By Gene Weingarten
Washington - From the front, the one-story clapboard house looks dingy and dilapidated, and the lawn is cluttered with crap. The backyard makes the front look like Versailles.
There are ripe piles of garbage and mouldering pits of ashes where trash and food scraps have been burned. As a portrait of desperation, destitution, and decay, the tableau is almost literary. Faulkner's Snopeses meet Steinbeck's Joads.
No person lives in this house, which is in rural northern North Carolina, a financially annihilated area where many people are living thin. Let's call it No-No Land. The house has been abandoned since January, when the owner, an elderly man, died of Covid-19. We are here in late July. The squalor seems lifeless, but, terribly, it isn't.
You hear the three dogs baying before you see them, and then you see them and recoil. Each is tethered to a metal cable, which is tethered to its own primitive wooden doghouse. Each animal has only a few dozen square feet within which to move.
When the owner died, the house and animals were inherited by his daughter, who lives in another state. She has a relative who is supposed to stop in every once in a while to replenish the dogs' food and water, but his visits appear to be intermittent and momentary.
For reasons that defy common sense and decency, the daughter has chosen this heartless system rather than adopt the dogs herself or surrender them to someone who will care for them.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) knows about this place, and, with the grudging consent of the new owner, the animal rights organisation sends a team of field workers to visit from time to time.
They clean and refill the bowls and distribute flea meds and chew toys and straw for bedding and skritches under the neck, but they can't alleviate the big problem, and they can't come here often. Their headquarters are in Norfolk, and they have hundreds of other mistreated animals to check in on and new ones to find. And now, the conditions here have deteriorated to this.
The PETA workers have nicknamed the second dog Pancake because when she greets people, she playfully flattens herself against the ground. This dog's spirit is also not broken, but her body is. She is emaciated. There is no food within reach. Her ribs protrude like barrel staves. In a photo PETA had taken just a month before, she was still adequately fleshed.
"She's lost a quarter of her body weight!"
This is Daphna Nachminovitch’s reaction, PETA's senior vice president of cruelty investigations. Her domain is a part of PETA that is less familiar to the public than the organisation's more notorious side, the provocateur side that has historically revelled in public confrontations and flamboyant stunts.
Nachminovitch is 50, a native Israeli with fine features, a faintly sibilant accent and weary, seen-everything eyes. As a PETA executive, she sometimes is a speaker at fancy fund-raisers, where she rocks the evening-wear look under lush, shoulder-length silver hair.
But in the field, she mashes that hair into a bun and dresses in T-shirts, cargo pants and sturdy waterproof boots for trudging through turds, puke, pee, slop, chiggers, mosquito larvae, soil fungus and septic-tank run-off, so that she can get to animals trapped in grievously inhospitable places.
It occurs all over the world: The pitiless 24-hour-a-day chaining of dogs to lifelong sentences of misery and madness. The practice is not the province of any race or any age or any nationality or any region though, it is most prevalent, by far, in rural areas where resources are limited and opportunities are slender.
It would be tempting to call this an epidemic, except epidemics usually have a clear starting point, and they eventually end. This particular cruelty has been going on as long as anyone can remember, and no one knows when it will stop or if it ever will.
If you've never heard of it or had no idea of its ubiquity, that's probably because humanity has ample tragedies of its own to report on and because news organisations prefer to avoid these depressing, non-essential stories. They repel readers and listeners, and viewers.
The tethered dogs have common patterns of behaviour. If you approach, they will joyfully run toward you, full speed, until their chain snaps taut and yanks them back with a stranglehold. They know it is coming and that it will hurt but are frantic for connection.
They are literally and figuratively at the end of their rope. Some are sullen and vicious, but most are filled with anxiety and unnaturally needy: When you are there, they don't want you to leave. They will hold on to you with their front legs in a bear hug that seems to defy the natural limitations of a dog's skeleton and musculature.
The "what" is manifest. It's the "why" that is mystifying.
Anthropologists believe they understand the origins of the bond between humans and dogs. It is an ancient alliance forged from the mutual need in Paleolithic times.
How has this relationship gotten so corrupted, then, and so profoundly, and so often? Is it about promiscuous anger: lack of resources and social powerlessness, leading to impotent rage – the kick-the-dog phenomenon? Are the dogs an emotional tool – something people can control in a life otherwise almost empty of control?
Maybe. Sociological studies have tended to confirm that as a factor. But it's a tenuous connection. Privileged people do cruel things to dogs, too.
John Gluck, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of New Mexico, knows first hand about the ability of anyone, at all social statuses, to rationalise cruelty. As a scientist, he once tormented monkeys for a living.
They were rhesus monkeys, kept in little cages, subjects of experiments in human behaviour. One day, Gluck noticed that one monkey – known to him as G-49 – was oddly energised, intent on examining a back corner of her cage, which was a solid steel wall.
"She would run up to it, make facial expressions, then pull back, then run up again," he told me. Gluck says he investigated, and it turned out that a bolt had fallen out of the rear wall, leaving a half-inch hole. Gluck looked through it, and he saw that it had turned into a peep hole to other monkeys in other cages, animals G-49 couldn't ordinarily see. "She was fighting hard against her limitations," he says. "Monkeys are highly social."
Gluck pauses. Many years later, this is still not easy for him.
Some behavioural scientists see all of this as a Darwinian misfire, a hiccup in the system – an unfortunate side effect of meeting primal needs. Human brains are hard-wired to concentrate on one thing at a time and block out other things. We compartmentalise. We couldn't really exist without this because it allows us to filter out distractions that could otherwise be crippling.
"If we couldn't do it, we'd never get on an aeroplane or into a car," says Melanie Joy, a social psychologist who writes about how humans rationalise cruelty. "We'd be focused on how vulnerable we are. So we have to engage in a degree of psychic numbing. It is an adaptive trait but can become maladaptive when it results in violence."
Some tetherers breed dogs for status: Supposedly fierce breeds, like pit bulls, convey power. And finally, some people tether because their dads and granddads did, too. You tend not to question it. No malice is intended.
Nicholas Dodman, a veterinary behaviourist who co-founded the Centre for Canine Behaviour Studies at Tufts University, doesn't buy the Darwinian argument or all the ancillary explanations, which he sees as excuses for the inexcusable. This sort of cruelty, he says, is, at its dark core, a heartless character flaw: Some people suck.
"There are people," Dodman says, "who sell their home and move out and deliberately leave a dog behind. Days later someone comes in and finds the dog starved." It's happened enough, he told me. "The fact is," Dodman says, "there are people who have empathy and people who don't."