
So contrary to assumptions made by Adda, Guenther, and others, “natural” is not better; it is objectively and demonstrably worse. There is no compelling reason why individual animal suffering that humans can cure is preferable to the extended lifespan and opportunity to pursue happiness when humans provide a home. The idea that allowing avoidable suffering is somehow nobler and more “natural” contradicts our experiences and preferences as living beings and is incompatible with genuinely caring for dogs.
There is no basis for this view other than anthropocentric bias: a viewpoint that sees the suffering of dogs as less important than that of humans in similar situations. It also neglects our responsibility to reduce hardships for other Earth creatures when we can.
Its limitations aside (and there are many), the literature review resolves the quality of life debate between village dogs and dogs sleeping on our beds, riding in our cars, playing in our yards, eating in our kitchens, and vacationing with us in our hotels.
Of course, while most of us are already rising to the duties and responsibilities inherent in that relationship, we could do better by our companion dogs as a society, such as banning chaining, cosmetic surgery, commercial breeding, and pound killing. But as Jennifer, my wife, and I write in Welcome Home, our book exploring the relationship between humans and dogs (and cats),
On behalf of children… we have banned child labor, eliminated corporal punishment in our schools, and increased protections in other ways through our legal system. Moreover, we have sought to find the necessary balance between the demands we make upon them for their own good, such as education, with their inherent needs for play and other forms of recreation. There is no reason to assume that our relationship with dogs and cats — likewise predicated upon love, affection, and the desire to both provide protection and maximize well-being — cannot evolve in the same manner. In fact, there is every reason to believe that it can.
Unlike dogs, people, and other individuals, nature is not a “she” as “nature” has no sex, no gender, and no sentience. Nature is an “it.” As such, nature has no rights. Nature matters only because individuals care about or rely on nature for their health and happiness. The rights belong to them.
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