Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Dog by the Cradle, The Serpent Beneath: Some Paradoxes of Human-Animal Relationships

Erika Ritter will be a keynote speaker at the Veterinary Medicine and Literature Conference, May 9 through May 11, Ontario Veterinary College, Guelph, Canada.

We're pleased to report that Erika Ritter's fascinating book, The Dog by the Cradle, The Serpent Beneath: Some Paradoxes of Human-Animal Relationships, has just been issued in paperback (March 25, 2010) in time to coincide with our upcoming conference. This post reprints a short review followed by some words from Erika on the origin of the book.

When The Dog by the Cradle, The Serpent Beneath was originally published last year, Dr. Elizabeth Stone, Dean at Ontario Veterinary College, wrote the following in conjunction with a reading Erika gave at the Bookshelf in Guelph:

In her new book, The Dog by the Cradle, The Serpent Beneath: Some Paradoxes of Human-Animal Relationships, Erika Ritter, a familiar voice to listeners of CBC radio, seeks to “reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable contradictions in our relationship with animals”. The central theme for her book is the age old story of the master who leaves his faithful dog to guard his child in his cradle. Upon returning, the master finds the dog spattered with blood and the cradle overturned. The master assumes the dog has attacked the child and immediately slays the treacherous animal. Only then does the master find the child safely beneath the upturned cradle and the remains of a bloody poisonous snake lying where the faithful dog had killed it. Thus is demonstrated the paradox of even a trusted and favoured dog being condemned and killed without a moment’s hesitation.

Drawing upon extensive research and interviews with experts spanning the globe, the author takes the reader on a wide-ranging trip through the complex world of human-animal relationships. For example, the author questions how Temple Grandin, who designs improved animal handling facilities, can justify the ‘humane slaughter’ of the animals she loves. But she also recognizes that Grandin’s focus is on ‘practical solutions’ rather than abstract concepts. On another journey, Ritter visits a compound for ‘retired’ research chimpanzees where the co-founder points out that “they’re still in prison here. But it’s a better prison”. The author contrasts the lives of these primates with the 150,000 dogs and their owners who converge in Toronto during the annual Wolfstock event. This mass of dogdom is described as ‘big dogs in bandanas panting along the pavement, little dogs sporting peaked caps peering out of backpacks…small comedies of strangers becoming entangled in each other’s leashes.” Again, there is the difficulty of reconciling the attention and money lavished on these dogs with the thousands of dogs that are relinquished to shelters because they no longer have value to their owners.

Throughout her book, Ritter covers many of the animal-related issues of our times such as horse slaughter, horse racing, dog shows, animal ‘whisperers’, and the Ontario pit bull ban. Ultimately, the paradox of human-animal relationships is not so much about the animals, but about us as humans and our use and misuse, attention and rejection, and attraction and repulsion towards the animals themselves.


Erika talks about the writing of her book:

It’s one of the oldest stories in the world. Before leaving the house with his wife, the master sets his faithful dog to guard their only child, slumbering in its cradle. Soon after the parents’ departure, a servant enters the child’s chamber and makes a horrifying discovery: the dog spattered with blood, the cradle overturned, and the infant nowhere to be seen.

When the master and mistress return to confront this gruesome evidence, the man immediately slays the treacherous animal. Only then is the cradle turned upright--to reveal the child, still slumbering peacefully and entirely unharmed. A moment later, the bloodied, tooth-marked body of a venomous snake is found in the corner where, after killing it, the dog had apparently flung it.

The more I have thought about the story, the more its simple specifics have come to embody some of the contradictions I see at the heart of humanity’s relationship with all animals. The fact that we claim to love what we so often end up killing . The guilt that the abuse of their innocence can inspire in us. The impulse to assuage that guilt by making animals seem complicit in their use, abuse and even death. Our need to pamper and celebrate the chosen few as a means to offset our unease about our casual dispatch of the many.

The Dog by the Cradle represents my adult journey into the implications of those and other paradoxes. One branch of the trail takes me to the heart of the story of the dog by the cradle, and a real-life cult of worship that arose literally from his corpse. Another path leads to conversations with animal advocates, philosophers, activists and academics about their personal methods for dealing with the many disparities between humanity and non-humankind. Yet another fork in the road takes me into some of the factual, fictional, and downright mythical ways in which humans seek to resolve the contradictions in the bonds between us and them.

For me, researching and writing this book was the trip of a lifetime. Since publication, it’s been my pleasure to invite readers along for the ride.

-- Erika Ritter

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