Friday, October 21, 2016

A "Pet" as a First World Concept

The house that the author resides in here in Iringa is now also inhabited by a 4-month-old kitten, a sort of pet that his roommate has been looking to acquire for sometime.  So far one of the most interesting thing about the experience is to observe how the Tanzanian housekeeper (who comes thrice a week) interact with (or, more accurately, behaves toward) the kitten.  To put concisely, it is almost one of bipolarism, petting the animal and giving her attention one moment, but loudly (and rather harshly) shooing it away whenever the kitten gets jumpy and playful enough to interrupt her housework.

She is not alone in this bipolar attitude toward animals.  In the author's office, there is a residential canine.  During lunch hours, it does want a normal dog should do: go around begging for food scraps from humans.  The author occasionally sees local staff members giving a chicken bone or pieces of meat to the dog.  But for some reason, he some days he sees the exact same people giving the dog (a gentle) kick to make it go away.  The dog whimpers and runs away, and the staff laughs a little and go back to their lunch.  Not a bit of remorse is observed on their faces.

But then again, why should they feel remorse for the dog.  The human, as the higher being with something that is desired but not going to be paid for, have every right to choose not to give and feel completely normal about that choice.  In fact, it is the same sort of highhandedness that people experience from other people, in particular instances of dealing with bureaucrats that provide needed but free government services.  If a human can be dealt as such, why not a mere animal that does not have any right that humans are supposed to be have in the first place?

After all, domesticated animals that live among humans are able to do so because they are selected by humans to serve not as social equals, but as animate "tools" in practical functions.  Cows produce milk, pigs provide meat, dogs guard properties (and in certain parts of the world, sometimes used for human consumption), and cats kill mice.  For most of human history, if they are not able to provide those intended functionalities AND get along with their human masters, they simply did not deserve to live.  for most of human history, they did not function primarily as social companionship as "pets."

In fact, the fact that animals can become "pets" is a peculiar phenomenon limited to the rich world (and rich people in poor countries).  As populations urbanize, the original agrarian-centered functions of domesticated animals become obsolete and irrelevant, but people still wanted them around as companions in absence of human ones.  Gradually whole industries (pet foods, pet salons, veterinarians, Kennel Clubs, publications geared toward pet lovers, academic studies) develop all this peculiar habit, and the habit becomes not only a social norm but also instigator for "animal rights" movements.

But it should not be forgotten that a "pet" culture can only come about when certain levels of wealth is achieved.  Keeping "pets" for pure companionship is an expensive affairs.  They will be unable to provide their own food, lodging, or place to defecate.  Vaccinations and behavioral trainings cost extra money, as does any damages they incur around the house from their playfulness.  The cost only increases as the concept of keeping pets becomes a method of conspicuous consumption in itself.  Manicures, hair-dyeing, pet-specialty hotels and therapies...the costs simply have upper limit.  

The average local here simply cannot fathom the idea of jumping on that pet bandwagon, not do they see why those expenses are needed.  If one wants the pleasure of seeing graceful animals rather than use them as tools, one can go to National Parks nearby for visits, where animals many times more beautiful than the average cat or dog is widely available for view.  If one is after social companionship, the members of one's extended family, neighbors in the village, and significant other is more than enough.  Why spend time with creatures that one cannot even communicate properly?

So when seeing the local shoo away the cat harshly or casually kick a dog aside, the reaction should not one that criticizes "culturally accepted animal cruelty."  Instead, it is a reflection of economics-driven belief that animals are fundamentally subservient to humans and do not have any social roles (or rights) in a human-dominated society.  That is not saying the same animals are dispensable beings for continuation of Mother Nature, but they remain only valuable to humans in a practical sense only.  The fact the rich in the First World does not share such a view toward animals does not invalidate it. 

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