Pampered Pooches – Man’s Best Friend in the Age of Celebritry by Alison Banville
Channel 4’s flagship investigation show, Dispatches recently reported on the rise in demand for designer dogs and how this has led to an illegal trade in imported puppies. This demand, as the programme highlighted, is driven in no small way by the desperate need some people have to emulate celebrities and their lifestyles which includes acquiring that most predictable of accessories – the tiny designer dog that fits into one’s designer handbag. It’s a popular look, you must have seen it. It’s favoured mostly by the utterly talentless, although there are exceptions, which only goes to prove that talent is by no means incompatible with stupidity.
I am both fascinated by, and disgusted with, celebrity culture, believing as I do that it’s a symptom of how our society is, to snatch a quote from Martin Luther King, ‘approaching spiritual death’. Characterised by an obsession with only the surface of things, with outward impression, with status, it is a rejection of everything authentic, genuine and meaningful in life and undermines all truly valuable relationship. Yes, that’s how evil Kim Kardashian actually is! If she’d been sent by an alien race to destroy us from within because it was easier than all-out invasion she and her ilk couldn’t be doing a better job.
Turning just about every potentially profound interaction in your life into a (mostly financial) transaction would be sad enough if it affected only you, but ‘celeb’ culture, like the insidious virus it is, spreads throughout the population draining more and more lives of their beautiful individuality and creative promise leaving behind mere orange-skinned, designer-clad husks. It is these corpses, roaming the earth like extras from a George A. Romero zombie movie, that infect our culture with the life-denying values that can view even living beings as mere appendages. If you’re not worried by that then, guess what? – you’re a zombie too!
A fine example of this ‘living being as mere accessory’ mindset emerged as I watched the irreverent comedy quiz show, ‘8 Out of 10 Cats’, recently. Panel guest, singer Jamelia, (undoubtedly talented) was regaling us all with the story of how she got rid of the family labrador because the dog was basically too much trouble to look after, replacing him or her with the obligatory small canine that can be popped into a handbag along with one’s lipstick. Jamelia’s giggles as she revealed this sorry tale were met with gales of laughter from the audience prompting fellow guest Krishnan Guru-Murthy of Channel 4 News to reveal that he won’t allow his children to have a dog because he just doesn’t understand why anyone would give houseroom to one?
The audience laughed heartily at Jamelia’s anecdote and Krishnan’s smug declaration. But what struck me most was the prevailing atmosphere of approval for this kind of casual indifference to animals. And before anyone bleats, ‘it’s a comedy show, it’s not to be taken seriously you killjoy’, let me say that the format is intrinsic to the problem. The notion that it’s ‘cool’ to laugh at a lack of concern for animals is a dangerous one. In such an atmosphere anyone daring to interrupt the laughter with thoughts along the lines of ‘it’s not very nice to treat animals as if they’re mere objects’ would be labelled as overly sentimental, as if compassion and empathy for them were traits to be ridiculed.
This is all the more worrying because dogs are surely the easiest of animals in our society to engender compassion for? Try getting people to think about how pigs, cows and sheep are treated in factory farms and slaughterhouses – now that’s an uphill struggle if ever there was one – but dogs?! Aren’t they ‘man’s best friend?’ If we can delight in stories of their banishment from a home they know and feel safe in for no reason they could possibly fathom then how far are we eroding our already erratic concern for all animals? Does no-one wonder how confused that Labrador might have been? How the bonds he or she had formed with Jamelia and her children being suddenly broken might have caused much distress and sadness?
I’m reminded of Voltaire’s impassioned response to Descartes, the latter having proposed his ‘mechanist’ theory that animals are mere machines; that their cries of pain when hurt are comparable to the sounds a clock makes when smashed on the floor:
‘What a pitiful, what a sorry thing to have said that animals are machines bereft of understanding and feeling. Bring the same judgment to bear on this dog which has lost its master, which has sought him on every road with sorrowful cries, which enters the house agitated, uneasy, which goes down the stairs, up the stairs, from room to room, which at last finds in his study the master it loves, and which shows him its joy by its cries of delight, by its leaps, by its caresses’.
If you thought you had nothing in common with a man as great as Voltaire then you might have just changed your mind, for I know some readers will have instantly recognised exactly what he is expressing here – the sheer depth of emotion of which dogs are capable. These are beings with a level of sensitivity that puts many a red-carpet lurking, fame-junkie owner to shame. Do we think anyone who dresses their dog up in ridiculous outfits like a child does a doll really understands the depth of the living creature they are parading for the paparazzi? How can someone so dull of heart and mind see beneath the surface when their entire existence is all about outer impression and status symbols?
Jeffrey Masson, psychoanalyst and author of the million-selling book ‘Dogs Never Lie About Love’ says, ‘I have reached the conclusion that dogs feel more than I do. They feel more, and they feel more purely and more intensely. By comparison the human emotional landscape seems murky with subterfuge and ambivalence and emotional deception, intentional or not.’ This purity of feeling in dogs is a privilege to experience. It exists whether the human companion is sensitive enough to be aware of it or not, whether they are deserving of it or not, and whether they are capable of reciprocating or not. To be near such an ocean of unconditional love and not to appreciate it is a tragedy for the person so shallow they cannot see it or feel it, but it is also a tragedy for the dog, because however well-fed or ‘pampered’ they are, they will be the victim of a thousand little hurts as their attempts to emotionally connect fall on stony ground.
Emotional depth has nothing to do with intellect (although I’m quite confident Paris Hilton’s pooch has a higher IQ than her), it is about the heart, not the head, which is why dogs can leave us standing in the sensitivity stakes. It’s no anthropomorphic projection to acknowledge this but a recognition that animals quite naturally possess an array of emotions that we arrogantly imagine are exclusive to us, yet so many of us do not ‘see’ them as they really are. To slightly misquote journalist Matthew Scully: ‘if you look at a dog and all you see is a status symbol, a fluffy toy, an emotional crutch or a rosette-winner, you do not see the dog anymore – you see only yourself, and all the schemes and appetites you bring to the world.’
Think about that next time you’re tempted to laugh at a chihuahua in a tutu.
Alison Banville is co-editor of BSNews. She is an independent journalist, writer, vocalist, poet, some-time stand-up comedian, and long-term vegan whose interests are human and animal rights, environmental, political and cultural issues. She has traveled twice to Syria to report the truth of the crisis.
She has written for The Guardian, The New Statesman, The Morning Star and Erotic Review. Her work has also been featured on Global Research. She is currently writing a book on the culpability of the corporate media in promoting war and militarism.
To steal a line from her hero, Bill Hicks, she is available for children’s parties.