Suzman: Sympathy for a Desert Dog

* New York Times: Sympathy for a Desert Dog.

Sympathy for a Desert Dog

James Suzman | 31 August 2014 | New York Times


Dog adopted me in 1995, six months or so into my first spell of ethnographic fieldwork among the Ju/’hoansi Bushmen in Namibia’s Kalahari Desert. I was living in the village of Skoonheid, named after an Afrikaner farm. He was the bravest of all the village dogs in seeking affection. The others loped around, their tails between their legs, trying to be invisible. They shied from physical contact with people but would respond with surprise and simpering gratitude if it was offered. Most of their physical interactions with people came in the form of kicks or flying stones.

The village dogs’ only real joy came when they joined a foraging or hunting party or when they would assemble as a pack to tear around the village and the surrounding bush. Then their tails would wag and they would briefly forget their hunger.

Each dog loosely belonged to someone in the village, but they were not considered objects of affection or “part of the family.” The Ju/’hoansi were the direct descendants of people that had hunted and gathered continuously in this part of the Kalahari for tens of thousands of years but had recently been dispossessed of most of their lands by Afrikaner cattle ranchers. There was now rarely enough food to go around and dogs were expected to take care of themselves. So they scavenged for scraps around fires at night, and if these were inadequate they hunted lizards, mice, insects and all manner of other desert creatures. One man claimed his dogs had learned to hunt and eat snakes, although they did so less since one was killed by a cobra.

Dog adopted me because I had food to share and was happy to give him affection. In return Dog offered me companionship in a place that was, back then at least, often alien and unsettling.

Out of sight of others, I slipped Dog leftovers from my plate and later gave him his own bowl. I would also scratch his ears and chest and he’d sit curled at my feet by the fire. Dog would have accompanied me everywhere if I let him. But the one time I took him in my truck he panicked, so I left him to fend for himself whenever I had to travel elsewhere.

Dog was a typical Africanis, a distinctive breed believed by some to be descended from the dogs pictured in Egyptian hieroglyphs. His ancestors slowly worked their way through human settlements across Africa around two millennia ago. And wherever the breed became established, it evolved over successive generations into sub-breeds better adapted to their particular environments. Fossil remains suggest that these dogs first arrived in the Kalahari 700 years ago. Here the environment selected the fast and the stealthy — those that could hunt independently, scavenge from predators and humans and get away quickly when they needed to. Standing only a foot and a half at the shoulder, Dog was more a whippet than a muscled lion hunter like his cousin the ridgeback.

My relationship with Dog was short-lived. Several months after adopting him I returned from a trip to find him cowering deep in a thicket of swaarthaak acacia — a place where no one could reach him without getting shredded by thorns. His tail thumped the ground when I called, but some primal fear would not let him draw close enough for me to grab him. Through the lattice of thorns I could see the problem. There were several patches on his back where his hair, skin and flesh had dissolved. The white of his ribs was visible as if they had been bleached and the flesh was black and scalded. A little investigation revealed the cause of his suffering. Some of the children had found a bottle of industrial acid that I had purchased to clean a pipe and carelessly left out. They had experimented with its corrosive powers. First on various objects, then on another dog and finally on Dog.

Dog cowered under that bush for another day or so as his organs gave in. I pushed some food and water into the thicket but he did not respond. In then end we hacked into the bush to retrieve him. By then he was barely alive and in great pain. Once he was out, my friend Kaice quickly clubbed Dog’s head with a spade, which I then used to dig Dog a small grave that I marked solemnly with his bowl and an unspecific prayer.

My demands that the children should be punished and made to be aware of the pain they had inflicted confused my Ju/’hoan neighbors. I was informed that “Dog was a dog” and that the children should not be punished for demonstrating curiosity.

They had found my habits of feeding and petting Dog odd enough, but the idea of giving it a human burial just seemed absurd. But it was not completely without reference. The Ju/’hoansi considered the white ranchers that had “stolen” much of the land here tended to have “peculiar” relationships with their pet dogs. Dogs usually were offered the passenger seats in ranchers’ trucks while Bushman workers were confined to the bed. Dogs were fed meat and lavished with affection when Bushmen workers were given maize porridge and complained of being beaten regularly. Ju/’hoansi were rarely if ever allowed into a farmer’s house, whereas dogs were known to sleep in farmers’ beds — a cause of general hilarity among the Ju/’hoansi.

Eventually Kaice broached the uneasy topic with me.

“/Kunta,” he said addressing me by my Bushman name, “the problem with you whites is that you think dogs behave like humans or even that your dogs think that they are humans. They are not humans. They are dogs. Their ways are different.”

It took me a while to understand Kaice’s point and the apparent indifference of the Ju/’hoansi to the suffering of dogs. It seemed at odds with the idea that Ju/’hoansi and other hunter-gatherers had deeply empathetic relationships with the animals they lived among. But in time I learned that this is precisely what justifies the indifference.

Ju/’hoansi insisted that animals were people. Not humans but people. They asserted that each species of animal had its own physical forms, customs, habits and ways of experiencing and interacting with the world. Ju/’hoansi claimed to know this because they observed, engaged with and empathized with the animals with whom they shared their world.

Most pet owners claim that the sympathy they offer their pets is based on an empathetic relationship with them built on traits our species and their species have in common — in the case of dogs their sociability, their loyalty, their gratitude.

But this is a different understanding of empathy than that which hunter-gatherers like the Ju/’hoansi had for their animal neighbors.

For them animal empathy was not a question of focusing on an animal’s human-like characteristics, but of assuming the whole perspective of the animal. Their animal empathy defied verbalization. To empathize with an animal you couldn’t think like a human and project your mind-set into it; you had to “be” the animal.

This view of empathy was the product of millennia of living among the wild animals of the Kalahari as “neighbors” and hunting them. Where other peoples defined themselves by reference to other tribes or nations, Ju/’hoansi defined themselves in terms of the their differences from the lions, elephants, aardvarks, elands and many other desert creatures they lived among. Their animal neighbors were a constant source of fascination. Any interesting or unusual animal behaviors, habits and interactions would generate considerable discussion. Their knowledge of the animals was such that they were able to establish an animal’s apparent motives and actions from a few scuffs in the sand, sometimes a day or two old, and accurately predict its movements or behavior on this basis. But their success as hunters, after all, depended on their ability to accurately anticipate the behavior of their prey. And this, they insisted, required empathy.

Typically Ju/’hoansi hunted with small poison arrows that lacked fletching. It took great skill and knowledge to get close enough to an animal to shoot it and even greater skill to able to track the animal down as the poison did its work, which could take between six and 48 hours depending on the size of the animal. After shooting a large animal like an oryx or a giraffe, a hunter would memorize the individual animal’s spoor and return the following morning to track it down.

When a hunter found and followed his prey’s spoor he would not merely read it but surrender himself into it, living each footfall that scuffed the sand. In doing so he plunged into his prey’s consciousness, dissolving the boundary between the hunter and the hunted. Finally, by consuming their prey, the hunter and the prey’s relationship would move from an empathetic union to a physical one as they literally became of one body.

But this kind of empathy did not persuade Ju/’hoansi and other hunter-gatherers to feel sympathy for animals or assume a duty of care for them. Rather it made people focus more on the non-human behaviors of animals rather than what they had in common. Among people who considered themselves to be just one of many different kinds of animal-people in a wild environment, hunting, death and pain were parts of everyday life. Human compassion did not extend to other species.

My relationship with Dog, as the Ju/’hoansi reminded me, was an artifact of the Neolithic Revolution. The domestication of the wolf was but a small part of a transition that fundamentally reconfigured how humans related to their environments. Where they once saw themselves as one of many creatures sharing environments, they now placed themselves at its center and sought mastery over it. Accordingly animals were divided into a series of new categories based on how they fit into the human world. Some were designated pets or “livestock” – and a duty of care was extended to them. Others were designated pests or vermin. Animals ceased to be considered different kinds of “people,” and those like dogs were selected and bred, for human-like traits, among other things, that we could easily empathize with without displacing our sense of ourselves as humans.

My and Dog’s lives intersected momentarily. And I am glad they did. We were both Neolithic orphans stranded in a Paleolithic world. The Ju/’hoansi’s sense of interspecies relations and their extraordinary empathy was right for the wild animals that shared their world, and there is much we can learn from it. But when it comes to dogs, and other creatures that have evolved to crave our affection, I am glad to be a child of the Neolithic.

Source: New York Times: Sympathy for a Desert Dog.


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