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Men, dogs, violence and fear

By Nadia Sanger

The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) is a public hospital in Bridgetown in the Western Cape that provides services to sick animals. There are always queues at the PDSA; the staff are over-worked and the hospital is under-resourced. Most animal guardians who cannot afford private vet fees visit the PDSA or the SPCA in Grassy Park, and this, of course, is the majority of animal guardians in the Western Cape.

My experience at the PDSA always leaves me angry. The reason for this anger stems from the young men who bring in their pit bulls (and other ‘types’ of dogs) for all sorts of reasons. Now the PDSA makes it clear that it does not support dog-fighting, and if an ‘owner’ brings in his dog for the first time to be hospitalised for some reason, the dog will be sterilised. The dog owners do not want the dogs to be sterilised, since it means less production of testosterone, critical in the violent behaviour needed for dog fighting.

At the PDSA, there are always young men with dogs who have been trained to hurt. As I wrote this piece on my cellphone, I was observing how the boys and men relate to each other around the pit bull – how one boy exclaimed in a very impressed way how ‘big’ and ‘strong’ the dog is. The dog was scary. I had taken my sister’s two cats to the PDSA, and they were stressed out by how all the dogs were barking and panicking because of the presence of the salivating pit bull, who was being held by the neck with a gloved hand. The ‘owner’ was holding on for dear life.

I watched the women with their puppies hopping from foot to foot around the pit bull and his ‘owner’. In a country where violence is still regarded as normal, and male violence is tolerated despite laws meant to protect women against various forms of violence, I saw the young man and his scary pit bull as an extension of this violence. Their presence created fear, and it was intentional. This pit bull was trained to be blood thirsty, socialised into behaviour by his ‘master’ to attack. My heart went out to the dog: this is no way for a dog to live. Dogs are supposed to be dogs, to act like dogs, to do dog things. Being taught by men to be violent is an extension of these men’s idea of masculinity.

So when the women in the queue were moving around and whispering their fears to others in the queue, it was no different to being afraid of a man with a weapon. In this instance, the dog was his weapon, and the kind of fear this elicited in mostly women at the PDSA was an indication of how power and fear works: to me, this is a form of gender-based violence. The amount of public space this man and his dog consumed is also indicative of how masculinity operates: many men take up space as a means to make a claim to power, over others, and over the environment. And this is not only the case for Bridgetown, Grassy Park, or Mitchell’s Plain.

My thoughts after this experience was that we need to educate children that animals are not tools: they are living, breathing beings who deserve to be taken care of, to be loved. Young boys need to be taught that being violent and cruel is not macho; it’s not the way one becomes a man. Research has indicated that boys and men who are violent towards animals see violence as ‘normal’ behaviour, and therefore easily dish out violence towards women and girls, and other boys and men. We have a responsibility to our children, especially young boys, and to the animals we live with.

Schools also need to be playing a serious role in teaching young boys to be responsible, and to respect life. The church and the mosque, in particular, should be playing a role in socialising boys not to be cruel to animals. We all have a responsibility to make the world a better place to live in for humans and other animals.

Nadia Sanger works as a research specialist at the Human Sciences Research Council in Cape Town. Her research interests are framed by feminist theories and methodologies, including her work on the relationship between human beings and other animals.

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