Sympathy For The Devil

Tierce in a suit

“I’ve never been anthropomorphized in my life.”

In the wake of the sentencing of Emma Paulsen – Surrey’s notorious dog walker who left 6 dogs to die in her truck one May afternoon – an opinion has been rocking the BC Ferry. Adrian MacNair, in an op-ed entitled: Sympathy for the dog killer Paulsen, stated:

I felt sympathy because Paulsen is going to lose her right to freedom over the death of six animals who, at the end of the day, are essentially inconsequential to this world.

At this point, The Now’s Facebook page is roiling with animal lovers who most emphatically disagree with his opinion and the newspaper’s choice to print it. While I don’t agree with the manner that some people expressed their disagreement, I sympathize with their feelings.

MacNair’s editorial sparked a visceral reaction from me akin to that I experience when people belittle others for the love they have for their pets. “It’s just a dog!” is the kind of thing that someone says to make someone else feel bad. I have yet to hear that sentiment expressed in any fashion other than a petty, cruel desire to infer that someone’s feelings have no merit.

I am well aware that any love I feel for Tierce may not be reciprocated, either in depth or in kind. He is a dog. We’re still figuring out how they tick. They are pretty obviously not in our league when it comes to making decisions to prolong the quality or quantity of their lives – anyone who reads up on the challenges some pet owners have to deal with has ample evidence of that fact. They can be expensive to care for. They can be difficult to deal with and some you can’t deal with at all.

Of course you could say the same about toddlers. And poor people. And the mentally challenged. The physically challenged. That annoying fucker in the next cubicle who keeps cracking his knuckles. And, considering we have over seven billion people in the world, one could argue that our taxes would be better spent elsewhere rather than to make these peoples’ lives better.

Dogs may live less than a decade, but so will many children with severe disabilities. We could just as well argue that the penalties for hurting them or causing them undue suffering are too extreme. After all, they’ll be dead in a decade anyway. And the mentally challenged – well, many of them are ‘essentially inconsequential to this world’ – they will never cure a disease or write a respected book or even be able to hold down a job to pay their own way. Some of them may never be able to return the affection or care that a family member or caregiver lavishes on them. If their significance to this world is minimal, who cares if they suffer?

To imply that suffering and the infliction of it does not matter because of the species of animal disturbs me. MacNair himself notes that people anthropomorphize their pets. He fails to mark the significance of the fact that we largely cannot help attributing human qualities to animals and even objects that carry a significant emotional weight with us.

Perhaps he has not considered the role that animal abuse plays in the development of serial killers, in domestic abuse, and as a weapon of terror. The ability to empathize plays a huge role in our ability to recognize pain and avoid inflicting it on others. Lacking this aspect of personality means that a person has no reason to avoid hurting others. If MacNair favours people who judge the value of another on a specific set of criteria exclusive of whether they can feel pain and distress, then he certainly can find them in any number of maximum-security prisons.

In his conclusion, MacNair urges his readers to think about humans before animals, yet he hardly seems to consider the feelings of the people who shared their lives with these dogs or the people who empathize with the suffering these dogs went through. His message essentially appears to be, “We should be worrying about and caring for our fellow human beings unless they value animals as companions.” He certainly doesn’t seem to recognize that our caring for animals is an extension of our ability to care in general.

Yes, as far as humans are concerned, dogs only have the value that we give them. That we give them value, that we care for them and worry about them and work with them and spend money on them – that’s a sign that we have a great measure of the ability to not only bond with our pets, but with our fellow human beings.

Nurturing that ability, not stifling it, is a mark of caring. Caring is not telling them that their feelings have no value, that their grief has no meaning, that their ability to care is useless unless focused on a subject that one personally believes has merit.

MacNair doesn’t have to care about dogs the way I care about them. He doesn’t have to even like them. However, if he feels that nurturing other human beings is important, perhaps he should remember that their feelings have merit, even if he doesn’t value their focus.