It Starts With Puppy Love


Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu announced proposals this week that would introduce greater penalties including jail terms and asset-seizure for people operating illegal puppy farms. The legislation would increase the maximum fines for those running illegal puppy farms and promises jail terms and fines of up to $30,000 for breeders who are found guilty of animal cruelty. This toughening of legislation has raised questions not only about animal welfare, but also about breeding in general. What are we doing when we breed selectively? What’s got our attention now about the plight of farmed dogs? Is there any link here between humans and animals?

Years ago my friend Manon and I had a beautiful grey cat we called Persephone Willow. She was rescued late one night in a raid on kitten farm not far from our apartment. She recuperated well enough, becoming used to us and even to strangers, but she never really got the hang of the motherhood thing.

When she gave birth to two flat faced black and white kittens, she looked at them like they were strangers from another planet. She would lie on them or ignore them, or push them away if they came too close. In order to allow them to feed, we needed to lie down with her to soothe her as she suckled them. Eventually we fed them with a dropper.

Persephone appeared to recover from her experience in every way except in her ability to care for her kittens. Somewhere in the captive breeding programs of zoos, the extreme cruelty of piggeries and puppy mills, and even in our own human attempts to control and regulate reproduction, our offspring have sometimes become commodities.

The historical arguments for both animal and human fertility and breeding control have largely been focused on a concern about overpopulation. Too many puppies, too many kittens, too many babies. And yet the reality for all of us creatures, is that when someone else is in control of our fertility they are in control of our lives. Putting an end to the existence of enforced breeding is liberation, whether we are speaking about human beings or about animals.

We are beginning to see a strong response to the underlying eugenic elements in arguments about both dog and human breeding. In animal breeding the eugenics are transparent. The desire to create a particular look, and even the more noble cause of better health are both rooted in the drive to improve and to control the genetic composition of a particular population.

Human genetic control through the use of reproductive genetic medicine has come more subtly through the door of disease prevention and fertility treatment. There have been objections, particularly to the creation of "designer babies", but the idea that we may be guilty of commoditisation has rarely been spoken of.

There is also a kind of inbuilt obsolescence operating in our attempts to selectively breed for appearance which has a decidedly consumerist edge. The puppy that we love today will be long out of fashion before she even hits midlife. And for the children not gifted with genetic pre-selection, there is the risk of a further cultural divide between the modified and unmodified. What will it mean to have crooked teeth in a world where we will soon be able to create straight white teeth for our children before they’re born?

The popularity and exposure of the recent Oscar’s Law rallies across the country has demonstrated that our sympathies are far more pet-directed, and that we are beginning to question our desire for physical perfection, at least in animals. I think part of our interest now in the plight of dogs on puppy farms is also that we are more interested in pets than ever before. I’m not sure there is anything inherently wrong with pets, I know the whole of my life so far would have been much poorer without the host of companion animals who have walked beside me over the years, but thinking about our motivation for pet ownership is important.

My friend Kiki objected to pets in general because she said that we directed our attention and affection towards the animals in a household rather than to each other. That pets acted as a kind of safe place for intimacy particularly in relationships where intimacy was difficult. She felt this was a kind of animal slavery that also made humans emotionally poorer.

I think she had a point, but pets also give us an opportunity to love better. I think more often than not the love we feel for animals spills over and helps us to better love each other. But I do think that we can see in our pets, just as we can in our imagined babies, a kind of restorative family. We can have a beautiful animal when we feel ugly. And we can have a happy well child when we ourselves were less than happy and well as children.

And this attempt to make up for our own losses is of course a burden to both animals and to children. It means that they come into our lives to serve our needs, often before we have any care or understanding of what theirs may be. They are here to improve our history and they become a place where we can project our ideals of a perfect self.

Whenever we participate in a process of selection based on a desire for some sort of perfection, we are treating our loved creature as an object. And objects are disposable. The pain of objects registers much less with us than the pain of real beings. When we do this to other adults, we can safely assume that they can take care of themselves, even if our objectification is painful and disorienting.

But to do this to creatures that are wholly dependent upon us for their existence is to create a kind of slave. I think this is some of what my friend Kiki saw in the redirection of love between humans towards a more perfect and compliant pet.

When we start the process of loving with a list, long ears, short tail, breast cancer gene free, boy, girl, tall, straight teeth, we have moved away from what relationship and love is about. We’ve replaced love with consumerism, and the choice to care for or to parent with the desire to own.

It’s a terrible irony that what happens to us when we buy a farmed puppy from a shop window is a kind of falling in love. But real love is the desire to truly know another creature and to be known by them. To allow ourselves to be transformed by our relationship with them.

Perhaps our current desire to free animals from torture in this way points to our willingness to face the cruelty we have allowed in the name of perfection. If we can come to terms with the fact that every time we strive to create a perfect creature we move away from love and towards cruelty, we may be able to abandon the narcissism that breeds so much pain.

ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.