Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Vick, Pedro, PETA and the Dogs

There were sad headlines this past weekend when the Kentucky Derby was marred after the filly Eight Belles was euthanized following two broken legs. PETA reached for publicity after the race by decrying the state of horse racing and questioning the treatment of the animals raced on the tracks. This came a week after the NFL Draft when commentators and analysts made a big deal about the Atlanta Falcons (former team of Michael Vick, PETA’s biggest headline-grabbing case), drafting a new Quarterback and "moving on". When Vick’s trial began last fall, I remember a lot of people thinking he might be getting a raw deal. Some said the media furor over his crime was racially motivated and that a white quarterback wouldn’t have received the same sentence or been so vilified by the public and the media. The NAACP took the stance during the trial that dogfighting and deerhunting are the same "sport" and that Vick’s punishment shouldn’t be so harsh since killing deer for sport and killing dogs for sport are murky distinctions. It also goes without saying that both recreations are clearly demarcated along racial lines (the first primarily dominated by whites, the second by blacks). There was also a "mass hypocrisy" take on the issue that asked how it’s possible for anybody to condemn a man who shot and electrocuted dogs when the Department of Agriculture states that gunshots and electrocution are perfectly acceptable methods for slaughtering livestock (Check the USDA's Humane Livestock Rules – Title 9, Chapter 313). According to the USDA, running high voltage current through a cow or pig is considered humane by the federal government, but when Vick does it, it’s inhumane. How could any statement be more hypocritical than that? And if Vick had been cockfighting instead of dogfighting, a la Pedro Martinez, he’d probably still be an NFL quarterback right now… how’s that for even more hypocritical? Alas, nobody seems to care about what Pedro did, and if Vick had been running a cockfighting operation in Louisiana, rather than a dogfighting operation in Virginia there would have been no prosecution whatsoever (Louisiana only recently banned cockfighting but it doesn’t go into effect until August of 2008) and Vick would still be a free man. I can see how the NAACP thinks this is racially motivated since not only is cockfighting still legal in Louisiana, but it’s legal in two U.S. territories (the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico) and a Hawaii legislator recently introduced a bill in the United Nations proposing the legalization of cockfighting the world over (Hawaii, by all accounts has a very large, underground cockfighting culture). So it seems there are still a lot of issues surrounding the Vick case that make it very difficult to judge the man… racism fears and out-and-out hypocrisy chief among those issues. Well I do believe that although there are racial issues at work, the hypocrisy may not be as bad as it first appears. To begin: humans first domesticated dogs in Europe and Asia more than 15,000 years ago. Since then, dogs have grown and evolved alongside Europeans and Asians and been genetically engineered (selectively bred) to fit whatever needs their owners desired of them, i.e. better sense of smell for hunting dogs or herding and corralling traits for dogs that worked with livestock. But Africa didn’t begin to domesticate dogs (or any large mammal for that matter) until about 4,000 years ago and even then dog domestication was spotty and sparse. Living in a continent ravaged by drought and a scarce, unsteady food supply it was obviously difficult for the ancient Africans to keep animals as a pets, even ones with such obvious beneficial side-effects (like hunting and herding). How could the starving peoples of the world domesticate dogs (or any pet or livestock) when dogs require a continuous food source of their own? This is the main reason large African jungle cats, despite living in close proximity to Africans for hundreds of thousands of years and possessing obvious hunting benefits were never domesticated. Large cats, particularly the Cheetah, could have been amazing hunting companions, but to domesticate one, Africans would first have had to raise some sort of food source for the animal, like cows or sheep or pigs. Raising a 1,000 lb. cow from birth to maturity requires approximately 12,000 lbs. of grass or grain though, and any domesticated, big cat, would eat at least 100 full-grown cows over its lifetime. Therefore, to domesticate a big cat species an African tribe would need at least 2.4 million pounds of grass and grain (they’d have to own and raise at least two cats – one male and one female – since we’re talking about domestication here, not just taming). Dogs are not nearly so large or ravenous as Cheetahs or Lions, but a decent hunting dog could still eat as much as 400 lbs. of food annually, and dogs are carnivores just like cats, so an African would still need to raise one cow every year to feed just one dog. But, even as difficult as it was, domestication and cohabitation with dogs did eventually take place on the dark continent, but by that time Europeans and Asians had been raising dogs for 7,000 years not just as service animals but also as pets. Once domesticated in Africa, dogs were still used mostly as service animals and this is true even as recently as 100 years ago. Looking at it through the evolutionary lens then, we can see that dogs never really evolved alongside the Africans the same way they did with the Europeans and Asians. Africans, for the majority of their history, therefore viewed dogs as no more different than cows, pigs, chicken or sheep. In fact, in most of the poverty-stricken, 3rd-world countries, dogs are still not viewed as pets (in certain parts of Southeast Asia, they’re eaten). After all, why would someone who’s struggling to eat everyday and struggling to make sure their children are fed, clothed and not dying of disease want the added burden of feeding and caring for a dog? This gets right to the heart of the racial issue. White people shoot and kill deer, squirrels, foxes, wolves, coyotes, buffalo, groundhogs, any winged animal, bears, mountain lions, elks, caribou, rhinos, whales and raccoons (just to name a few). Killing these animals is apparently so enjoyable that there are no less than 100 magazines dedicated to the "sports" and we don’t just have television shows dedicated to killing other animals, but entire cable channels. Meanwhile, it’s entirely possible that, due to their lack of socializing with dogs throughout history, African-Americans might not (on average) view dogs the same way whites do. Jamie Foxx famously defended Vick during the trial by saying, "It’s a cultural thing, I think. Most brothers didn’t know that [fighting dogs] was [worthy of] Fed time." This quote is interesting because Foxx doesn’t mention anything about the cruelty or insensitivity of the crime… only that it’s illegal. But maybe Foxx doesn't view dogs any differently than you or I view deer or squirrels. And if whites legally kill every four-legged animal in this country, except for dogs, then why wouldn’t African-Americans say, "what’s the big deal?" The logical, and standard, response to that question is that deer and bears and foxes and squirrels etc., are all wild animals (not domestic), and hunting them sometimes involves culling herds (which is healthier for the overall population), and even though those animals kill each other savagely in the wild, they’re not raised by humans to specifically to kill each other savagely. Okay then, but what about cockfighting? Why don’t we care about that? This is a more difficult question to answer since, as I said before, you could, right now, as you’re reading this blog post, decide to catch a flight to Louisiana and in a few hours find yourself at a perfectly legal, government-sanctioned, cockfight. It’s legal in most Latin American countries and a point of national pride in the Dominican Republic (Dominican-born MLB Players like Aramis Ramirez, Juan Marichal and Pedro Martinez love to compete in the sport when they’re in their home country). Cockfighting was also a huge part of Western European and U.S. culture until only very recently. We actually have two (or more) universities whose nicknames celebrate the cockfighting culture – the South Carolina Gamecocks and the Delaware Fightin’ Blue Hens (there’s a Joe Flacco – Michael Vick analogy in there somewhere) and at least half of our presidents through the early 1900s engaged in the sport (Washington and Jefferson both loved it). It’s impossible to believe Vick would have gotten such a heavy sentence for cockfighting (no matter what U.S. state his operation had been in). And this point takes dead aim at the heart of the racial and hypocrisy issues and it's why so many African-American celebrities came to Vick’s defense. Whites simply would NOT have cared if Vick had been running a cockfighting operation. But what Foxx, the NAACP and, of course, Vick don’t understand is that killing dogs is very, very different from killing roosters, snakes or fish – and there are scientific reasons why. To understand this let’s first take a look at the evolution of the mammalian brain and how mammal brains differ from bird and reptile brains. We humans have what is called a Triune Brain. What this means is there are three distinct parts of our brain that developed and evolved over millions of years. The first part controlled our motor skills, the second part created our emotions and the third part gave us our intelligence. The First Part: The Reptilian Brain Reptiles haven’t evolved much since the days of the dinosaurs and they haven’t had to. Crocodiles’ brains are the same as the ones their ancestors possessed nearly 200 million years ago. They are asocial animals without emotional lives and, for their species to survive and flourish, they haven’t needed emotions. All they’ve needed are the most basic and rudimentary brain functions (namely moving if something gets in the way, breathing, eating and very basic aggression and mating drives). What reptiles lack, is the second part of the Triune Brain: the limbic brain. The Second Part: The Mammalian (Limbic) Brain
The limbic part of the brain fits over the top of the reptilian brain. This structure evolved over the top of the reptilian brain in all mammals because mammals give birth to babies, not eggs. It developed in some birds as well (because there are some steps involved in caring for hatchlings), but where reptile parents (and a lot of bird parents) are completely disinterested in their young, mammalian parents have a much more hard-wired "caring" orientation since they have to protect their young for long periods of time. Mammalian parents must nurse, rear and defend helpless babies, while reptile parents simply lay eggs and slither away. Because of this intense, nurturing aspect of rearing young, all mammals form some sort of close-knit social group, be it with their herd, tribe at-large, or just within their immediate family. This social grouping is what led to the evolution of the limbic region in mammalian brains. The limbic region developed because a mammal parent needs to know if its baby is sad, happy or in pain. Mammal parents also need to communicate things to their babies (and within their social group) about approaching danger or to call for help. Take a kitten or puppy away from its mother and what follows is the "separation cry", which is the basic mammalian baby’s emotional response. A separated puppy calls to its mother with desperate cries because its mother is the safest, most protective thing in the world. Baby mammals call loudly despite the fact that such cries could also signal their vulnerability and location to nearby predators. But a baby mammal cannot survive without its mother either way, so death by starvation or death by predator only differs in length of time. But non-limbic, self-sufficient baby reptiles make no separation cries when taken away from their mother. After the "feeding" period is over for baby birds and they leave the nest their crying ceases as well. Signaling vulnerability and weakness (in the case of an infant snake) not only signals to predators that it’s currently vulnerable, but also signals to its own kind that it’s vulnerable… a dangerous proposition since, without an emotional, limbic connection, hungry reptiles often see their young as nothing more than a free meal. Therefore a baby lizard’s silence can be as lifesaving as the loud, lifesaving separation cries are for a kitten or puppy. This is another illustrative point about the emotional connections between mammals that are lacking in reptiles. Very often, if hungry enough and with a scarce enough food supply, a mother reptile mother will eat her young. Her hunger overpowers her protective drive and she begins to see her babies as purely nutritive in value. But the protection urge is so strong in mammal mothers that not even starvation will make a mammal mother turn on her young. She’s so protective and emotionally connected that she’ll starve before even scavenging the carcass of her deceased baby. These emotional, limbic connections are obviously as strong in humans as they are in every other mammal. The limbic brain has been a part of mammalian life (and human life) for millions of years and it’s a very powerful, often dominating part of the human brain. It is so dominating that it can even overrule the densest, most complex and third part of our Triune Brain: the neo-cortex. The Third Part: The Neo-Cortex The neo-cortex developed over the top of the limbic region and it’s where human beings completely distance themselves from all other animals and all other mammals. Our neo-cortex is so large and so powerful that we’re able to comprehend abstract ideas like time and math. It’s where all of our intellectual power lies and it’s basically, in a nutshell, the very thing that makes us human. But our complex neo-cortex was the last part of the triune brain to develop, and although it’s much larger than the other two regions, it often struggles to control and communicate with the limbic brain. When a person feels they are perhaps too emotional or depressed or they cannot properly control their anger or fear, these are the times the limbic region is overpowering the neo-cortex. This friction between the two and the neo-cortex’s inability to rationalize what the limbic brain is doing, has given birth to every field of psychology known to man. No matter how powerful your neo-cortex is and now matter how dizzying your intellect, you simply cannot will yourself to be happy after a tragedy. You cannot make yourself love the right person (or stop loving the wrong person) and although you may know you’re depressed, your neo-cortex cannot overpower the limbic brain to help you "rationalize" your way out of it. In short, you cannot, through any force of intellectual will, completely overcome your limbic brain. Why is this important to understand? Because it illustrates that no matter how intelligent a human is, no matter how strong their neo-cortex, they are still often ruled by the inner workings of the limbic brain. And that basic part of the brain has a lot of power. Without our neo-cortical consent, the limbic brain forces emotions upon us. Despite our intelligence and contrary desires, our limbic brain can forge subconscious connections with other humans and other mammals against our will. If you think your emotions aren’t this basic, and not ruled by your higher brain functions, just look at other mammals; even with relatively tiny neo-cortical brainpower other mammals experience every emotion we do. And their emotional experiences are exactly what forges a subconscious emotional connection with us. Turn on a nature show and watch any mammal mother protect her baby and you’ll identify with her actions and instincts immediately. Watch Animal Planet for just a few minutes and you’ll see other mammal species experiencing the exact same range of emotions you and I feel – sadness, anger, depression, jealousy, nervousness, shame, greed, longing, happiness and love. There is no emotion you can feel that other mammals can’t. So you might watch your fellow mammals on Animal Planet and think of their emotions as “humanizing” when, in fact, they’re really just mammalian. Reptiles and birds though, are limbically stunted. Without a limbic relationship it’s much more difficult for humans to identify and connect with reptiles and birds – though many a bird or reptile owner (and PETA) may argue differently. When a snake is being eaten by another snake, the eaten one retains its unblinking eye and its expression doesn’t change as it's being swallowed. Its face and eyes are as blank as when it procreates or hunts prey of its own; it doesn’t scream out for help or communicate pain or fear in any manner. It just robotically attempts to get away – to survive – and that’s it. And while some birds have evolved and developed limited limbic brains and some emotions over time, their emotional signals aren’t manifested in their faces so their beaks and eyes remain blank facial expressions as well. Birds also (despite any limbic capacity they may have developed), usually only operate on a one-way emotional street, whereas emotional recognition is often a two-way street for mammals -- meaning that cats, horses, dogs, pigs etc., are capable of not only experiencing all the emotions we experience, but also recognizing and identifying them across species. This cross-species, emotional recognition is why we care a lot more about someone who kills a dog rather than someone who kills a bird. We don’t just identify and recognize emotions in other mammals but we also experience an intense bond when those other mammals identify and recognize whatever emotions are going through us. Ask a horse or cat owner if Seabiscuit or Muffin has ever sympathized with their depression or recognized happiness in their owner, and you’ll probably hear a resounding, yes. This is not unique. It’s just mammalian. But the underlying bond created when that mammal sympathizes with you is incredibly powerful. When a dog tries to cheer up a depressed owner there’s almost nothing that will ever break that bond and soon the owner starts to view all dogs as nearly human. So this explains why we don’t care about Pedro cockfighting and why we hated Vick so much. Pedro killed birds and Vick killed mammals and we bond with mammals more than birds. But if we accept that we’re more emotionally tied to mammals over reptiles and birds, then why do we allow people to hunt and kill so many mammals? Why have we put Vick in jail for 24 months but we don’t persecute hunters that shoot and kill thousands of deer every year? Deer are mammals just like dogs. Well, to be quite blunt, dogs are different. They’re completely different in their relationship to us, even amongst all other mammals. Through centuries upon centuries of breeding and living with humans, dogs have become reliant upon us. Dogs cast their evolutionary lot with man instead of with natural selection in the wilderness, and because of that, humans are what keep dogs, as an entire species, alive and flourishing. This is the primary reason why no other animal on the planet cares as much about us as dogs do. Our closest primate relatives, like Chimpanzees and Gorillas, have an advanced neo-cortex that allows them to recognize minute facial expressions in humans. But dogs, with a much smaller neo-cortex, have also developed a similar ability. A frown or a smile on your face can illicit a similar emotional response in a dog. Try smiling at a horse and see what happens. Try frowning at your cat and see if he cares at all. This is not to say that horses and cats and many other mammal species can’t be trained to recognize facial expressions, but dogs do it almost from the age they’re born. Brian Hare, a Harvard Anthropologist, has conducted many experiments proving this… and here’s a brief excerpt from a Malcolm Gladwell Article that gives a nice summary of his results:
...Hare has done experiments with dogs where he puts a piece of food under one of two cups, placed several feet apart. The dog knows that there is food to be had, but has no idea which of the cups holds the prize. Then Hare points at the right cup, taps on it, looks directly at it. What happens? The dog goes to the right cup virtually every time. Yet when Hare did the same experiment with chimpanzees—an animal that shares 98.6 per cent of our genes—the chimps couldn't get it right. A dog will look at you for help, and a chimp won't.
"Primates are very good at using the cues of the same species," Hare explained. "So if we were able to do a similar game, and it was a chimp or another primate giving a social cue, they might do better. But they are not good at using human cues when you are trying to cooperate with them. They don't get it: “Why would you ever tell me where the food is?”
Dogs pay attention to humans even when humans are doing human things. “Dogs are really interested in us," Hare has said. "Interested to the point of obsession. To a dog, you are a giant walking tennis ball."
The neo-cortical development and intelligence of our primate cousins far outstrips the same cranial development in dogs, but dogs have a unique attitude about humans. If you ever feel like putting yourself through a painful emotional evening, watch an episode of Animal Precinct on Animal Planet. You’ll see dogs that have been cruelly abused, neglected and mistreated for long periods of time and yet those mistreated wretches are so genetically tied to humans that they’ll still look to us for help, comfort, love and salvation despite having been abused by other people for most of their life. It is this childlike state, this utter dependence on humans that earned Michael Vick his two-year sentence in Leavenworth. To most of us, what Vick did is unforgivable… it almost suggests a cruelty and malice as bad as beating a child.
But as I mentioned before, dogs never evolved alongside the African people like they did with the Europeans and Asians. Because of this, Africans and African-Americans might still view dogs (on average) differently than whites do (Jamie Foxx’s defense is obvious evidence of this). However, that’s still no excuse for what Vick did.
A violent Polynesian warrior visiting New York would not be forgiven for murdering a man who looked salaciously at his wife, even if that custom has been a part of his culture for millennia. And just as the Polynesian warrior’s past culture would not earn him any leniency, neither can Vick earn leniency for his crime.
But nevertheless, perhaps we can better understand his actions. Perhaps we can feel a little less hypocritical when someone asks us why there was a mass witch-hunt (complete with torches and pitchforks) for Vick, but not even a whimper of protest was made about Pedro. Perhaps we can understand why the NAACP and Jamie Foxx probably still don’t understand why we’re so upset and we can start to understand why they're not upset.

1 comment:

Parr said...

I'm not sure if this is racial discrimination you are talking about. It sounds more like governmental discrimination on what animals we can kill. Vick killed dogs which is illegal. Hunters (mostly unless caught) kill animals that are legal to kill. Pedro was in an area where it is legal so he is non-issue.

If you think the Federal gov't discriminates against blacks because they like to kill dogs whereas black people dont...well that is farfetched imo.

Of course, the amount of time spent on this (unless this was the biggest ever dog fighting ring around...which I have no idea if it was or not) is pretty crazy. Thats a whole other issue though of how celebrities are targeted more than non celebrities to make points (which by the way is the media's fault just as much as the feds).

Just my two pence.