Radio Browser: Dogs

Man’s Best Friend? - Radio Browser (podcast)
00:21:03 - David Cooper’s article The Joy of Dogs inspired this conversation about our relationshi…

Lindelani: So Uri, the Browser recently published an article titled The Joy of Dogs, by David Cooper. Whne I saw it, I just got reminded of my relationships with dogs, and how I grew up around them in the province of KwaZulu Natal in South Africa. When I saw the title, my initial thought was: my relationship with them is not the joy of dogs, but more like the fear of dogs. So where I grew up, dogs were seen not as pets but as weapons, so they were just cheap security, and the sort of dogs that I saw around in KZN were not the cute fluffy kind, they were the big scary kind. So we used them to guard our yards, and we also used them to go hunting -- the breed that were used in hunting were greyhounds, tall lanky and very scary looking. So that was just my initial thought when I saw the title.

Uri: Sorry, when you say hunting, what were you hunting?

Lindelani: Deer [laughter]. Usually in farms, illegally, in restricted areas. But I did not do the hunting. I grew up in a small village, right?, and it's about maybe 20,000 people, the total population, and it was divided into three sections: there was the rural area, so the setting there was mud huts with no discernable streets, and then there was a township that was more of a grid layout, and those were like more for middle-class people, and then there was the suburbs, which were around the central business district of the village. And the boys that lived in the rural areas had the greyhounds, and would see the procession of them going to hunt in the farms, and they would sometimes intimidate us with their dogs.

Uri: can you talk me through the hunting?, so, these are like wild deer that just were on someone else's farmland?

Lindelani: So, greyhounds are very fast dogs, they run very very fast. There are crop farms and then there are animal farms. And what they would do is they would cut the fences to get through to the animal farms, and they would send their dogs to hunt the deer in those properties. And those deer were owned by the farmers that were living in those properties. So it wasn't just wild deer, the farmers had their deer, and the people would sneak into their yards and try and hunt the deer. And sometimes they would get into trouble so cops would be called, and occasionally a shot would be fired in the air, but we'd hear the stories second hand from the boys, as of like bragging rights, "who are you guys?, we've been through all this so you can't tell us anything," it was a sign of honour, and bravery.

Uri: Do you shoot the deer and then the dog go get the...

Lindelani: No, no!

Uri: I'm being stupid, I just don't know how dogs are involved in a hunt!

Lindelani: [laughing] Have you seen those videos from the BBC of something, when a lion hunts deer, it's a scene very close to that -- I don't know how they train their dogs but there are sounds that they make that signal to the dog that it should go after the deer. And then the dog will literally chase down the deer, and it will be a pack of dogs so they will all attack one deer simultaneously till it goes down. Then once it's immobile they will call the dogs off, and they will just go and kill it. So you can understand my relationship with dogs then.

Uri: You said there was that and there was personal security, right? So how do people use dogs for security -- cheap security guards, was that what you said?

Lindelani: Yes, so, you wanted your dog to be very mean, and you wanted to train your dog to bite any strangers in your yard. So people in a rural village could not afford security, so when they went away they trusted that their dogs would look after the property. And the meaner the dog, the more intimidating it would be to go inside the yard. So with some homes, the only way you could get inside the yard was if the owner was there to escort you to the house, otherwise the dog would just bite anything that crosses the fence. So I did not think of dogs as affectionate beings that you could develop a relationship with -- when I grew older and moved to the more urban areas of South Africa, I was very surprised to see the relationships that people have with dogs, the fondness and the closeness that grows between the people and their pets. And I started seeing breeds of dogs that were not at all intimidating, that I looked at and went "ah, that's kind of cute." But even to this day I still have that fear of dogs, especially when I go out running and I see a dog outside the gate, I just make sure to cross the road and walk on the other side, and RUN on the other side. So my relationship with them is not healthy.

Uri: So do you think the childhood state of mind just always sticks with you?

Lindelani: I think it's changing slowly. Now I am meeting people who have dogs, and my initial reaction when they introduce me to their pets is to step back and be fearful. But with a little encouragement I start petting them, and [laughter] I can feel a thread of affection growing inside me. But at the moment I am not there yet. And I've met a lot of romantic partners who really love dogs, and I guess that's very encouraging [laughter] if you're on the other side, that's a very strong incentive to start loving dogs.

So yeah, what's been your relationship with dogs?

Uri: Yeah, so I never had pets growing up, and I don't mind other people's dogs -- I sometimes even quite like them, if they're particularly friendly -- but the idea of looking after one is absolutely beyond me, I can't imagine bringing a dog into my house and having to take care of it, and having to take care of it before anything else, because it's completely dependent on me, I think that would not suit me well.

Lindelani: Do you think that's because of a lack of adequate affection for the dogs? Don't you think that if you had enough love for the pets you would just think that anything that you need to do for them is worth it, and it wouldn't feel like a chore having to take care of one when you bring it home?

Uri: Yeah, I imagine that's probably true. This is a weird thing to say but I feel like I just prefer people -- like, if I have only so many hours in a day, and, y'know, "so much love to give" or whatever, which is possibly true -- I would always much rather hang out with a friend I guess? Like a human, person, friend -- [laughter] I'm sorry dogs!, it's not your fault.

I remember being very scared of dogs when I was young, but not recently. You know you sometimes see videos or pictures of young children with dogs who are much bigger than them -- I'm always like "aaaaah!", it seems like if you're smaller than the animal then the animal "ought" to be really scary in some sense? But clearly it isn't to a lot of people, but I think that was my experience. I don't remember if I got bitten by a dog when I was young?, I don't remember if that actually happened or if I just kind of hallucinated that idea.

Lindelani: It did happen to me -- so the story is I was going to my friend's house, and they had this typically harmless dog that was always lying around in their yard, and they had a berry tree. So I went there to try to get the berries, and no-one was around, so I decided to just try to climb the tree. And as I was just about to climb the tree, one foot on the trunk of the tree, this dog just came and just bit me right in the bum. [laughter]. And then luckily my friend's older brother came out and just stopped the dog. So I guess that has something, also contributes to my fear of the animals.

And one other thing!, that is just crossing my mind right now, is the sort of environment that we created for our dogs: dogs lived outside, not inside the house. And when I came this side and started seeing people bring dogs into their house, that was very very strange to me. I just couldn't wrap my head around the concept of an animal sharing a habitat with human beings. So there was also always that clear division between the world of humans and the world of animals, and I saw just that barrier break down in more progressive areas of the country.

Uri: So would you have found it kind of disgusting as a kid to have a dog in the house? Is it a hygiene thing, or a status thing, or...?

Lindelani: it's a combination of things, but primarily it's: there are human beings that are supposed to live in a setting like this, and then there are animals that do not belong in that setting. There is an element of disgust as well, because if you bring your dog closer to you by bringing it into the house, you develop a more intimate relationship with it -- so I would see people kissing and licking their dogs, or having their faces licked by dogs, and my reaction to that was just utter shock and disgust. And that feeling has not gone away -- I'm getting used to it, but that feeling has not completely disappeared. And again, dogs do not brush their teeth, so... that's another thing.

Uri: You talk about animals -- did you have other animals as well?

Lindelani: Oh yeah! My grandfather I guess was an aspiring farmer, so he had chickens, he has swans, he had pigs, and at some point I remember we had rabbits, that were very adorable.

Uri: Did you feel differently about the dogs, to the chickens, to the rabbits, to the swans?

Lindelani: Definitely. So the swans -- ok, so I don't know if you're aware of this but there's a game that has just spread like wildfire on the internet called The Unnamed Goose Game -- have you heard of the game?

Uri: The name is familiar

Lindelani: Ok, so I'll just briefly explain what the game is about: you are this goose that just goes around its neighbourhood causing havoc for everyone. So my relationship to the swans was very similar: they would chase everyone around, and maybe it's just in their nature, because even to this day we still have I think about four, and they're still terrorising the neighbourhood, like in the goose game. With the rabbits, the rabbits were just adorable, and timid, so I felt nothing but affection for them -- so much so that -- we usually don't have any quarrels slaughtering animals, we do it in our cleansing ceremonies, we have these cleansing ceremonies where we sacrifice animals to the animals. Having a goat, a sheep or a cow slaughtered is pretty much a common sight. But when we saw the rabbits, there was nothing but affection that we felt for them, and I think I only know one guy who ever killed a rabbit, in my entire childhood, and this is in a community of people that just go around killing things all the time. So I guess this ties in with the idea that the best thing that you can be as an animal is be useful to human beings and you will survive.

Uri: I want to ask about the cleansing ceremony, but before that: all of the animals except for the dog, were they intended for meat?

Lindelani: Yes they were intended for meat -- we kept them around for food, and I guess a part of it was just as a hobby. When we look at different communities, right?, the more affluent communities, which are predominantly white, the older people who have retired have hobbies, so they would go play golf, we would see them driving in their cars, going hunting -- just doing something. But for our grandparents, they did not have hobbies like that, things that they did for mere leisure. So they tied in leisure with productivity, so they would keep gardens, they would farm animals, so one part of it was yes we needed food, so we'd grow our own food, and take care of our own animals and have animal farms, but I think another side of it was they needed something to occupy their time after they retired, and this was just the perfect thing to do. Because the chickens that we kept we hardly ever ate them, even though we had probably 50 chickens in the yard on an average year, we only slaughtered chickens less than five times a year. We would just got to the supermarket like everyone else. And buy the processed chickens there. And the chickens that we raised are not very tender, so [laughter] the meat is not as great as the meat you'd get from the supermarket chains.

Uri: I just think it's interesting, if you have a dog that lives outside but you also have chickens and swans and pigs, whether that dog starts to get seen more like a... a working animal? [laughter] Well I guess in a sense dogs are management and other types of animals are labour, but they're still like employees....

Lindelani: ha, yeah. You wanted to ask about the cleansing ceremonies?

Uri: Yes, yes, so you said you slaughter animals for the ancestors?

Lindelani: ok, so, there are very complicated customs and rules about when to slaughter which animal, but typically when someone passes away, to have them welcomed on the other side by the ancestors, you need to slaughter a cow for them. And we call that raising the person, which makes very little sense because we believe that the ancestors live undergound, but the term is raising for some reason. A week after a person's funeral we slaughter a smaller animal than a cow, typically a goat or a sheep, depending on which tribe you belong to. So my mother is Sotho, so my mother's family does a sheep, and my father is Zulu so my father's family does goats. So that is believed to cleanse the family of the shadow that the funeral casts over everyone, and it's the official end of the grieving period. So that typically happens a week or two after a person's funeral. And with the chickens, the smaller animals are usually done for rituals, they are not part of that funeral and cleansing setting, but if you go to a traditional healer and you need to maybe appease the ancestors for good fortune, or you need to get rid of a streak of bad luck that you might be experiencing for one reason or another, you would slaughter a chicken. I don't know, depending on the animal I either have extreme sympathy for the animal or no sympathy at all. [laughter]. Typically the bigger the animal the less sympathy I will have. When I see people slaughtering helpless chicken I just feel like the animal can't take it and I just feel very deep sympathy, which is irrational I know, because pain is pain no matter how big or small the animal is.

Uri: But for the cow you're like, the cow can just take care of itself?

Lindelani: [laughter] Yes, the cow is strong, the cow can take it!

Uri: My understanding is, at least among the Tswana, when you kill an animal, it's spirit can take a message to the ancestors, do you know anything about that?

Lindelani: Yes, ok, so, different tribes have different ways of thinking about their relationship with ancestors, and then there are some things that overlap, and that is one of them, the idea that if you try to relay a message to ancestors you can sacrifice an animal and have its spirit relay that message for you. But traditionally, or normally, that's not the usual way you would send a message to ancestors. So each household, pretty much all across the tribes, has a special altar that they make, usually in the bedroom of the eldest person in the household, where they use that altar to speak with the ancestors. So what happens is there's a special kind of incense that we burn called impepho, you burn it and then once it starts raising smoke we see it as a sign that the door has been opened so you can start communicating with the ancestors directly. So that's the everyday way of communicating with ancestors. But if there's something more serious that you need to discuss with them then you would go and sacrifice an animal for that, but for everyday conversations with them you would not slaughter an animal, you would just use incense, and that altar.

Ok, let me just state, on the record, that these are not my personal beliefs, lest my reputation gets tarnished.

Uri: What other kind of significance is there to animals and the ancestors, are there other connections?

Lindelani: I'll answer your question with a story. [laughter]. There is this common belief that certain animals bring omens or messages from the ancestors, with some surnames some animals are believed to be a reincarnation of the ancestors themselves. When I'm telling my story keep that context in mind. So my father, my uncle and I were sitting in the living room, it was a long time ago, maybe 12 years ago, and a grasshopper came into the room. It was green and very big. And my uncle -- who was a couple of years older than I am, I think I was 11 and he was about 14 or 15 -- looked at it and said "ah, there is our father," so talking about my grandfather. And my dad looked at the grasshopper and said "I saw my dad when he died and he was not that insect." [laughter].

That speaks to two things: I just really don't understand how it is decided which animals represent animals and which don't. It seems that just by decree of one elder or another, if an animal is just decreed to represent ancestors then the rest of the village is just going to believe that. And the second thing is how some surnames really have an affinity for these associations with animals and their relationships with the ancestors, and others just think it's... maybe "abomination" is too strong a word but they associate it with witchcraft, because they don't see how a human being's spirit can be inhabited by an animal. So I think that was my dad's opinion of it, so that's why he was ridiculing my uncle for making that remark. Yeah, so, a brown snake in most families is seen as a sign that the ancestors are bringing good fortune, and I don't know if they're poisonous or not but I've always thought it was very dangerous to look at snakes that way.

Uri: And the animal is, kind of, a reincarnation of the person?, or just some kind of messenger of the person?, or...

Lindelani: So it depends on the animal, the family and the relationship they think they have with their ancestors, right? Some animals and insects are just seen straight up as reincarnations, like "this must be one of the people who have passed on who's come to visit us, so we must accomodate the animal and make it as comfortable as we can." So if you kill it, it is believed that you're bringing bad luck to the family. And some animals are just omens, so as I said a brown snake is a sign of good fortune, but if you've seen a chameleon that is a sign of bad fortune, and most likely it means that someone in the family is going to pass away. So it depends on many things like the region, the family and how they think about their customs and relationships with the animals.

Ok, so: there was a very strong division between the animal world and the human world, and some animals got a special privilege to be part of the human world, depending on how we think they connect with our ancestors. It's surprising to me that dogs were not one of those animals.

Uri: do you know if there's any reason why they weren't seen in the same way?

Lindelani: Primarily we looked at animals for what they could do for us, right?, and we just categorised them as "this animal, or these class of animals, is food; this class of animals is dangerous, so avoid or kill; and then, this class of animals they are useful because they open the doors between us and our ancestors. And so, looking at it from that perspective you can see how our relationships with dogs developed. Dogs have fangs and they bite, and they have sharp teeth, so we just looked at that and pretty much decided that these are going to be our weapons, and they're going to help us bring safety to our homes, and they can help us get food. I think the reason's as simple as that, even though I have not have heard it told like that. It's just me looking at it and at how we treat animals.

Uri: sure, sure. And then that whole category of animals as kind of friends or almost family members in some households, that was just not a thing you had growing up?

Lindelani: No, not as friends, any affection we felt for animals was because they reminded us of our ancestors, or they were adorable like bunnies, which is something you don't know how to deal with. [laughter]. Cool man, I hope this was an insightful conversation for you.

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