The Truth, Mainly - 04/12/1993

Approval of anthropomorphism could lead to 'Bad Dog' revolution
by Leon Satterfield

I take some comfort in the news from Time magazine last month that "anthropomorphism has been proclaimed O.K." It's high time.

Like the Moliere character who discovers to his delight that he's been speaking prose all his life, I've discovered I've been a closet anthropomorphist ever since Ned, the one-eyed beagle with the headstrong personality and the mismatched jaws, moved in on us several years ago.

"He's not just a bad dog," I'd tell people. "He's a schemer, devious and disrespectful and full of wicked guile. He plots overthrows."

They'd tell me I was merely engaging in anthropomorphism. I'd tell them I'd been raised a good Baptist and didn't go in for that sort of thing. Then they'd tell me it just means giving human attributes to things not human.

But now Time says in a cover story called "Can Animals Think?" that anthropomorphism isn't so naive after all. The magazine quotes an animal ecologist from Purdue saying "I'm absolutely convinced that my dog feels guilty when he defecates on the rug. He behaves the same way I would have if my mother had caught me doing it."

And some chimps, Time says, are "positively Machiavellian in their efforts to acquire power."

That's when I started paying attention. Ned is positively Machiavellian too. He rarely shows signs of guilt, but he certainly believes, like Machiavelli, that the end justifies the means. Foremost among Ned's ends is to acquire power by humiliating me. It's hard to keep your dignity at the same time you keep a headstrong beagle.

This spring, for example, he's given a new twist to his old trick, escaping our yard to vandalize the garbage cans in the neighborhood. But instead of digging under the fence, now he's going over it. It's not just the garbage that motivates him: he likes making me look foolish.

I watch from behind our big maple, a skulker in my own backyard, and I sense the neighbors spying on me while I spy on my dog. He begins by ambling through the yard, whistling and pretending to take notice of the tulips coming up. He looks around to see if anyone's watching, then climbs the woodpile stacked against the back fence. When he makes it to the top and gets ready to jump over into the alley, I coolly step out from behind the maple.

"Go ahead," I say. "Make my day."

He doesn't hesitate. He flips me the bird as best he can, given his absence of fingers, yells "Geronimo," and lands in the alley. By the time I get out our back gate, he's a good half block ahead of me. But I have my running shoes on. When he crosses 56th—stopping traffic in both directions—I've closed to within a quarter block.

"Bad dog!" I yell. "Sit! Stay! Heel! Roll over!"

That exhausts my repertoire of functional commands, and Ned doesn't react to any of them—except to look over his shoulder and grin. But people in the cars stopped on 56th notice. Adults honk their horns and look annoyed, but their children are entertained. They cheer for the beagle.

A block west and I've stopped gaining. I'm running out of wind.

"Wanna a piece of cheese?" I yell as loud as I can with what breath I have left. "I'm gonna throw a rock at you."

There are people watching now from the balconies of their apartments and the front porches of their houses. Ned finally stops to pee on a tree and I grab his collar, take off my belt to use as a leash, and lead him home. Onlookers applaud. Ned tosses his head to acknowledge the ovation and highsteps along like he's going into the winner's circle of the Kentucky Derby.

Before Time told me that anthropomorphism is O.K., I'd have to talk about such action in terms of stimulus and response.

"We've had him fixed," I'd have to say. "We feed him more than he needs. What stimulus is left for that damn dog to respond to?"

But now I can say what I've always suspected: That damn dog is publically humiliating me for constantly drawing odious comparisons between him and our previous dog, St. Sherman.

"St. Sherman didn't growl when we took his temperature," I tell Ned. "St. Sherman was a good dog."

He was so good we had him canonized. Ned dances on his grave.

The Time article concludes that the New Anthropomorphism raises ethical questions. Descartes and other philosophers argued that because animals can't think, they don't have natural rights.

If they ever start demonstrating to get them, watch out for radical beagles carrying signs saying "Ain't no way—we won't stay," "No scab deal—we won't heel," and "To hell with it—we won't sit." Ned will be the one in the eyepatch, wearing the black beret and turtleneck, the anarchist carrying the sign that avoids even the order of rhyme: "Roll over yourself, Buckie."

He'll be trying to make us all feel like we've just defecated on his rug.


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.

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