How Rescue Dogs Made Me A Better Feminist

by Patricia Grisafi

I had almost forgotten that “bitch” is an actual term in the elite, show-dog world until I heard it being used properly and without malice at the Pennsylvania Hotel the night before Westminster.

Like we do every year, my neighbor and I had gone to creep on the very expensive, pampered dogs. We were hanging out in the “poop room” – the large space in the hotel’s basement where handlers can take their dogs to relieve themselves without touching their paws to New York City concrete – when I saw a mini pinscher wearing what looked like a colorfully patterned diaper.

“Why is your dog wearing a diaper?” I asked the handler.

“Oh! This bitch is in season.”

The next day, when my husband and I showed up to volunteer at the animal shelter, I was still thinking about the elite dogs and the bitch in the diaper. As I did my rounds, saying hello to all the dogs, I noticed a new addition – a black pit bull mix with butchered ears and sad brown eyes. She was scab covered and malnourished, with jutting ribs. It was obvious she had just given birth.

“She’s gentle,” one of the kennel attendants told me. “You can take her upstairs for socialization later, if you want.”

After I was done walking dogs and cleaning, my husband and I took the black dog to the play and training area. Even though she wasn’t feeling her best, her sweet personality shone through. She craved touch and rolled over on her back for belly rubs.

I don’t tell this story for a pat on the back. Many people do much more intensive work with animals. But my work with animals—especially rescued dogs—has actually helped shape my feminist beliefs and practices.

sad dog

It might seem like a stretch to equate animal rescue with feminism, but there are many areas of overlap. As a feminist, I strive for equal treatment for myself and other women;

I worry about the effects of rape culture, threats to reproductive freedom, and domestic violence. As an animal lover, I worry about the culture of dog fighting, overbreeding, and abuse.

When I first started volunteering, I was hoping to lay in a pile of wriggling puppies for hours on end. However, I quickly learned that shelter work is actually very hard. It means cleaning up lots of piss and shit. It means washing piles of dog dishes, scrubbing kennels, and doing laundry. You get nibbled, humped, and pulled down the sidewalk. Dogs chew on your hair, claw your clothing, lick your eyeballs, and pee on your foot. Emotionally, you run the gamut: joy, sorrow, anxiety, and frustration. Some days I leave the shelter skipping down the street. Other days, I go home and cry.

It all started with Michael Vick. As news trickled out about his dog fighting organization —the abuse, the chains, the animal corpses, the rescued dogs—I lost a lot of faith in humanity. But along with the dreadful images and eyewitness accounts, I also heard about rescue organizations who were doing their hardest to ensure that these deeply abused dogs got the medical care, love, and rehabilitation that they needed. I wanted to do my part, however small, and help rescued animals in my community.

After reading The Lost Dogs, Jim Gorant’s book on the Michael Vick operation and aftermath, I began to think about animal abuse in more critical way. After all, dogs aren’t free from human-imposed gender constructions (just read up on how popular testicle implants, neuticles, have become.) In particular, Gorant’s description describes one of Michael Vick’s breeder dogs, a female that “had been overbred to the point that she had simply lost her mind. Her body sagged and swayed and she growled through gritted teeth at everything around her. She wanted to attack anything and anyone that came near. She was the only dog that…[we] didn’t handle. No testing was necessary.” Out of 49 dogs rescued from the Vick compound, this breeding dog was the only one euthanized. She was beyond rehabilitation.

Overbreeding is a real problem, and often, the most difficult dogs to deal with are female dogs who have just given birth. These dogs are usually rescued from larger city shelters or found roaming the streets with milk dripping from their teats, their puppies nowhere in sight. Although it sounds bizarre, “mama” dogs up for adoption can be looked over because of their postpartum bodies. While my husband and I were fostering our second dog, Violet, I was surprised by how many potential adopters were fixated on that fact that she had recently given birth.

10399809 10100158102228783 4942555948703231762 nViolet with BUST!

“What’s up with her nipples? Why are they so gross and saggy? Will those things shrink?”

“She’s a really pretty dog!” I would answer defensively, offended on her behalf.

Some scholars suggest that women may be especially sensitive to the emotional needs of animals. Many of us have been guilty of projecting more complex human emotions onto animals. I wonder if Michael Vick’s breeding dog felt sexually violated and if Violet mourned the loss of her puppies. I worry at times that I bring too much of my own emotional baggage to the shelter.

Well, maybe this sensitivity isn’t a bad thing. In an article for The Feminist Wire, Sally Stevens, Elizabeth Stahmer, and Cecile McKee write about the links between domestic violence and animal abuse: “Many women have experienced verbal, emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse by a male or female partner and most women are aware of what it feels like to be belittled, harassed, and have one’s opinion ignored. Josephine Donovan suggests that in part, due to these adverse experiences, women may have elevated ‘sensitivity to the fact that other marginalized groups, including animals, have trouble getting their viewpoints heard.’”

Taking animal abuse seriously not only can save canine lives but women’s and children’s lives as well. Animal abuse in the home is very likely to predict or concur with other kinds of domestic violence, and often reports of animal abuse in the home are the first sign that social services needs to intervene. Studies show that there is a correlation between domestic violence and animal abuse with 71% of domestic violence victims reported that their abuser also targeted their pet.

The abusive dynamic is most drastically enacted around the dog fighting pit. As spaces of fraught masculinity, dog fighting rings tell us about the dysfunctional ways some men search for power and control. I’m not saying that women don’t also abuse animals – women are more likely to harm animals through neglect or hoarding. But dog fighting is a primarily masculine endeavor. In Unleashed: The Phenomena of Status Dogs and Weapon Dogs, Simon Harding notes how sociologists often read the motivations behind dog fighting: “it represents a way for the dog fighters ‘to validate their masculine identities while remaining only on the periphery of actual violence.’” Because dogs are seen as status objects that reflect their owner’s dominance—the more violent the dog, the more powerful the dog’s owner.

Obviously, you don’t have to be feminist to love animals. You don’t have to love animals to be a good feminist. But for me, the two logically reinforce each other. You work to give voice to the abused, abandoned, and misunderstood. You advocate for smart reproductive measures, work to change perceptions, and identify and analyze unequal and abusive power dynamics and work to fix them.

“If you treat a girl like a dog, she’s going to piss on you” is one of my favorite Courtney Love quotes. But by volunteering at an animal shelter, I’ve learned there are countless other, less messy ways to push back against inequality.

Images via Flickr, Wikimedia Commons

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