Monday, February 5, 2007

Abandoned pets and abandoned peoples

We now have a pet dog. My wife ordered it through an agency that rescues abused strays from various Mediterranean countries and delivers them to caring homes in northern Europe. I admire these people’s humane endeavours, but nevertheless, as a cultural phenomenon, it confuses me.

Let’s just say it’s intuitively understandable how people in affluent, relatively peaceful societies can be genuinely upset and concerned about abandoned dogs in less affluent and apparently less humane societies, while at the same time displaying equally genuine indifference to large-scale human suffering in even poorer countries.

On the face of it, if there is such a hierarchy of empathy (and apparently this is not self-evident) the fate of stray dogs on the Canary Islands should rank quite a bit lower than the fate of, say, the hundreds of refugees from Africa who die each year trying to reach the relative safety and security of that same European outpost on makeshift boats. And isn’t it reasonable to assert that the death through neglect of pets left to their fate in, say, Greece, is a tragedy of a completely different order of magnitude from the death by deliberate, racially motivated attack of hundreds of thousands of people in Darfur?

Evidently it’s easier for conscientious, self-respecting citizens of privileged societies to make room in their hearts for a dog than for a human being. Of course this is an unfair comparison, because dogs don’t take jobs or threaten the local culture. But then again dogs don’t sweep the streets or work in noisy factories for little pay either. So how come this is understandable? It’s human nature. Just as the human mind isn’t equipped to think in terms of geological time or infinity, it is also not good at empathizing over long distances with large numbers of faceless victims in a conflict which doesn’t affect it directly.

And now I need to take the dog out.

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