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Citizen Canine

Our Evolving Relationship With Cats and Dogs

David Grimm

(NY Times)

In 2007, a 13-year-old golden retriever named Alex, who was the subject of a contentious custody suit, was given a court-appointed lawyer to look after his best interests.

In 2006, after Hurricane Katrina - during which some people refused to evacuate because they were worried about the fate of their animals - Congress passed a Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act, requiring disaster-preparedness plans to account for pets.

In 2013, Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio unveiled a national monument that honors the service and sacrifice of military working dogs. The bronze sculpture features the four main breeds employed since World War II: the Labrador retriever, the Belgian Malinois, the German shepherd and the Doberman pinscher.

In his often fetching but highly uneven new book, Citizen Canine, David Grimm, a deputy news editor at Science magazine, points to such developments as evidence that the social status of dogs and cats has been rapidly evolving. Dog and cat ownership has quadrupled since the mid-1960s, he says, and last year Americans spent a staggering $55 billion on their companion animals. At the same time, he argues, an equally dramatic transformation has taken place in the legal system: While early American laws dismissed cats and dogs as worthless objects that didn't even warrant the meager legal status of property - they could be stolen or killed without repercussions - today's pets, he says, have become family in the eyes of the law. State legislatures have passed tough anticruelty acts, imposing fines and prison time on anyone who harms a cat or a dog, and judges have begun awarding damages for mental suffering and loss of companionship to the owners of slain pets, legal claims typically reserved for the wrongful death of a spouse or child.

Mr. Grimm gives us an engaging account of how dogs and cats came to be our best friends, examining the status various societies accorded them, from ancient Egypt, which revered the cat (Herodotus wrote that Egyptians, faced with a burning building, appear to be occupied with no thought but that of preserving their cats) to medieval Europe, which reviled cats as incarnations as Satan and eventually led to the slaughter of so many of them that the rodent population exploded, hastening the spread of the Black Plague.

Mr. Grimm describes a tiny limestone sarcophagus made around 1350 B.C. for an Egyptian prince's cat named Tamyt, who, according to an inscription, asked the sky goddess to grant its wish to become an imperishable star. And he notes that Romans not only interred their dogs in the same prominent locales as people, but also chiseled touching epitaphs on their graves (To Helena, foster child, soul without comparison, and deserving of praise).

In one of the few passages in this book that remind the reader that Mr. Grimm is a cat, not a dog, person (he dedicates this volume to his wife and their twin kitties, Jasper and Jezebel, who inspired me), he writes that while many Greeks continued the Egyptian tradition of revering the cat, Romans preferred the dog: Chalk it up to a difference in philosophy: While the Greeks valued liberty and autonomy, the Roman prized loyalty and obligation.

Though the 17th-century philosopher Descartes regarded animals as devoid of a mind and soul, Mr. Grimm observes, the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) advocated making cruelty to animals punishable by law, writing: 'The question is not, Can they reason? Nor, Can they talk?' But 'Can they suffer?' The 19th century would witness the rise of an increasingly sentimental attitude toward dogs and cats. Mark Twain’s 1904 book, A Dog's Tale, was told from the point of view of a dog; it begins: 'My father was a St. Bernard, my mother was a collie, but I am a Presbyterian.'

For chapters about more contemporary attitudes toward pets, Mr. Grimm hits the road, visiting a wolf park in Indiana, an animal cruelty task force in Los Angeles and the Canine Cognition Center at Duke University in Durham, N.C. He also talks with various animal advocates and experts, including Marc Bekoff, the author of the 2007 book 'The Emotional Lives of Animals,' who has attempted to decode how animals feel and communicate; Joyce Tischler, a founder of the Animal Legal Defense Fund; and Gary Francione, a Rutgers law professor known for his extreme views on animal rights, like his call for the abolition of pets. (As much as he enjoys living with his own canine companions, Mr. Francione has written, 'were there only two dogs remaining in the world, I would not be in favor of breeding them so that we could have more ‘pets’ and thus perpetuate their property status.')

Mr. Grimm's agility as a writer is best glimpsed in his descriptions of the work that groups like the volunteer-run Animal Rescue New Orleans have done in saving thousands of pets stranded by Hurricane Katrina and tending to the city’s huge population of strays. He is also adept at chronicling the valuable work done by military dogs, service dogs and therapy dogs and cats.

When he turns to broader theories about animal rights and their changing legal status, however, Mr. Grimm's writing can grow fuzzy minded. In discussing 'top animal thinkers,' he sometimes sounds as if he is simply channeling their ideas, and he often fails to situate their arguments within a useful context. For instance, in discussing the controversial analogies that Mr. Francione and others have drawn between 'speciesism' and human slavery, Mr. Grimm skims over the history of such arguments and the anger that such comparisons can understandably provoke. 'It may seem like a stretch to keep comparing the journey of cats and dogs to that of African-Americans,' Mr. Grimm writes in a section about Mr. Francione. 'But if we're talking about a group of beings once considered wild animals, then declared property and finally granted personhood, blacks are the only precedent pets have.'

In another chapter, Mr. Grimm argues that as service animals get more jobs, they also get more rights, pointing to the Americans With Disabilities Act, which requires hotels, restaurants and other businesses to admit service animals. Although the act is a civil-rights law aimed at protecting people with disabilities, Mr. Grimm - in his pet-centric view of the world, here - insists on seeing this as evidence that service animals are, for all intents and purposes, closer to citizenship.

Although Mr. Grimm begins Citizen Canine writing that pets are becoming more like people in our society, he ultimately rejects the notion - embraced by some advocates of animal rights - of conferring 'personhood' on animals. But not because he has problems with this language or with the implications of such arguments. He rejects it because, he says, we need animals 'to remind us of who we are and where we came from': 'When we turn cats and dogs into people, we lose the animal part of ourselves.'

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