Saturday, June 19, 2010

Tokyo Kittens and Urban Cowboys.

The words and phrases we use tell a lot about how we think about our pets. I meet owners whose fluffy bundle of joy has come from a "rehoming centre". Pets in these centres get a second chance because animal welfare advocates, in theory match animal to owner. A "rehomed" dog is implicitly part of the family."Adoption centres" are widespread. "Adoption" has a legal-sounding tone with connotations of responsibility and provision of care. "Dog Pounds" have austere echoes in our minds. They are the last chance saloon,akin to prison's death row for strays in which searching owners are in a race against time.Ten days is the usual grace period given in Ireland's crowded pounds before a dog is euthanased unless claimed.

What is significant about the words rehoming and adoption is their link to children. They have a borrowed use in animal welfare where it is understood that animals,like children inhabit our world and are our dependents. But the commonest term used in animal welfare,"rescue" is the most emotive of these words. Whether a "rescue dog" or a "rescue centre",there are negative connotations about the animal's previous relations with humans. Rescue dogs which are saved into new homes from neglect, abuse or euthanasia,are a growing phenomenon because animal abuse and neglect remains part of society.

In some countries vets encountering non-accidental injury such as obvious cruelty or neglect to an animal are legally obliged to report this.The reason why was illustrated this week by a story in the New York Times linking animal abuse to same household abuse of family members. Youngsters with "aggressive conduct disorder"(sic), according to research the NYT cited, become desensitised to cruelty and suffering by practice of animal abuse. Researchers looked at MRI scans of groups shown images of pain and suffering. Troubled youngsters within the study exhibited heightened activity in the brain's "reward centre" while viewing cruelty and abuse. The report concluded that some people have impaired systems of empathy and crucially that part of the brain involved in self-regulation switches off as empathy is eroded.

This report is not the first of its kind.Many serial killers began in their childhood with animal cruelty. Animal abuse is now in fact proven to be gateway behaviour which on a continuum of sociopathic relations with sentient beings is a stage towards cruelty to humans. There are also hopeful studies that have shown how empathy can be rekindled by caring for animals. Learning to relate to sentient beings such as horses can improve damaging behaviours towards humans. Equine therapy programs where teenagers muck out, groom horses and learn to ride are now common in urban areas all over the world including Ireland and form part of accepted interventions for troubled teens.

Why then are punishments and sentences for animal abuse and neglect not more severe? Animal life is valued so much less than human in our value system and perhaps rightly so. But proof of a behaviour gateway to murder, rape, domestic violence and child abuse strengthens the argument for severe addressing at source of sociopaths and violent criminals. This approach is an auhoritarian view of crime and punishment. But consider the problem from the liberal perspective. If you believe that most abusers can be rehabilitated, deserve a second chance and that early interventions can and do work, the question becomes this.Why are equine therapy programs,empathy building programs involving animal companionship, NOT a widespread and integral part of our legal justice system? The reason why not is because that debate is ongoing and unresolved. Prison rehabilitates some, if not others. Intervention programs help some also, if not others. And the most draconian penalties, even the ultimate capital penalty fail to provide an ultimate deterrent to some perpetrators of heinous violent crime.

I believe piecemeal interventions and a prison service which attempts rehabilitation in an authoritarian environment are only reactive answers to violent crime. We know animal contact helps us learn moral behaviour and build empathic relationships therefore schools should provide pet interactions or even contain small pet zoos. Young offenders institutions could teach dog grooming and animal training. Prisons could incorporate responsible pet care as therapy for recovering addicts and for those most socially disconnected. Meanwhile new large stable yards as equine therapy centres in the worst urban areas of the country should be properly funded. The urban cowboys of West Dublin, Ballymun, Limerick city have a culture already of horse ownership which it would be easy to officially endorse and build on. The earlier the young bareback riders of deprived urban areas can be helped swap kalashnikov for saddle and whip the more likely that cycles of feuds and poverty can be broken.

The case for rehabilitation by animal therapy is more than a liberal do-gooder delusion.There is a need in people which animal companionship can satisfy.Peata is an Irish organisation which brings pets on visits to nursing homes, hospitals and hospices where patients are shown to benefit medically from regular contact with dogs. Peata can be reached through the DSPCA.

Overcrowded urban living paradoxically enforces isolation. The need for animal companionship can be as powerful as the need for contact with other humans. In the city of Tokyo where cramped apartment dwelling is the norm, pet ownership is problematic. To fill the void Kitten Cafes have sprung up which are "staffed" by cats and kittens ready to play with customers who pay by the hour. Kitten Cafes can also provide customers with a "doggie date" as they can rent you a dog for an hourly-rated walk or play date.This type of pet ownership by proxy is a Japanese solution to an urban Japanese problem.What void would a "doggie date" fill in a Tokyo commuter's life? Perhaps the gunslingers of Moyross and Southill experience the same void and could be helped by equine or pet therapy interventions.Make love not war or trade ponies not bullets?

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