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Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?

What follows is the first in an ongoing Q&A series about the strange inner workings of U.S. culture. 


Why can’t I eat my dog?

Anthropological Explanation

Many forces conspire against the enterprising individual who fixes a side-long glance upon their household pet and thinks, “In a pinch…” The majority of these dissuasive forces are cultural, and therein lies their strength. There is a logic underpinning our taboo against eating pet animals, and it has to do with our close relationships with them, and the different categories these practices create.

You’ve no doubt noticed that certain animals are more “edible” than others. In the United States, most people think nothing of eating a hamburger, but grow queasy at the thought of horse meat having slipped into their ground beef, and positively livid at the idea that cat meat might grace someone’s plate. The reason is simple: we have a social aversion to mixing up different categories of animals. A taboo, if you will.

For anthropologists, taboos are a “repression of interstitial states produced by the application of discrete conceptual classes on the continuum of experience” (Valeri, p.63).

Animal-human relationships are arranged into these categories on an axis of “closeness.” The closer an animal is to humans in their cultural relationship, the less edible it becomes. Eating is a practice that creates lines of distinction between humans and animals that are not-human enough to become food. Because we have placed dogs firmly in the “pet” category, they cannot also be in the “food” category. This is why pets are taboo as a source of food: humans have formed such close bonds with them that they have become inedible. The inverse is true to a lesser extent: animals that are far from humans (exotic animals and pests) are less edible, but not quite as taboo as those closest to humans on the relationship spectrum.

Different cultures consider different animals close (and therefore inedible). Conversely, some cultures consider the animals Americans tend to think of as pets as a category of creature that is perfectly edible. It all depends on each culture’s relationships and practices with regards to each animal. Last September, a brief story appeared on KPCC about dogs from South Korean meat farms being “rescued” and brought to the United States for adoption. In this case, Americans were imposing their culturally-specific logic of animal-human relationship taxonomy onto a different culture.

Cultural norms constrain our every thought and action, and the taboo against eating the (potential/technical) food source in closest proximity to us is merely one of them. Most Americans–even enthusiastic carnivores!–likely take this comestible constraint as a given. They are “naturally” repulsed by the idea of boiling Fluffy for supper, if they’ve ever allowed themselves to consider it in the first place. (They should be repulsed; everyone knows Fluffy would be much tastier fried.) This blatant assault on American’s gastronomic freedom ensures that our taxonomy of animal-human relationships remains intact.

Originally published in my newsletter. This question sent me down a nostalgic rabbit hole of thesis notes, so count yourselves lucky there’s only one citation: “The Forest of Taboos” by Valerio Valeri.

You can submit your own question about social norms and cultural practices to “Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?” whenever the mood strikes. The ‘advice’ column welcomes all inquiries, animal-related or not, but cannot guarantee an answer to each submission.
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Ruining a Stranger’s Visual Joke

A man is out walking his dog through a large public park. The park contains the ruins of an old zoo, complete with constructed rock outcroppings and caves and rusty partial cages. The man stops at the edge of one row of old cages, then enters it with his dog. He loops the dog’s leash around one of the vertical bars to anchor his pet inside. Then the man exits, coming around front and pulling out his camera phone. The dog strains at the leash but does not seem otherwise distressed. The man quickly gets the desired shot and retrieves his dog. They continue on their walk.

Now, were I a good anthropologist I would have asked this man why he had done this; what had moved him; what he thought it meant. I would have gotten his take on the whole situation by asking sneaky questions and scratching the dog’s ears. But I am not a good anthropologist. Talking to strangers is difficult and I avoid it and that is why I remain in this comfortable theoretical armchair here with nary a threat of fieldwork in sight.

The unfortunate result is a one-sided reading of this zoo-dog photograph situation. Reeking of assumptions and suppositions. What is fairly certain from observation is that the man was amused, and even pleased with himself for having taken this clever picture. You can just tell something like that; it’s in their body language, the smirking. Why bother to stage and take a picture like that if it meant nothing special? He didn’t strike me as a postmodern artist. I base the following on the man’s actions, which tend to be telling of shared cultural categories. Culture in practice. So onward, to inherently limited and problematic analysis!

The man took this picture because the idea of it amused him. He thought it would be funny to place his pet dog in a cage that was once inhabited by a zoo animal. Perhaps he wanted to think of his dog as a killer–as wild, as needing to be caged. If it actually was a dog with violent tendencies, then the picture would be appropriate for underscoring that fact, and dripping with humor of a more sinister type. On the other hand, if the dog was a sweet and gentle animal, then the picture would be hilariously underlining that fact by upending it with a nonsensical context. In either case the picture was taken because it was showing something out of the ordinary, the exact meaning of which is contingent on facts that only the man knows. What is clear is that the meaning is one of humor; of subverting expected alignment of cultural categories. He will show this to his friends or post it on facebook and hope that people get the same kick out of it as he did. People will see his sweet dog in a cage and laugh at the ridiculousness of it all.

Of course, it’s funny because of this very juxtaposition: this is a tame animal, entirely domesticated, being literally framed as wild. The picture is funny because it collides mutually exclusive categories. Pets are not wild animals, and vice versa. We are quite structuralist in the United States when it comes to the ways we interact with and think of non-human animals. Although the argument could be made that zoo animals are not “wild,” but rather something in between wild and domestic, they are still at a categorical distance from pet dogs, whom we keep closer to our human selves than any non-human animal. The pet dog is one of the most illogical animals one could place in a zoo cage in the United States. It does not belong there. In that context, the dog is a joke.

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