The Covenant of the Wild: Why Animals Chose Domestication

A more apt title might be “Human Eat Human” because the dogs in this book are civilized. It’s the people who are vicious. This book is meant to be a light-hearted romp through the wacky world of dog shows, but I found it downright depressing.

Dog show human participants are a strange breed themselves. They seem to look upon dogs as decorative objects born to win them ribbons (and to suffer whatever consequences go along with that). The people involved in dog shows are closely akin to those who drag their kids around the country in order to compete in beauty pageants: cold-blooded, calculating, and often back-stabbingly competitive. Show dogs lead an unnatural, lonely life stuck in a kennel when they’re not on the road in a trailer headed towards the next competition. There might be some merit to it if the contests were honest, but there’s back room politics involved and it seems to have more to do with seducing the judge, putting the right makeup on your dog, or getting a judge that happens to like your dog’s body type or breed than honest competition.

Mimi, the main human character in the book, works at her local animal shelter and visits retirement homes with retired show dogs. So you would think she should know better because of her exposure to the plight of homeless animals. But apparently not. She supposedly loves her dogs, but I suspect she loves them for what they can do for her ego in the show ring. And if they fail, as Rusty did at first, she has no qualms about giving him away to another trainer at very short notice.

The obsessive mating (or artificial inseminating) of so-called “purebreds” (the bullmastiff, the main focus of this book, has been so genetically manipulated that its lifespan is only about nine years) in order to sell puppies to equally obsessed clients who have a “thing” about the look of a certain breed reminds me of the Master Race theories of the Nazis. And considering the huge number of healthy, available dogs in shelters and with rescue groups in this country, it’s insane that breeders continue to produce often physically and psychologically impaired purebreds for the market (as well as to appear on the dog show circuit), especially when you consider the fact that at least 15% of surrendered shelter animals are purebreds.

At one point, frustrated in her attempts to produce a healthy litter, Mimi has a moment of enlightenment: “I am thinking of getting out of this business altogether. Purebred dogs are nothing but heartache. I just want nice mutts from the pound who live forever.” Unfortunately, at the end of the book she doesn’t follow up on this wish.

After a short spell during which he was an assistant professor of animal pathology, the co-director of a diagnostic laboratory for animal diseases, and a researcher on viral diseases, Bernard Wasserman, AB, DVM, turned to the practice of small animal medicine. In 1957 he opened his own small animal hospital in Brooklyn Heights, NYC, and stayed with it for 30 years. The Dog Who Met the Queen & Other Stories tells the tales of those animals and their people who came and went at the Hicks Street clinic.

Not one of the 25 stories that make up this small book failed to hold my attention. From cleaning up birds after an oil spill to treating Truman Capote’s dog, the subjects of the stories are wonderfully diverse. If I had to say something un-glowing, I would say that I would have felt better, as a reader, if Wasserman had arranged the tales in chronological order and if the very first one had not been about animal hoarders. That tragic and important subject was a bit off-putting as an introduction to what was to come. I was tempted not to go on but am glad I did.

For those readers who have vicariously traveled the Yorkshire dales delivering calves in mid-winter or have stooped next to the vet looking for patients under the bed, these tales of running a veterinary practice in the middle of Brooklyn will be a treat. The scenery is different, but the delight in helping people care for their animals and the compassion Wasserman shows for the animals in his care remain the same.

Let me say at the outset that it’s about time a born-again, conservative Christian wrote a pro-animal rights book. Matthew Scully is a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and an ethical vegan of many years’ standing. I recommend this book highly; the riveting chapters on Scully’s close encounters with Safari Club International and the North Carolina pig factories are alone worth the price. But I do have a few problems with it.

One of Scully’s ‘bêtes noires’ is the utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer, who wrote the groundbreaking “Animal Liberation” that defined the animal rights movement. As a Christian, Scully seems to mistakenly believe that, first of all, atheists like Singer have no moral grounding and think life is basically meaningless. The fact that Singer believes we should be kind to animals just because they are sentient and they suffer doesn’t seem to be as important to Scully as their ‘souls’, and the ‘souls’ of the humans dealing with them. And he gratuitously discusses Singer’s controversial ideas about euthanasia of humans, infanticide and the treatment of retarded humans as if to imply that Singer can’t be trusted on animal issues if he holds such views about the treatment of humans. That’s like throwing the baby out with the bathwater (so to speak). I could just as unfairly point out that Scully has worked for and admires George W. Bush, who is anti-environment, anti-animal rights, and pro-corporate ranching, and thus Scully should not be trusted to write on animal rights issues.

I also have a problem with Scully’s insinuation that one cannot be pro-choice/abortion as well as an animal advocate without being a hypocrite. I disagree. In my opinion, birth control or abortion for humans and domesticated animals (cats, dogs, etc.), who are overpopulating the planet and severely straining its resources is absolutely vital for the sustainable future of the planet and its residents–all of them, both plant and animal. It’s far more humane to control the number of births and abort unwanted embryos and fetuses than to allow too many humans and domesticated animals to be born, only to suffer or starve because of competition for food (in the case of humans), or (in the case of dogs and cats) to be rounded up and “humanely” euthanized because there are too many of them and not enough homes. Scully apparently does not agree.

Despite my quibbles, I urge everyone interested in animal and environmental issues to read this book. It’s beautifully written, well-researched, thoughtful, and clearly comes from Scully’s heart.

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