It is hard to love your neighbor when you hate your neighbor’s dog.
“Hate” may sound too severe, especially to dog lovers, but I assure you it is the only fitting response to the creature who lives in the house beside mine. His name—one I have tried to say sweetly, angrily, disappointedly, menacingly, in order to pacify or frighten him, all to no avail—is “Panda.” Do not be swayed by the image of the cuddly, quiet, bamboo-chewing bear you have doubtless conjured in your mind. The dog “Panda” is indeed black and white, but his appearance is more “Cruella de Vil” than “Po.”
(Ever the student of culture, I must make this digression: It occurs to me that the references in the above sentence span 47 years, from 101 Dalmatians in 1961 to 2008’s Kung Fu Panda. So, did you get it? Do kids these days watch the old Disney classics? Do adults still see animated movies? Did I really just say “kids these days?”)
Despite the fact that I have been living in my present house for over seven months, Panda-the-dog still acts like he’s never seen me before and I am daily encroaching on his territory. His bark might well serve as a horror-movie-sound effect; mixed with the right screech, it could be a serial killer’s grotesque wallop. Panda frightens me. And I think he hates me, too. His face as he assails me from behind my neighbor’s inadequate fencing is twisted with rage and disgust. His spit flies at me, carrying wads of dirt he sets soaring with his paws, with animal precision. It is a heck of a way to be greeted when you get home from class.
I’ve been thinking about my relationship with the neighbor’s dog because I’ve been thinking about our relationships with animals more generally. I say relationship “with” instead of relationship “to” because I believe each party in the relation—the human called Ragini, the dog called Panda—is equally involved, reciprocally implicated. Human animality is the question of the moment; or, put differently, the human/animal distinction seems more than ever the subject of debate.
In the academy: Over the past decade, research in the critical humanities has seen what is referred to as a “post-human turn.” As a recent call for submission to the journal Social Text reveals, theorists have become interested in the boundaries between humans and other life forms; the “intellectual instrumentalizing” and anthropomorphizing of animals in the name of understanding humans; animal intimacy and the global domestication of animals; the use (value) of animals in biological and chemical research; and “the rise and demise” of animal species, among other issues. We can no longer continue to privilege human subjectivity and agency without critical interrogation of what and who the “human” is in relation to non-human beings.
In mass media: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals is only the latest in a long series of books that attempt to understand the relationship between humans and animals—both the animals we live with and the animals that so many of us continue to eat (see Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation; Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma; Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s The Face on Your Plate: The Truth about Food; not to mention the proliferation of vegan cookbooks, from How it all Vegan to Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World). For Safran Foer, “eating animals” is a fundamentally moral problematic. As he writes, “Every factory-farmed animal is, as a practice, treated in ways that would be illegal if it were a dog or a cat. Turkeys have been so genetically modified they are incapable of natural reproduction. To acknowledge that these things matter is not sentimental. It is a confrontation with the facts about animals and ourselves.”
Human animality is the subject of political and religious debate, as evidenced by the chasm between evolutionists and creationists. I’m tempted to qualify that with another description—“the chasm between sane and crazy”—but the resistance to Darwinism is revelatory of more than just religious fundamentalism. It suggests a deep seated fear of destabilizing the centrality of humanness in our conception of life.
Animals frighten us by revealing the limits of understanding and the impossibility of communication. As a child, I was frequently traumatized by movies about animals, real and animated. I was far more distressed by the death of Bambi’s mother, the imprisonment of Dumbo’s, and the scenes of predation on the Discovery Channel than by any film in which humans were victimized or injured. I recall the way I sobbed at the French film The Bear (L’ours, 1988), when the grizzly cub’s mother was killed in a rockslide. Was it because I felt that the bear was helpless? Because animal experiences could not enter into language? Did I find animality threatening? Did the specter of the animal disturb my comfortable idea of what it means to be human and alive in the world?
The other day Panda’s owners (human housemates?) heard him barking furiously as I scrambled like mad to get into my house and out of his line of sight. They’ve now put up something like a baby-proof gate that prevents him from coming as far toward me as he used to. Now I hear the barks, and I see his face, but we are separated by a decomposing fence, two rows of potted plants, a bicycle, and the baby gate. I feel guilty about Panda now that I’ve successfully established this space between us. But the only thing that scares me more than the animal bark is the prospect of getting too close.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.
Photo credit: CarbonNYC courtesy Creative Commons.