Zen Buddhism and Martial Arts

Home » Literature Archives » Life Imitating Art


yin_cai2.JPG
Author of this essay:

Yin Cai Shakya
(October 21, 2008)

LIFE IMITATING ART
by Yin Cai Shakya

I loathe people who keep dogs. They are cowards who haven't got the guts to bite people themselves.
-August Strindberg (1849 - 1912), A Madman's Diary, 1895

Strindberg wasn't referring to bichon frises when he penned that famous line. Any man can reassure himself of his bravery when he's got eighty pounds of canine muscle on a leash walking in front of him, particularly if that muscle belongs to a pit bull or a rottweiler. He is the dog-man and people better step aside.

Every man has an ego and every ego desires to gain status. Becoming important - powerful, respected, admired, or feared - is the strategy. The tactic that the dog-man uses is his reliance on what Sir James Frazer called "sympathetic magic." People will associate the qualities of the dog with the owner of the dog. It is as simple as that.

It's the same dog-tactic we'd use if we wanted to project the image of an aristocrat and bought a Cavalier King Charles spaniel or any breed that's famous for its appearance with royalty: a Chinese empress holding her pekinese; the Queen of England and her welsh corgis.

lasmeninasbydiegovalazquez.jpg

When we want to appear rich and privileged, we select a dog that requires constant grooming and flaunts its high maintenance as it passes the common folk on the boulevard. If we decide that we'd like to be perceived as a more politically correct citizen, we'll adopt a mutt from the local animal shelter and then sneer as we pass the pedigreed dog owners as though we've just won Best In Show at Westminster.

It's in our nature to do such things. The ego needs to feel a sense of superiority. It's fortunate for the dog that the relationship we form with it is usually symbiotic. Identifying with the dog lets us empathize with it; and we're more likely to attend to its needs. Ultimately, we get something that is even more beneficial to us than image enhancement. A dog is loyal, non-judgmental, protective, and a good companion. There are moments in life when a dog can give us the kind of comfort we can't get from any other source.

No matter what the nature of our relationship is to the animal, the way we treat our dog reveals much more about us than the kind of dog we own.

And that is why we are stumped when it comes to understanding the Michael Vick case. How did it happen that the highest paid professional player in football, a star quarterback, found it necessary to indulge in an activity that is not only illegal but is also contemptible?

The operators of Vick's Bad Newz Kennels forced pit bulls to fight each other, threw weaker dogs into the pit to be the practice victims of stronger dogs, made money gambling on the outcome of dogfights, and then were so unconscionably cheap that rather than spend a few dollars euthanizing unwanted animals humanely, they electrocuted, drowned, hanged, or shot them to death. These and other sadistic mating practices involving both male and female animals were routine.

Vick's error in judgment has cost him all that he worked for. He is now serving a two year sentence in federal prison for his dog fighting activities and is considering filing for bankruptcy. It's unlikely that he'll ever return to professional football.

If there is any redemption to be had in his case it is that through his own effort, skill, and talent, Vick became a famous athlete; and it was because of this fame that so much attention is now being drawn to the increasing problem of dog fighting.

The United States Humane Society estimates that 40,000 people in the U.S. are involved in buying, selling, betting, and otherwise participating in illegal dog fighting. In colonial times, when life was more inured to cruelty, dog fighting was legal. Gradually, as civilization became more civilized, the states began to outlaw the practice. Recently, inner city street gangs and immigrants from countries in which dog fighting is an accepted activity have revived the popularity of dog fighting which is now illegal in all fifty states - as are the crimes which occur in connection with the enterprise: narcotics, gambling, animal abuse, and the abduction of neighborhood pets to be used as bait animals.

Pit bulls possess a magnified aggression toward threatening animals and a natural willingness to fight to the death regardless of injuries. Dog fighters devote time and money exploiting these qualities and training the animals to fight each other; and they are resentful when a dog does not fight well enough to pay for all that training. Killing it cruelly is a show of spiteful resentment.

The Khmer Rouge had a motto when referring to the people they governed. It was, "To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss." There is no more fitting slogan to describe the manner in which fighting pit bulls are bred, kept, exploited, and executed.

This treatment isn't limited to communist thugs and it isn't limited to fighting dogs. Until the insurance industry exposed the fraud of claiming that thoroughbred horses had died from natural causes - when their owners had actually electrocuted them by inserting "hot" wires into their nostrils, hundreds of unwanted horses were callously killed. (When insurance companies ceased paying out phony claims, the owners began to advertise the animals for sale and were rife for a Nigerian purchasing scheme by which the owner was sent a check in excess of the purchase price and asked to return the difference. Naturally, the larger check was phony. Sometimes it takes a thief to catch a thief.)

Dog fighting has been outlawed in the United States since the 1860's. As of 2008, the act of pitting one dog against another is a felony in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. In many states being a spectator at a dog fight is also a felony.

The raid on Bad Newz Kennels resulted in the seizure of 49 animals, two of which had to be euthanized. Of the remaining 47, twenty-five were placed in foster care facilities and twenty-two of the more emotionally damaged dogs were sent to Best Friends Animal Facility *Dogtown" in Utah. Half of these animals were found to have an incurable parasitic infection that had been transmitted through biting. One of the dogs had had all its teeth professionally extracted. (Dog fighters will grind down the teeth of bait animals so that when they are thrown into the pit they will be unable to damage the fighting dog. For the same reason, the teeth of female breeding dogs are also ground down or removed.)

The Illegal dog fighting business prospers because many people believe that there are good reasons for ignoring the law. It is no different from cock fighting, they say, which, because of its cruelty, also happens to be illegal. It is also said to be no different from boxing, although the loser of a boxing match is not usually electrocuted, shot, or hanged, and the winner is usually given more than another year to live. Others insist that a dog killing another dog is no different from a hunter killing an animal. That a hunter kills for food is irrelevant, they maintain, since, after all, dogs are routinely eaten in many parts of the world. (During the Beijing Olympics, all restaurants were ordered to remove dog dishes from their menus for the duration of the games.)

My pit bull Remington was a gift to me - the best I ever received. She is a noble little lady and if the Queen invited her to dine with her corgis I know she'd meet palace standards of etiquette, The Queen's Pembroke corgis were bred to be herding dogs, to work for the farmer. Pit bulls were bred to serve mankind, too. If a bull threatened a farmer or a bear threatened a hunter, the pit bull would put himself between man and animal - and not just to make noise. They were bred to make the bull and bear regret having taken a step forward. They're not stupid animals. They are not bred to look for trouble. If my dog had her way about it the only bulls and bears that got her attention would be on Wall Street.

We can use dogs to bolster our image. There is no harm in that. And if we are good to our dog and the dog rewards us with its loyalty, protection, and companionship, so much the better. But whether our dog is a pet, a working animal, or an animal whose care provides us with professional or commercial income, we can't regard it as if it were a machine that needs only fuel and a little maintenance. Dogs depend on us - not just for food and shelter, but for friendship, love, and attention.

The rules of the Eightfold Path are not meant to be passively observed. Not doing harm to someone isn't sufficient. We need to prevent the innocent from being harmed whenever we can. If we see or suspect that there's a dog fighting venue near us, we have to pick up a phone and report it.

There is an old Zen story about a holy man who is sitting at a river's edge when a scorpion crawls to the edge and falls in. The holy man, seeing it thrashing around in the water, reaches down and scoops it up in his hand and sets it safely on the ground. As he does this, the scorpion stings him. A second time the scorpion falls into the river and again the holy man rescues it, and again is stung. A short time later the scorpion returns and again falls into the water and yet a third time the holy man rescues it and is stung.

A man who has been standing nearby watching this cannot restrain himself from confronting the holy man. "Why do you persist in rescuing this vile creature that only stings you for your trouble?"

The holy man shrugs his shoulders and says simply, "It is the nature of a scorpion to sting, just as it is the nature of a human being to help a creature in need."

These dogs need our help.

Humming Bird