Tough lives for man’s best friend

By John M. Crisp
Scripps Howard News Service
August 20, 2007

If you have any doubts about the despicable nature of the allegations against Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, you can dispel them by Googling a term like “dogfighting” and perusing the pictures and stories that pop up; any reasonably civilized human being will be disgusted.

On the other hand, as Paul Campos of Scripps Howard News Service pointed out recently, those of us who are not vegetarians might feel a little uncomfortable with the intensity of the condemnation of Vick. After all, the neatly arrayed, cellophaned slabs of red meat that we find in the supermarkets don’t come out of a machine. They’re the end product of a process that requires confinement, killing, dismemberment and, often, considerable misery.

Of course, this implicit whiff of hypocrisy in no way justifies breeding animals for fighting characteristics and then pitting them against each other for our amusement. But it does highlight some of the unacknowledged self-deception that lies just beneath the surface of our complicated relationship with animals.

For example: A few weeks ago I happened to be in Juneau, Alaska, on a trip that included a brief visit to a “Summer Camp” for Alaskan husky sled dogs, the kind that race in the annual 1,150-mile Iditarod. In a remote Alaskan valley, 120 dogs live and train for the winter races by pulling a 700-pound wagon loaded with a couple of mushers and six tourists along a snowless trail. These wiry mutts mount a deafening tumult of barking and baying at the prospect of being put in harness, but they run in complete, serious silence.

The promotional literature pictures the experience as partly educative, promising visitors that they will learn “how the health and care of the dogs is the musher’s greatest concern.” These “happy huskies” bond with their mushers and love to run. One could imagine that from “puppyhood” they dream of little else but winning the Iditarod.

But it takes a naive tourist to accept this Disneyfied version of the world of mushing at face value. The use of animals for our amusement — horseracing, dog racing, circuses, marine mammal exhibitions — nearly always has a dark underside from which we generally avert our eyes.

For example, these social animals, bred to run, spend nearly all of their time confined to a 5-foot chain to keep them near their small doghouse, food bowl, water dish and, most unnatural for a dog, their own excretions. Some veterinarians contend, quite reasonably, that chaining a dog leads to aggression and stress and, in fact, it appears that sled dogs suffer from a high rate of stomach ulcers brought on, some believe, by their living conditions. To some, 120 small identical doghouses, each with a restless howling dog chained next to it, may look like a “summer camp,” but it’s not hard to picture it as a canine concentration camp or a madhouse for dogs.

The Iditarod itself is a highly competitive extreme event, 1,150 miles over treacherous terrain, often in sub-zero blizzard conditions, often at night and with very little rest. By the nature of the race, the dogs are driven to their limits, and dog deaths and serious injuries aren’t unusual. Stories of dog abuse on the trail are rife on the Internet. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of all these stories, but given what we know about the history of relations between humans and animals, they have the ring of truth.

And given what we know about intense competitions like the Iditarod, for every dog that runs, dozens — perhaps hundreds — don’t make the grade. What happens to them? We’d like to think that they wind up as a pampered pet on a lush farm somewhere in Alaska, but opponents of the Iditarod claim that it’s hard to find homes for dogs that have spent most of their lives confined to a chain. These dogs, they claim, are “culled.”

So, if Michael Vick is guilty of dogfighting, the authorities should hit him hard. But it’s worth remembering that his offenses are at the extreme, repugnant end of a scale that includes a variety of inhumane practices. We sanitize these practices by pretending that animals are willing and enthusiastic participants. Generally, they’re not.