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Elizabeth Engelhardt, Chair Burdine 437, Mailcode B7100, Austin, TX 78712 • 512-471-7277

Assoc Prof Janet Davis Publishes Op-Ed in New York Times

In response to recent clashes between the Obama and Romney campaigns on animal welfare...

Posted: May 7, 2012

"The Dog Ate My Birth Certificate" by Associate Professor of American Studies, Janet Davis

At the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner last month, President Obama playfully referenced a passage in his memoir in which he told of eating dog meat as a child in Indonesia. Riffing on Sarah Palin’s line — and responding to Republican criticism — he said, “What’s the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? A pit bull is delicious.” (Of course, Republicans have had their own canine issues, given Mitt Romney’s predilection for fastening his Irish setter to the top of the family car in the 1980s.)

Although dog-eating is taboo in the United States, personal consumption of dog meat is legal in most states. Likewise, Americans find horse-eating offensive; a five-year federal ban on slaughtering horses for human consumption was lifted last year. (Chicken-fried horse steak with onion gravy was on the menu at the Harvard Faculty Club until 1985.) Horse meat is consumed in France, just as dog meat is eaten in countries like Ghana, Nigeria, Tonga, parts of Asia and even Switzerland. In Poland, some ingest dog fat as a curative. The status of dog meat as a hard-luck food is also well documented — Germans during the two world wars referred to it as “blockade mutton.”

Yet in the United States, dog-eating has been a longstanding flashpoint for anxieties about race and citizenship. In 1904, a group of scantily clad Philippine Igorots from the Luzon highlands reenacted a daily “Bow Wow Feast” at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. Loosely based on the custom of sumang, in which a dog was sacrificed and eaten after military victory, the dog-eating spectacle was a sensation. Touring Los Angeles in 1906, the Igorots, now suspiciously “fat and glossy,” were blamed for an “epidemic of thefts” of over 200 “high-class dogs,” according to The Los Angeles Times.

No dog theft was ever substantiated, but American politicians readily declared that the Igorots were “unfit” for American citizenship, a pressing matter in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, when the United States defeated Spain, claimed its empire and annexed the Philippines. Moreover, the arrival of millions of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and the rise of Jim Crow laws in the South fueled white nativist fears of racial mongrelization. Between 1901 and 1904, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution need not “follow the Flag”; the country could legally annex an overseas territory and deny its people citizenship. New American humane education programs in Philippine public schools stressed the importance of animal kindness, including the proper care of pet dogs, as a keystone of civilization, moral agency and, perhaps, future independence.

Like the Igorots, dog-eating American Indians appeared in popular culture as inassimilable and alien. In 1913, D. W. Griffith directed “The Battle at Elderbush Gulch,” a silent Western in which the cavalry annihilated a tribe of dog-eating Indians who attempted to steal puppies belonging to white settler children for a ritual dog feast. American Indian boarding school curricula included directives for merciful animal stewardship. Like the Filipinos, Indians were not United States citizens: under the terms of the 1831 case Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, they were still “domestic dependent nations.”

The strange relationship between dog-eating and anxieties over race, assimilation and citizenship reemerged into public view immediately after the Vietnam War in 1975. The federal Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act helped relocate approximately 130,000 Indochinese refugees to America as permanent residents. Stories of ravenous bands of canine-eating refugees quickly flooded the media.

In November 1979, animal welfare authorities in St. Paul investigated complaints that refugees were stealing and eating neighborhood pets. Southeast Asian residents vigorously denied the charges, but the director of the Ramsey County Humane Society persisted: “There have been too many calls from too many people to say that it’s just a rumor or there’s nothing to it.” Resettlement organizations included programs on “cultural differences in attitudes toward pets” to cultivate proper American values in a people deemed inscrutable.

Our fears of consuming canines, then, have had more to do with moralistic xenophobia and exclusion than with animal welfare, public health or ethical taboo. The flap over Mr. Obama’s youthful consumption of dog meat is a resurrection of the birther-conspiracy wolf dressed in dog’s clothing.

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