Monday, January 9, 2012

Westernization of Attitudes to “Stray” Dogs

Western attitudes to dogs differ from eastern attitudes. This is most obvious in the acceptance of dogs being used as a food source in some eastern cultures whereas it is absolutely taboo in the west, but that particular attitude is a topic for another day.

Another attitude difference that seems especially important to the stray dog issue is that westerners believe that a dog’s place is as an owned animal and nowhere else, whether that be as a pet or a working dog. This means that any unowned dog is out of place and therefore “stray”. It becomes a “problem” and needs to be “dealt with”. And the assumption is that everybody else feels the same way. This is fine in the western context but things are different in the east where unowned dogs have been an accepted part of village life for centuries and they are not looked at as being “stray” at all – they are just there, doing what they always have done.

“West” and “East” are being used here quite loosely and the difference in attitude to dogs is perhaps also related to temperate versus equatorial regions.

With increasing contact with the West there has been a gradual shift over the years in how people in east Asia view dogs. It is by no means complete but it is particularly noticeable in middle class urban communities where this western attitude has been embraced. I don’t believe that this is a conscious change, more the effect of exposure to sometimes quite forcefully expressed western opinion combined with a general increase in dog ownership.

To me this represents a loss of culture. Having lost touch with more rural village life, Asian city dwellers are adopting many imported attitudes and their view of dogs is one of them that does not fit their own country’s history.

Again, let me be clear, I am not suggesting that ex-pets are anything other than a problem and I never condone their abandonment. I am talking about dogs that have lived without human owners for many, many generations, arguably ever since dogs first came into being. These are the animals that people from the West refuse to acknowledge as having a legitimate role in the world.

Having lived in Thailand for 15 years I have to accept that I am part of this process of westernization but having gained insight into the life of dogs in the south-east Asian context I am uncomfortable at the arrogance with which we foreigners impose our views despite clear evidence to the contrary. In the case of dogs we force what we see to fit our own model and promote our own cultural beliefs as indisputably right.

I believe that part of the reason for this particular change in attitude is that even the Asians who have not yet been westernized are not especially attached to village dogs. Individuals may be very closely attached to certain unowned dogs but not to the idea of free-ranging dogs in general terms. Also, there is no particular interest in defining whether a dog is owned or not. The concept of free-ranging dogs is simply not important in people’s lives and there is no reason why it should be, but this does make it susceptible to change in the face of more forcefully held beliefs.

However, it is important to me because I see the village dog story as fundamental to the role and history of dogs in our world, and I will continue to argue that in the right context many unowned dogs are in no sense “stray”.

My aim is for people to acknowledge that unowned dogs do have a rightful place in the world and then learn to appreciate them as the beautifully adapted animals that they are. This is clearly going against the tide somewhat and, in effect, would mean a partial easternization of western attitude.

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