There are many glossy magazines on the rack devoted to promoting pet ownership. Most are marketing organs of the multi-billion dollar pet industry. Estimates of the world population of dogs are usually in the neighborhood of 400 to 500 million. In regions that live within temporary bubbles of affluence, pets are four-legged engines of robust profits. In regions of decline, they can turn into dangerous problems.
PETA’s statement on pets begins with this line: “We at PETA very much love the animal companions who share our homes, but we believe that it would have been in the animals’ best interests if the institution of ‘pet keeping’ — i.e., breeding animals to be kept and regarded as ‘pets’ — never existed.” They go on to present a number of sound reasons for this position.
A couple of weeks ago, I happened to come across the website of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, and it knocked me over: “An estimated 75% of the world’s dog population are strays.” Wowsa! You know, I’ve never seen images of mangy packs of vicious mongrels on the cover of Doggie Style magazine. Well, grab a beer, and let’s take a little visit to the rarely examined world of non-corporate reality.
In The Tracker, Tom Brown described dog problems in his Pine Barrens region of New Jersey in 1977. Folks would often drive out into the woods and abandon their unwanted dogs and puppies, which would join packs of feral dogs that congregated around dumps. From time to time, dog packs would get too large and become a nuisance. They would kill horses, cattle, pets, and entire flocks of sheep. One dog snatched a baby out of its stroller, and continued gnawing on its head while two men vigorously kicked it. Going outdoors was risky, because dogs often attacked people. The miserable dogs were starving, diseased, and covered with open sores and big ticks. Tom was hired to shoot the pack, and he did, with mixed emotions.
Today, Detroit is playing a leadership role in the process of urban healing — depopulating, decomposing, and returning to forest. There may be up to 50,000 abandoned dogs running loose and breeding. Postal workers are fearful of delivering mail to some neighborhoods, because of the packs of mean dogs. Many residents are increasingly afraid of stepping outside.
In 1977, an earthquake in Bucharest, Romania killed 1,500 people and destroyed a portion of the city. Thousands of dogs became homeless, formed vicious packs, and by the ‘90s they had taken over the streets. Residents were regularly bitten and mauled. A Japanese businessman was killed by dogs on one of the city’s most exclusive streets. The reputation of the city deteriorated sharply, as did its tourism industry.
Traian Băsescu was the mayor of Bucharest from 2000 to 2004. During his administration, the number of stray dogs was reduced from 300,000 to 25,000, and the number of injuries caused by dogs dropped sharply. Today it is fairly safe to be outdoors in the center of downtown (but not in the suburbs). This reduction was achieved in a manner that was often mercilessly brutal, producing a loud outcry from animal rights advocates, many of whom lived elsewhere, and did not experience an intense fear of vicious dogs on a constant basis. In 2004, Băsescu became the president of Romania. Some estimate that there are two million stray dogs across Romania.
Gardiner Harris recently wrote a stunning horror story about the dogs of India. “No country has as many stray dogs as India, and no country suffers as much from them. Free-roaming dogs number in the tens of millions and bite millions of people annually, including vast numbers of children.” About 20,000 bite victims die of rabies every year, an excruciatingly painful death.
Joggers and bicyclists are frequently chased, and they defend themselves with rods and rocks. People walking dogs often witness their pet being ripped to shreds by packs of hungry mongrels. The mother of a 3-year old child killed by dogs said, “There are stray dogs everywhere in Delhi. We are more scared of dog bites than anything else.”
Meanwhile, the rising middle class of India is very interested in increasing their social status by paying big money for trendy dogs. “But many pedigreed dogs end up on the street, the castoffs of unsuccessful breeders or owners who tire of the experiment.”
Poverty is widespread in India, and piles of uncollected garbage provide a steady food supply for assorted scavengers. But it got to where people were slaying too many annoying dogs, so this killing was outlawed in 2001. Guess what happened to the dog population. Some worry that in the absence of dogs, the garbage piles would become the breeding grounds for billions of rats and their fleas, increasing the risk of a plague pandemic.
As we move beyond the temporary bubble of cheap energy, how long will it be before similar scenarios emerge in New York, London, Paris, and your town? How many potential pet owners are highly confident that the next ten years will include regular employment, a middle class income, and a stable economy? Do they own several acres of land, free and clear, with sturdy fencing? Do they have a work life that wouldn’t require leaving pets alone much of the time?
When dogs aren’t adequately fed, they cease being our friends. In his book, The Plague of the Spanish Lady, Richard Collier described the influenza pandemic of 1918. The mission boat Harmony had spread the flu virus to a number of small isolated settlements in the arctic. In the village of Okak, Labrador, only 59 of 266 residents survived. In Hebron, just 70 of 220 survived. A village might have 500 sled dogs, and when they got hungry, they would break into huts and eat the dead and dying.
Mike Davis discussed a similar scenario in Late Victorian Holocausts. In the drought of 1876-1878, famine killed millions in India, while countless pariah dogs got fat by eating the “skeletonized” and the dead.
Many other cultures have no inhibitions about eating dogs. In the journal Archaeology, Jarrett A. Lobell and Eric Powell wrote that dogs were part of the regular diet in some Native American societies. Large quantities of butchered dog bones were found near the Cahokia site, close to St. Louis. “The Aztecs, whose ancestors were called the Chichimec, or ‘Dog People,’ are known to have bred a hairless dog they called a Xoloitzcuintle to serve at royal feasts.” Abundant evidence of dog eating has been found at Olmec sites along the Gulf of Mexico. “Although they had an abundance of food at their disposal, the Olmec ate dogs as part of their regular diet.”
Dogs were convenient livestock. They remained close to the settlement, didn’t need fences or herders, and they lived on garbage. During periods of bad hunting, they came to our rescue. In times of war, when Europeans were trapped in besieged cities, Fido regularly shape shifted into “blockade mutton.”
The pet industry has yet to penetrate large regions of the developing world, and transform dogs into “fur children” and family members. Hal Herzog reported that in Asia, 16 million dogs and 4 million cats are eaten annually. In some cultures, dog meat is believed to increase libido and virility (four-legged Viagra). Don’t tell grandpa.
As the collapse proceeds, growing problems with stray dogs seem very likely. The issue is emotionally supercharged, and I have no cheap, easy, win-win solutions to offer. As consumer societies deflate, pet keeping is sure to decline. We may be near Peak Pets now.
This concludes my canine series. Thank you! Have a nice day! See you in church.
Brown, Tom, The Tracker, Berkeley Publishing Group, New York, 1979.
Collier, Richard, The Plague of the Spanish Lady, Atheneum, New York, 1974.
Davis, Mike, Late Victorian Holocausts, Verso, New York, 2001.
Harris, Gardiner, “Where Streets Are Thronged With Strays Baring Fangs,” New York Times, 7 August 2012, New York edition.
Herzog, Hal, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, Harper Collins Publishers, New York, 2010.
Lobell, Jarrett A., and Powell, Eric, “Dogs as Food,” Archaeology, Sept-Oct 2010.