A Berkeley woman died last weekend when she jumped into the surf to save her dog, who was in distress. Predictably, the comments on the SF Gate article about the tragedy were, as usual, completely charming, with commenters making lovely assumptions about the woman, her dog, and her reasons for saving her pet. I’m beginning to think that the Chronicle needs to rethink the open comments policy, because every single comment thread on every single article immediately devolves into a disgusting melting pot of bigoted prejudice. It’s really quite amazing. Write an article about flowers? There will be a derisive comment about yuppies, and then a counterattack, and then a comment about ovaries, and then a derisive comment about feminists, and one page later the conversation will have completely disintegrated.
Anyway, this is not a post about the comment threads on SF Gate, although you should check them out sometime if you ever feel like a laugh. Or an illustration of Godwin’s Law. Or you just haven’t been infuriated enough on any given day.
The article (and the comments) got me thinking about the things that people do to save their children and pets. I’m sure that the woman saw her dog in trouble and immediately went into action, not thinking about the surf, the potential for dangerous currents, or anything else, because someone that she loved needed help, and she had the power to offer it. I think there’s an instinctive and universal response to need among most humans.
And I think that’s pretty neat. It is very sad that both the woman and her dog died, but I think the case illustrates the deep connections which many people have with their animals. People make derisive comments about people who think of their pets as children, but I don’t necessarily see that as bad if people mean that people are willing to make sacrifices for their animals. Pets don’t need to be dressed up in suits and baby-talked, but I think that an owner who is willing to dive after a dog in trouble is a better dog owner, and the dog is better for it to.
Not only that, but I think if it had been her actual child, the comments in the post would have been very different. The first insulting comment might have been, say, five comments down, rather than the very first one. Or even if it had been someone else’s child, the response would have been “oh, what a hero,” instead of a string of rude assertions. There’s an assumption that we all have a moral obligation to help other people in trouble, so why not animals? What’s so bad, exactly, about recognizing need in another living being and taking action?
I don’t think that my cats are children. I am not living in some kind of fantasy world. But I do think that they deserve my care and love because I have chosen to take them into my life, and I have made (and probably will make) sacrifices for them to make them happier and healthier. And while I think that anthropomorphizing pets and using them as replacement children is unhealthy, I will defend to the death my right to take care of my animals, and to take action when I see an animal (or, yes, a child) in need. Because I see this as my duty as a living organism, to help others who need it and to speak out when I see something I don’t like.
I think that our decision to fundamentally distance ourselves from animals with disgusting comments like “another Berkeley Petophile meets her end” is a grave mistake. Comments like that are offensive on so many levels that I don’t think I need to fully explain why I was enraged when I read that, but they also explain why we tolerate animal abuse, as a society, because we don’t think of animals as worthy of the same respect that a snotty ill-behaved two year old deserves. By saying that animals aren’t worthy of respect, we can tolerate an abusive and horrific system of raising animals for meat and milk. By deriding someone who gives their life to save an animal, we cheapen our own lives. Personally, I think that reflects poorly on our society.