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Watoga Trail Report

What unconditional love looks like. K. Springer photo

Ken Springer
Watoga Park Foundation

What Unconditional Love Looks Like
Part 4: What We Owe Our Dogs

As an unscientific measurement of unconditional love, here is an experiment that you may be interested in conducting.

Lock your spouse and your dog in the trunk of your car at the same time. Wait an hour or so and then open the trunk.

Make a note of who is happy to see you.

Now, you know what unconditional love looks like.

That, of course, was just another of my feeble attempts at jocularity.

We have, over the last few weeks, taken a deep dive into the world of dogs, and all is not humorous. This, the final installment of the four-part series on Dogs, is the most difficult one to write because it touches upon strong emotions, both dog and human.

We have discussed at length what dogs do for us humans, now we must embark on a frank discussion of what we do for them. Certain portions of this discussion may evoke emotions that could be uncomfortable, but they are necessary in order to convey a complete picture of where dogs have historically fit into human society.

That picture is often one of great joy, but there have been times, places and certain people who have not been kind to this loving creature.

Mankind and dogs have walked side-by-side for millennia, forming a bond that is unparalleled in the animal kingdom. There are cynics that contend that this bond is nothing more than one of opportunity on the dog’s end. After all, they say, dogs have had untold time to study us humans and how to manipulate us. There is, of course, some truth to this as any dog owner can attest.

But contemporary research paints an entirely different picture of the emotions and motives of dogs. We know now that their emotions closely mirror our own. Through replicable, controlled experiments, dogs are shown to have feelings of jealousy, fear, depression, anxiety, joy and yes, even love.

Researchers have recently isolated three genes that account for the unusual affection and gregariousness of dogs – genes that do not exist in the genetic makeup of their progenitor, the wolf. These genes are presumed to have developed after dogs were genetically isolated from wolves.

Like us, dogs are sentient beings. They feel pain, they experience hunger and thirst. They feel heat and cold, and they can succumb to prolonged exposure to extremes of temperature.

Dogs are not wolves anymore, but rather a completely different species. Many breeds are far less tolerant of environmental conditions due to the physical changes breeding has imposed on their anatomy and physiology. Your Chihuahua would not be able to survive for very long in Arctic conditions, where a Siberian Husky would be quite comfortable.

In the not so distant past, the dog was regarded as an automaton, merely biological machines totally incapable of feelings. And, they were treated accordingly.

Rene Descartes,* the 17th-century French philosopher (“I think, therefore I am”) mathematician and scientist was said to nail a live dog to his classroom wall preliminary to his vivisection demonstration.

This was his way, albeit grossly inhumane, of impressing upon his students the uneducated notion that dogs were nothing more than “meat machines.” He contended that the dog’s wails and whimpers were just examples of the machine malfunctioning.
So, what is the record on our treatment of dogs? Have we improved since Descartes’s days?

Thankfully, for the dog, we have come a long way in many respects in how we regard dogs and how we treat them. Let’s take a look at the laws in place to protect them and other domestic animals.

All 50 states now have laws prohibiting animal cruelty; most make exceptions for farm animals. Animals raised to be consumed and wild animals hunted for food are generally not covered by the same set of animal abuse laws that protect pets.

It goes without saying that the deplorable activity of dog-fighting is deemed a felony in all 50 states. The vast majority of the American people are outraged at this blood-sport, although that cannot be said of the many other countries where it still persists.

Ranked in terms of the efficacy and breadth of each state’s animal cruelty laws, West Virginia ranks in the middle coming in at #22, with Illinois at #1, and Kentucky at #50. **

So let’s take a look at how the state of West Virginia defines animal cruelty for purposes of our state’s animal abuse laws:

“If any person cruelly mistreats, abandons or withholds proper sustenance, including food, water, shelter or medical treatment, necessary to sustain normal health and fitness or to end suffering or abandons any animal to die, or uses, trains or possesses any domesticated animal for the purpose of seizing, detaining or maltreating any other domesticated animal, he or she is guilty of a misdemeanor.’

“If any person intentionally tortures or maliciously kills an animal, or causes, procures or authorizes any other person to torture or maliciously kill an animal, he or she is guilty of a felony.”

In Pocahontas County, we have three entities that exist to protect animals, the Humane Society of Pocahontas County, the Animal Shelter and a Humane Officer working under the authority of the Pocahontas County Sheriff’s Department. The only one of these groups with legal authority to enforce West Virginia’s animal abuse laws is the Humane Officer.

Chip Adkins, Director of the HSPC, describes the mission of his group as, “Prevention of unwanted pets due to overpopulation through an aggressive spay/neuter program. Public education, both formally and through social media platforms. Community outreach by taking and answering calls concerning animal welfare and reporting instances of inhumane treatment to law enforcement.”

Chip emphasized that the HSPC uses a proactive approach to overpopulation.  It should be stressed that all of their services and tasks, including trapping and transporting animals, are done with volunteer labor. Their considerable efforts result in a tangible service to the citizens and animals of Pocahontas County.

Robin Robertson runs the Pocahontas County Animal Shelter through the auspices of the Pocahontas County Sheriff’s Department. Robin explained that “We are not a no-kill facility, however, we rarely have to euthanize any animal.” She said that they have had great success in finding homes for their animals. 

Those unfortunate animals that end up in the shelter are fed, exercised and receive medical care. When asked what types of animals come through the shelter Robin answered, “Mostly dogs and cats, but we have had rabbits, chickens, and even a pet pig.”

The Sheriff’s Office also provides the Humane Officer who is duly authorized to enforce the state laws on animal abuse mentioned earlier in this dispatch. It is this officer’s responsibility to enforce the laws that society has deemed necessary for the protection of animals from the very worst aspects of human nature. 

By design or not, these three organizations seem to neatly underpin and support each other with the collective goal of preventing overpopulation of dogs and cats, and providing temporary shelter and finding homes for abandoned animals.

We made a pact with dogs many years ago. The best of mankind will respect that bond and regard the dog, not only for the services they provide us, but as another sentient being sharing this planet with us.

Sometimes there are individuals who rise to the task, and who, without funding or support, take it upon themselves to embrace our responsibilities to these wonderful creatures.

Sherry Waters, of Lancaster, Ohio, is one such person. Having seen what she felt to be an unfair prejudice against a single breed of dog, the American Pit Bull, she decided to take action on her own. Sherry knew that any dog can become aggressive if abused or trained to be aggressive; not much different than a human being.

It is true that Pit Bulls have been a dog of choice for those who, through ignorance or lack of empathy, participate in dogfighting. The ancestor of the modern pit bull was the English Bull-baiting dog. They were bred to bait and hold bulls and other large animals in place, usually by the face or head.

This was outlawed in the 1800s, but a hybrid composed of terrier and pit bull was bred for work and companionship. Unfortunately, the physical characteristics of the pit bull made it a favorite for dog-fighters. 

Subsequently, these dogs are often abandoned or killed when they are no longer of any value for fighting purposes. These dogs can often be rehabilitated, but it takes a lot of effort and patience – and Sherry has those qualities.

To date Sherry Waters, acting alone, has rescued, rehabilitated and found homes for 23 pit bulls. Ms. Waters, we need more people like you!

When it comes to dogs, love often wins out.

But most people would heartily agree that not everyone is worthy of having a dog.

How often do we hear about a puppy, that was purchased as a Christmas gift for someone, finding its way to the local animal shelter just a couple of months later?

Perhaps it should not be so easy to take on a responsibility that often ends so tragically for mankind’s best friend.

From the mountain trails of Watoga State Park,
Ken Springer

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