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Pit Bulls and Tigers and Bears — Oh My!

Photo by Marc Joseph

What do we talk about when we talk about animals? In the last half-year, we have talked about retribution and death. Marauding tigers and elephants attacked loggers and trampled farms in the decimated rain forests of Indonesia; a circus tiger with an aristocratic name mauled his handler on a Las Vegas stage; a grizzly bear in Alaska killed a sentimental couple who had come too close too many times. Even more recently, a mountain lion robbed of habitat and food source by a human-sparked forest inferno substituted Southern California bicyclists for his more typical, now scarce, prey.

And then there was the matter of an ailing cow in Washington state that decimated a billion-dollar industry, downed by a disease that would be poetic were it not so sickening. An illness borne not in a virus or a bacterium, but in a protein that eats other proteins; a disease propagated in cows that have been fed the rendered parts of other cows. Turn cows into cannibals, and they spread a disease that makes the brain cannibalize itself.

On the surface, these events seem unconnected and aberrant, even unnatural. But taken together and contemplated for a minute, it’s clear: The tigers and elephants and bears are doing nothing worse than struggling to preserve their own fates, to exert their own essential animal wills against being crowded and caged out of existence. The cow is a harbinger of doom, a sign of a natural world wrenched so violently out of balance that the insects are mutating and the ice caps are melting. We know this, most of us, and yet we don’t want to hear or talk about it. Because to assert that our own spiritual and physical well-being is linked somehow to the way we treat the lesser beasts is almost always to risk sounding like a freak — “sentimental and jejune,” as one character in J.M. Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello labels it.

Which is why, I think, Coetzee had to invent a fictional character to preach the gospel of animal rights, and maybe also why so few of the encomiums written in the wake of his Nobel Prize for Literature last month devoted much time to the questions most on Coetzee’s mind: Where does humanity’s treatment of animals rank among the world horrors? The topic has interested Coetzee, himself a vegetarian, at least since 1997, when he delivered the Tanner Lectures at Princeton University, two installments of which have found their way into Elizabeth Costello. Nonetheless, several writers have managed to review that book without dwelling too hard on its essential question, and still others have written lengthy critiques without mentioning animals at all, much less whether their rights
have been violated.

Coetzee made this possible because he packed Elizabeth Costello with other puzzles, as he did in his first Elizabeth Costello novel, The Lives of Animals (1999), parts of which survive here. Meandering through the world on the lecture circuit, an effort her son, John, likens to the performing tricks of a trained seal, Elizabeth Costello, an aging Australian novelist famous for one great book and nearing the end of her career, reflects on her fading sexuality; bickers with her no less contentious and opinionated sister, a nun named Blanche; and confronts a nonfictional author, Paul West, about the voluptuously overplayed execution scenes in his nonfictional book. She eventually arrives at an allegorical purgatory where judges too dim to grasp the nuance of her thoughts demand to know what she believes.

Some of the book seems intentionally tedious — if we’re bored by Elizabeth’s rambling, so are her bitter-tongued daughter-in-law, her frustrated son and almost all of the audiences who come to hear her speak. In Elizabeth’s lectures, delivered in the third and fourth chapters of the book at a fictional New England college, she compares herself to a domesticated ape in a Kafka short story, and goes on to explain, with neither charm nor humor, why the drug-testing laboratories and factory farms hidden away in modern cities constitute “an enterprise of degradation, cruelty and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of.” Elizabeth reads her treatises with deadpan restraint, but it’s as if there is a gasket in her somewhere ready to blow — what do you do, she wonders, when you know the whole of society is corrupt, and everyone around you smiles calmly through the nightmare? (The analogy to both apartheid-era South Africa and Bush’s America is intentional.) At one point she turns to her son, her eyes welling with tears, and wonders why she alone considers herself witness to “a crime of stupefying proportions,” while he and his family remain unconcerned. “Calm down, I tell myself, you are making a mountain out of a molehill,” says Elizabeth. “This is life. Everyone else comes to terms with it. Why can’t you? Why can’t you?”

You have to squint hard to detect the overarching question in this book, but it is a good question, and it is expressed in utterly original terms. To wit: How can we humans save ourselves? Or, as Blanche would have it, how do we “redeem mankind”? Through literature? Through sex? Through simple, irreducible Christian faith? Or through the lives of animals?

In Elizabeth Costello, the titular character claims to be a vegetarian in an effort to save her soul. Later, however, in a short story published in the January 15 New York Review of Books, she argues with her children about whether she deserves any salvation at all. “You teach people how to feel,” her daughter, Helen, insists. “By dint of grace.” Elizabeth is not convinced. “If one truly wants to be a better person, it now seems to me, there must be less roundabout ways of getting there than by darkening thousands of pages with prose.”

As with the protagonist in Coetzee’s Disgrace, who tenderly and respectfully lifts the carcasses of euthanized dogs into the crematorium — because justice has to start somewhere — Elizabeth considers her defense of animals essential to becoming a better person. By saving them, she hopes, she stands a chance of saving herself.

 

The humans who stare out more eagerly than the dogs in Marc Joseph’s American Pitbull, a photographic study of humans’ relationship with America’s most controversial domesticated animal, are looking for salvation, too — not in measuring out small kindnesses to helpless animals, but by living vicariously through their determined, emotional dogs. Their chests are tattooed with pit-bull bodies; they have rings made in the image of the dogs’ snarling heads. They have so deeply identified with animals that they cannot tease them out of the rest of the humanity. While Elizabeth Costello regards the world of animals as a metaphor for all humanity, the humans in American Pitbull regard the animals in their care as metaphors for themselves.

Many of the dogs Joseph found in his three years and 10,000 miles of research strain bitterly at their leashes; one stands chained to a stall with her litter of puppies. But for the most part Joseph has not photographed the dogs chained to poles and taunted by children or the dogs left to starve in alleys. His subjects cherish their dogs as much as their children, and care for them better than themselves.

As memoirist James Frey writes in the messy, unexamined elegy that anchors the book, his two pets, Bella and Cassius, were his “best friends” and “closest confidantes.” To hear him tell it, his dogs did nothing less than rescue his weary self.

But the dogs, I am quite sure, don’t care about humans’ souls, or their redemption. Adored and indulged as they are, fiercely pulling a cart or taking down a wild pig by its ear, these dogs seem burdened beyond their means with the responsibility of their owners’ egos. They don’t suffer because they are asked to do too much — these dogs love to do; idleness is torture — but because they’re asked to mean too much. You wonder what happens to the dog that doesn’t win the blue ribbon, or whose mantel remains trophy-free. Or you can guess: If the American Staffordshire terrier, as the breed is more politely known, is among the most beloved of American dogs, it is also among the most frequently abandoned and euthanized. Saving human souls is a tricky business.

Pit bulls are not mean dogs, at least not where humans are concerned, but when they decide to rebel against this selfish appropriation of their souls, they can kill. This, to me, is comforting: The ultimate decision about animal happiness lies with the animals themselves. As Montecore, the mountain lions and the mad cows attest, they are not incapable of telling us.

ELIZABETH COSTELLO | By J.M. COETZEE | Viking Press | 230 pages $22 hardcover

AMERICAN PITBULL | By MARC JOSEPH | Steidl | 248 pages $30 hardcover


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