THE PLANK MARCH 30, 2009
As I've learned over the couple of years that I've been working on a book about the boom in how much time and money Americans spend on their pets, you can learn a lot about all sorts of two-legged aspects of a society by examining changes in how pets are treated.
And this spring has seen a flurry of unlikely stories about pets in Iraq. Predictably, the news is all over the place. Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times reported on a boom in pet stores around Baghdad. The news played as a happy sign of things returning to normal:
The pet industry was a sleepy trade in Saddam Hussein's final years, hampered by international economic sanctions and an ever-shrinking middle class. The most exotic pets were generally bought by elite families, who could afford expensive animals, whether a monkey or a Siamese kitten. Then came the violence of the last few years: The Ghazel market, on a main boulevard in downtown Baghdad, has weathered two bombings since 2007.
But now, with bloodshed down and civil servants earning higher salaries, families are enjoying their spending power, the relative calm and the freedom to buy luxuries unavailable in sanctions-era Iraq.
Even dogs, traditionally considered unclean in Islam, have become popular...
Things were altogether less cuddly when The New York Times filed its own report on the Iraqi capital's return to normalcy. In this case, the report focused on how the city government was controlling Baghdad's vast population of menacing strays:
While human beings in Iraq were killing each other in huge numbers, they ignored the dogs, which in turn multiplied at an alarming rate. Now stray dogs are such a menace that municipal workers are hunting them down, slaughtering some 10,000 in Baghdad just since December....
One of the dog control officers, out poisoning dogs on a crisp and clear winter morning, explained that he was only doing his part, unglamorous maybe, to make life here better.
"Iraq has many problems," he said. "We are here on a mission to kill stray dogs."
The two stories aren't exactly a contradiction. Pet ownership for families and pest-control by the government are both relative luxuries--small signals that Iraq is stabilizing. Of course, the fact that Iraq's animal controllers are essentially deploying death squads points to a big old cultural gap with America: Just imagine the fresh hell that would be unleashed if Mayor Bloomberg did the same in New York.
Which is why the other recent class of stories about pets in Iraq is also quite telling. Like so many of our other values, Iraq has not been a great showcase for America's purported dog affection. The most famous American dogs of the Iraq war are probably the working dogs that were used to terrorize inmates at Abu Ghraib.
And while the Army's pool of bomb-sniffing dogs have inspired devoted affection from troops who credit them with saving lives, yesterday's Washington Post reports that the dogs of war are suffering some of the same stateside consequences as their human comrades. Take Timi, a five-year-old German Shepherd:
According to his medical file, he has nightmares "characterized by violent kicking." His veterinarian says he has had "readjustment issues" since coming home....
For two years, Walter Burghardt, chief of behavioral medicine at the Department of Defense Military Working Dog Veterinary Service, has been studying the effects of combat on dogs. Although he doesn't like to use the term post-traumatic stress disorder with dogs, war can affect them emotionally, he said. In some cases, antidepressants have worked, he said, as have more playtime and more time performing the tasks they were trained to do.
Timi is slated to return to Iraq shortly. Though the military has nearly doubled its population of highly-trained working dogs, they're still too valuable to just be put on the bench after one rotation--or even in the wake of a little trauma. Which sounds a lot like how things are for their two-legged comrades.