Saturday, July 14, 2012

On wolves and humans, colony dogs, other beastly tales

[Unorganised notes on some things that have been on my mind in a post-Fox world]

I’ve been reading Steven Kotler’s A Small Furry Hope: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life (originally published in the US as A Small Furry Prayer) – this is an intimate, probing work that moves between the author’s experiences running an animal rescue shelter with his wife in Mexico and larger philosophical and scientific questions about animal intelligence, the difference between art and altruism, the human-animal bond and its ecological repercussions. Kotler covers much ground on these subjects and does it compellingly, interspersing them with his own personal growth as a dog-lover.

One very interesting passage is about the history of human cohabitation with dogs – or rather, with the wolves that eventually became dogs. Archaeologists once believed that humans and canids began living together only around 14,000 years ago, but subsequent DNA analysis (tracing the genetic split between wolves and dogs) suggests that the relationship goes back much further – to a time, more than 100,000 years ago, when our small-brained ancestors made their way from Africa to Eurasia and began hunting with wolves; and that this had a big effect on the development of both species.

Tracing the co-evolution of humans and wolves, the Viennese zoologist Wolfgang (yes!) Schleidt has observed: “There is something in the bond among wolves, and between dogs and humans, that goes beyond that between us and our closest primate relatives, the chimpanzees.” Recent research suggests that early man may have “learnt” much of his social behaviour from observing wolves. From Kotler’s book:
Scientists can trace intelligence, self-awareness and long-term planning to our chimpanzee ancestry, but as Schleidt points out in “Apes, Wolves, and the Trek to Humanity”, traits such as patience, loyalty, cooperation and devotion to both one’s immediate family and to a larger social group are not prevalent among primates. “The closest approximation to human morality we can find in nature is that of the gray wolf, Canis lupus,” he writes.
Kotler also quotes Jane Goodall:
Chimpanzees are individualists. They are boisterous and volatile in the wild. They are always on the lookout for opportunities to get the better of each other. They are not pack animals. If you watch wolves within a pack, nuzzling each other, wagging their tails in greeting, licking and protecting the pups, you see all the characteristics we love in dogs, including loyalty. If you watch wild chimps, you see the love between mother and offspring, and the bond between siblings. Other relationships tend to be opportunistic.

Some of this is necessarily speculation, but there are strong indications that some of the “human” qualities we most value today are by-products of our ancient interaction with this other species. Recently much good research has been done on the physiological benefits of being in a relationship with a dog, and as Kotler puts it, “we have evolved to co-habit with dogs. Their presence is part of makes us feel safe in the world. Remove them from our lives and there are bound to be consequences.”


But of course, urban development is specifically geared to weeding out the natural world from human lives; it’s based on the hubris that we are exalted creatures, capable of leading autonomous lives in our concrete bubbles, never mind the consequences for the ecology and for our own health. Some years ago I did this interview with the author Vandana Singh, where she spoke of the self-absorption of human beings, our inability to “see” other creatures and our cosy certainty that our destinies are unrelated to those of “lesser” beings (except of course when they can be exploited for our benefit). Singh wrote eloquently about all this in her piece “The Creatures we Don’t See: Thoughts on the Animal Other”.

In recent times I’ve often had cause to think about the determination with which some people cut themselves off from other life forms. Nearly each time I took Foxie down for her walk, I had to ignore hostile stares from people in the neighbourhood: what should have been uncomplicatedly happy, quality time often became a dispiriting experience where I was constantly feeling defensive, constantly primed for a confrontation. Frequently, old people (people who may well have led decent, moral lives but who never in all their decades had the enormously uplifting experience of being close to an animal) looked at us darkly and muttered things under their breath; this when Fox was doing nothing more offensive than running around after a tennis ball. There were occasional fights with residents who didn’t want to see dogs in the tiny excuse for a park we have downstairs (this is a cut-off segment of a larger area that was a green park when we moved here in 1987, but which is now exclusively a car park). Even when I assured them that she never used this section of the grounds as a toilet, there were sullen expressions or pronouncements about how they would be forced to “handle this situation in our own way”.

Fox with one of the local boys
Our colony has had its street dogs for years now – their numbers have always been under control and a small but devoted group of animal lovers have taken responsibility for their vaccinations, sterilisations and food; these dogs are docile and a couple of them even spend part of the day in the garden or courtyard of a dog-friendly resident. Their ancestors were dominant inhabitants of this terrain as recently as 40 or 50 years ago – before the land-clearing and DDA construction boom began in Saket in the late 60s. But that scarcely counts for anything now; if you’re sold on the idea that man “has dominion” over all other creatures, you don’t have to be troubled by something as trifling as conscience. And for as long as I can remember, these animals – and their very few protectors – have faced the ire of the vast majority of households in the colony.

When we first moved here, my mother was regularly screamed at by the people in our building because she would put food out for a couple of dogs (who would sometimes sleep at the bottom of the stairway). A divorcee living alone with a 10-year-old son, she was seen as being essentially helpless, and some of the abuse that came her way (from the married women in the building, no less) had threatening undertones that I won’t spell out here – except to say that I was reminded of it recently when I heard that a young girl who feeds street dogs had been menaced with an undisguised sexual threat by the “humans” living near her house.

(My wife, when she was staying alone in a Mayur Vihar flat in 2006-07 before we got married, was subjected to similar hectoring – culminating in an episode where a group of at least 15-20 people were practically at her doorstep, waving their fists at her. Single women are ripe targets for this sort of thing, which makes one wonder if the animals are just a pretext for the playing out of socio-cultural bullying and other dark imperatives.)

It’s worth spelling these things out, because from conversations with friends who are indifferent (not hostile) to animals, I realise that many well-meaning people have no idea just how marginalised and hounded animal-lovers can become in these situations. A few months ago members of our Residents’ Welfare Association attempted to have the local strays taken away and destroyed by coercing children to put tick-marks on a paper with the questions “Are you scared of the strays? Have you been chased or bitten by them? Do you want them removed?” That includes the majority of kids who were not scared (because they had no reason to be). The matter was resolved – for then – when one of our dog-Samaritans got the children together, had a candid conversation with them, asked if there had been any disturbing incidents, and told them exactly what would be done to the dogs if they were taken away. Some of these children – displaying the honesty, compassion and common sense that appears singularly lacking in adult homosapiens – then went and politely asked their parents to back off. It worked for the time being, but we aren’t deluding ourselves that this was anything more than a tiny battle won.

There is a tendency, among those who don’t like animals, to get all bleeding-heart about “the many human beings who are in an equally bad state – shouldn’t we do something to help them first?” There are obvious logical flaws in this argument: is this a zero-sum game? Is human welfare unrelated to that of other life? And are they saying that we need to completely eradicate all human suffering from the planet – as if that is ever possible – before we turn our attention to non-human animals? But beyond that I find this self-serving argument funny because, in my experience, many of the people who use it are just as apathetic to other human beings - the ones they don’t count among family and friends, or at least “equals”. True compassion isn’t a quality that can be neatly rationed out by withholding it from one species (or social class, or religion, or caste – you pick the group). Those RWA goons who jump up and down when they see dogs in their precious manicured parks... I find it no surprise that they yell just as loudly when the colony’s ayahs, drivers and other domestic staff sit down to have lunch together in that park. So much for being more concerned about “human beings”.


Flipping through the papers yesterday, my eyes fell on an advertisement for 3M Car Care. I initially misunderstood the tone of the ad, but it turned out to be a sardonic comment on “desi ways to keep your car new”, with accompanying illustrations. One of the stated methods was “Don’t allow pets in your car” and the drawing alongside showed what to my eyes looked like a little dog being flung out of a vehicle (a marginally kinder interpretation is that the admonishing hand reaching out from inside the car was warning the dog to stay away).

To put it very mildly, I haven’t been in a cheerful mood the last few weeks, and seeing an image like this was not going to get me feeling better. (Apart from everything else it reminded me of how, the day after we took Foxie to her burial site – in our car – I found myself in the back-seat of the vehicle, trying foolishly to gather bits of fur so I could store it in a little box. Whenever I’m in the car now, I feel a measure of irrational comfort from the knowledge that she so often travelled in it. The car – otherwise an ugly metal heap that I rarely use and have absolutely no emotional attachment to – has become more valuable because of its associations with her.)

A blurry, unintentionally arty camera-phone photo of Fox
in the back-seat, taken through the front mirror

Even so, looking at that drawing, an involuntary snort escaped me. The picture was such an apt representation of the cheerfully callous way in which many people treat their “pets” in this city. In the litany of abandonment stories one keeps hearing, a common theme is that of dogs being thrown out of moving vehicles when their “owners” decide they can no longer take responsibility for them. Such things happen dozens of times every day (and animal-welfare organisations like Friendicoes get flak because they don’t have the resources to deal with this quantum of cruelty) – it’s a transparently obvious manifestation of an attitude that considers non-human animals as disposable property with no feelings of their own - not “special”, like we humans apparently are.

[Some related thoughts in these posts: vindication of the rights of "brutes"; Temple Grandin's Animals in Translation; dogs and dog-owners]


  1. Hi Jai. I'm sorry about you and Fox. I sure hope the coming days are less upsetting. But this was a lovely post.
    I am always struck by how people often think their particular cause is the only "worthy" one and can so easily brush away their inhumanity towards other concerns. People who work for children and women can often be ruthlessly dismissive towards animals while PETA often seems to condone violence on women and fat shaming. I fail to understand how much a mind must be compartmentalized to think all of this is mutually exclusive.
    Please do write more of these. You are one of the few critics who cover this sort of writing.

  2. Recently, a colleague was trying to argue that activists who are trying to remove motor-boats from Sankey Tank, a lake here, because they disturb the ecology of the lake and are visibly causing distress to the water birds who live there, are being stupid. "I want to take my kids there; where else should I take my kids?" was his argument. I tried to tell him that feeling some sort of connection with the natural world would benefit his children far more than a ride in some possibly unsafe motor boat, but he wasn't buying.

    Why are Indians so screwed up? Where did we get our terrible values from?

  3. Radhika Oltikar8:39 AM, July 15, 2012

    Wonderful post. You have voiced so eloquently what's been increasingly on my mind lately. Ever since we started feeding the neighborhood dogs, we have encountered the same hostility you speak of. My friends in the building openly tell me they think it is "eccentric" and "fanciful." Others give us dirty looks. The same "but why don't you help humans instead" argument is trotted out. A lot of people tell me that by feeding the dogs, we are helping to spread disease and emboldening the dogs to bite humans.

    I have stopped trying to defend my actions, but I'm never amazed at how man so strongly feels that the earth is for him alone to inhabit and exploit, and other creatures are nothing but a menace. We take over their land, their natural habitat, and then have the gall to label THEM a menace.

  4. Thanks, Sonia. And yes, I agree about compartmentalising and showing lack of sensitivity. It's understandable that we are all constantly prioritising the causes that carry special resonance for us; life is short, time and energy are always at a premium. But it's important to at least be open-minded towards - and aware of - other causes.

  5. Why are Indians so screwed up? Where did we get our terrible values from?

    Shrabonti: though I want to avoid generalisations, I'm frequently struck by how much more animal-friendly the relatively underprivileged people in our neighbourhood - guards, domestic staff - are. Probably because most of them have been closer to the "pastoral" life than most city-bred people are (in conversations, I frequently hear them talk with incredible fondness about the dogs in their villages). When I see poor people sharing their food with the local strays, it does put middle-class apathy in a new light. How common it is to hear someone from a relatively privileged backgroud cluck, "When there are so many poor people in India, why should we pay attention to other creatures?" But the irony is that many of those poor people have more space in their hearts for non-human animals.

  6. Radhika: good to have that email exchange with you a few days ago, and yes, I hope you don't get too disheartened by the hostility. It does get energy-sapping after a point.

  7. Why don't you say the same about their kids when they talk about not wanting to see your pet in their apartment? Knowing such people, I doubt if that'll work though.

  8. EE: what apartment? There's nothing here about taking pets to the apartments of people who don't like them.

  9. By apartment I didn't mean a flat but a building. :-)

  10. EE: oh, sorry. But I should still clarify that our building stairway isn't a covered one inside the building - it's the friendlier DDA flat-type one that winds along the side of the building and can be seen from the outside and easily accessed. If it had been a covered stairway, I don't think we could reasonably argue that street dogs be allowed inside.

  11. As such children are not scared of animals. The fear is fed by parents and kids who are so fond playing with pups and kittens are turned into monsters who feel thrilled to see dogs being hounded and killed!

    It is pathetic that humankind is losing all soft feelings.

    Sudha Narasimhachar

  12. Sorry to hear that you got hostility when you took your dog out for walks, that's terrible. I live in the UK, and it is true that it is a nation of pet-lovers. Pet dogs are allowed into buses with their owners, something that I absolutely love! I always break into a smile when I see someone walking their dog, I just can't help it!

  13. While I agree that a lot of Indians are callous, it is still heartening to see organisations like Red Paws Rescue, Frendicoes, and working for animals, though I know they are fighting an uphill battle. And these are individuals, working without government funding. And I won't agree that in the UK everything is perfect. Yes, it is a nation of doglovers, but then why do we need the Battersea Shelter, where over 10,000 dogs are abandoned each year?

  14. Jai,

    I am sorry to hear about the passing away Foxie. We don't have a dog at home, but this post reminded me of a situation which happened in our apartment complex a few months ago.
    We have a long way to go before we get to what an inclusive society means, I guess.

  15. And I won't agree that in the UK everything is perfect.

    Anon: true. These things vary according to what one's definition of "perfect" is anyway, but the sort of world I'm most comfortable living in involves the presence of at least a certain number of (sterlised and well-treated) street dogs. That doesn't exist in countries like the UK. And there are always cases like the Lennox one (I've written about it here and here).

  16. We have a long way to go before we get to what an inclusive society means, I guess.

    Satish: And I don't think we have a hope in hell of getting there. Thanks for that link, though. About this: "someone who hasn’t lived with a pet in their house will never be able to empathise that for a dog-owner, the dog was their child." I'd amend that to "someone who hasn't been really close to an animal..." There are plenty of cases I know of people having pets in their house and never realising their value or the potential for a close relationship with them. That's where so many of those ghastly abandonment stories come from.

  17. It's a lot easier to like animals than it is to like human beings. If you don't like animals there is little chance that you will like human beings.
    A lot of animal haters are ignorant and scared - the others are emotionally scarred.
    The former need to get their courage up and grow into the joy of animal company.
    The latter need to step away from roles of leadership and responsibility. They are far too compromised to tell others what to do and what not to do. No RWA for such people. Society must use a part of it's resources to treat such people. If recovery is not noticed they may be sterilized and prevented from breeding crazy attention seeking usurpers of responsibility. Extreme cases may be put to sleep.
    Fair is fair.

  18. Poor people find it easy to empathize with dogs because they lead similar lives. Dogs and underdogs, in India tend to be of a feather.
    We are a shameful lot.

  19. Thanks for sharing this blog post with me.

    Som much resonates. I am speechless. Oh my God!

    I am really sorry for your loss. Animals make us better human beings, i feel. The love that Foxie gave you that love never dies. God bless,
    Anjali Lal Gupta

  20. My deepest condolences, and thanks for connecting to my essay.

    I don't think the problem is specifically to do with Indians. One thing I've noticed from living in the US for a while is that often the same sort of attitudes or practices persist, but they are not out in the open. In India, everything is out in the open, such as animal abuse. In the US there are plenty of shelters filled with abandoned animals, some of them horribly abused (one dog I saw had been shot by his owner). My own dog is a rescue from some abused past that still haunts him.

    I think, though, that the possibility that Indian attitudes toward animals has worsened over the years deserves deeper analysis. I can only present a hypothesis or two for what they're worth: consider the fact that my mother and many people from her generation who were raised in small towns or villages, still regard animals as ensouled beings who also have to live. Consider old practices that my mother still follows, of giving rice grains and so on to the birds or ants after you sort the grains. Consider that once India didn't have factory farms for meat, that once that would have been unthinkable, to line up animals in tiny cages so they couldn't even turn around, and subject them to unbelievable terror and cruelty --- this is common practice in the US on a scale of millions of animals every single day, and is considered scientific farming.

    Consider also the observation that the less educated, less westernized chowkidars actually are able to treat the dogs like fellow beings.

    My suspicion is that we in India are in the middle of a cultural transformation, likely brought about by a) a colonised mind-set that compels us to blindly accept Western notions and paradigms without examining them, b) increasingly globalized consumerist culture that emphasizes I over we and therefore one's individual status and power and wealth over social good and environmental health. I've mentioned in my article naturalist Valmik Thapar's conjecture that the only reason why so many animals survived in India despite the population explosion was because of the Hindu attitude toward animals, one also reflected in other religions of the subcontinent --- but in particular the idea that animals and humans are not essentially different and via reincarnation one can get to be various life-forms, so they are kin to us. One does not have to take this literally, or even be a Hindu to recognize our kinship with all beings, but one can see how this kinship might still exist among poor people who haven't had an expensive Western education/ cultural brainwashing beat it out of them.

    Think about this: India's natural resources have taken more hits in the last two decades than in the 200 years of British rule. Think about how it makes certain corporations drool to see "their" coal and oil under all those forests. Isn't it easier to rape and pillage a land if the attitude toward animals and trees and forests can be undermined? And how much easier it is to do that when people are disconnected from each other and plugged into a global urban culture that is all about feeding the insatiable appetite for things, things, things? Undermining a love for nature and animals paves the way for mass scale destruction of the world habitat.

    This might sound unduly portentous and melodramatic but sadly, it is true.

    I suggest that like minded people of all backgrounds rally together to make kinship with our street dogs, the local trees, the local patches of nature not swallowed up by our endless greed. I also have a lot of hope in children, who can make their families change their attitudes. Start a nature club! When I was growing up in Delhi, we did this with great success in many schools but it should work just as well in various colonies and apartment complexes.

    In solidarity,

    Vandana Singh

  21. I have loved every bit of what you've written. & the experience part of it so completely echoes what many of us face :)

    All the best, to you, and all dogs.

  22. Hi Jai,

    Great write up. You have articulated so simply exactly what hundreds of dogs lovers all over India face everyday. As I read through your post I kept thinking "yeah" "that's right" "oh my god that happened to mom too"... And I especially love your comments on how people suggest we should help humans first. It's been very hard for me to explain how dogs are and always be my first priority. Like Vandana says - "In solidarity" my friend. We dog lovers need to do some serious PR & advocacy for our canines buddies!

  23. And my deepest condolences about Fox.