Saturday, May 1, 2010


In the dog park, I sometimes watch movies of people's childhoods. Or at least that is what I feel absolutely certain I'm seeing, projected on top of their interactions with their dogs. For when could we possibly learn to parent, except from our own parents? God knows, I have the eerie experience all too often of hearing my mother's voice coming out of my mouth--saying something I have no business saying, and something moreover that I do not want to say, but only hear when it's too late, out there weightless as vapor but able to slice nonetheless.

In fact, I've had too much experience of late learning how my words--wayward, unthinking, unintended, but once out, unrecapturable--can hurt. Even though I would do anything I possibly could to grab them back out of the ether. Once there, it is too late for anything but apology, which is like a tetanus shot well after the wound. It only works sometimes. I lay awake at nights, remorse pushing down on my chest.

The majority of dog owners, like the majority of parents, generally try to show their offspring a good time. So you bring your dog to the park, or your child to the playground, and unclip the leash. To run, play with others, chase balls, roll in horse manure (the dogs, not the children). Seeing the enjoyment--yes, dogs smile when they're happy--is an enjoyment to you, too.

That is, if that is what you were once given to experience yourself.

If not, and there are plenty of unspeakable parents out there, who didn't have to get a permit to have a baby but should have, who get busy visiting their bad news to the next generation. It's just, unfortunately, the way it works (without intervention, of course); the mechanics of parenting like the mechanics of pistons and cams.

I saw a horrifying movie in the park last week. Worse than that, my child saw it too. But it was a dog who had to live through it.

It started out such a happy visit. The old places the same, greening in spring; the old friends, too. Blue sky, happy Nelly, happy child. Thus happy Melissa.

And then, a scream. There is no way to mistake the sound of pain, or surprise, or anguish. If your channels are open, the way they were made at birth--a baby has an infallible truth meter for animal expression, and so does a child--then you knew what this sound was. Canine or human, you knew.

A man had his spaniel down on his back, pinning him to the ground by his neck. The dog was writhing, uncomprehending (Why has my person done this to me?), and, sickening to see, was trying with his whole body to ask the man to cease the attack. Dogs have a particularly rich vocabulary of appeasement gestures, even if most people have no idea what they are--which is one reason a park full of hundreds of loose dogs will have such a relatively small incidence of fights. Trust me, the people in a dog park will go five to one in terms of intra-species fighting to that of their charges. It was as sickening to watch this dog throwing everything he could--wagging his stump of a tail, trying to lick the hand of the man--as it would be to watch someone whisper, "Please don't . . . " before the punch. The man merely tightened his grip, pressing down on the animal's trachea. That's when the dog screamed in pain. There was no way to mistake that sound. It seemed to streak the very air with blood.

My son ran to me then, his face contorted in distress. He was starting to cry. "Mom! Make him stop!" I wanted nothing more in this moment, both for him and for the helpless dog. But I did not know how. The group of people with whom I'd been talking went on, oblivious. Or so it appeared; I knew all of them were distressed, too, but no one could "interfere." You can't do this kind of "discipline" to a child in this country anymore, but to do it to a dog--why, be our guest. My son didn't know that, however; he thought there had to be some law of justice to which one could appeal. Barring that, he felt sure the most powerful person in his life would surely have the power to stop this. That person would be me.

He buried his head in my chest, unable to look anymore. The scene went on and on; the man was looking for something in his dog, the look of the prisoner of war who knows it's all over and has given up everything, even the will to live. The dog, though, still wanted to live. So the man stayed on his knees, the ugliest look of pure rage on his face I think I've ever seen.

My anger built too. And finally I could not stand it anymore, the cries of the dog, the shuddering of the boy's sobs, the movie of this man's childhood unreeling before us, in which he was smacked "just because" by a grownup he had trusted and loved, though neither was earned. Why, Mom? and Please do something! were spoken into my coat, and then I moved.

Some people are politick, and know how to say things so they can be heard. Non-confrontational, nicely couched.

Not me. My voice breaks with anger, and the jig is up immediately. I knew it would fail before I set out, but I had to set out. It was being asked of me. I stood over him. "In addition to hurting your dog, you are also hurting a child, who is now in tears because of what you're doing. Please stop."

That is what I said; I wanted to say a whole lot more, but I turned away. I knew it would not be heard, and it wasn't. He was just "training" his dog; he was not hurting him; did I want my child to be knocked down by an unruly animal? I did not reply, because it would unleash in me what was now roiling in my brain, on the verge of becoming so unchecked I feared I might throw a punch. I duly noted the irony, at that.

He finally let up his dog. To follow me. His voice rose now into a holler at my retreating back. But violence never solved anything. Plus, he was a very large man.

We walked out of the park, my love and I, arm in arm. There was nothing I could say, so he did: "Some people do not deserve to have a dog." Nelly walked next to us, and he held her leash. It was a very long time before his tears would stop.


ren said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ren said...

The fact that you did something at all, while everyone else just ignored it, says much about your strength of character. Everyone should have converged on that guy, together; there is a greater strength in numbers.

And this is when that video function on your cellphone comes in handy. Use it, submit it to the Humane Society or Code Enforcement or whatever agency governs animal abuse in your neighborhood.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

You have no idea how much I wish I could have actually *done* something (then again, I know you do truly know). And I wish I'd had company; perhaps peer pressure could have accomplished what one woman could not.

The sad and dismaying fact is that this kind of abuse, when called "discipline" or "training," is not only permitted, but is perpetrated by people who hang out a shingle and then get paid for it. Dogs end up dead because of it: either directly (I can't bring myself to describe some of the methods, but they are pretty akin to lynching), or because dogs are given one last resort to save themselves: biting. Then they're put down for being "aggressive." Hmmm. How's that for projection?

My hope is that someday, we will become as enlightened--at least for the most part, in the western world--about abuse of dogs in the name of education as we finally have become about children. Unfortunately, that day keeps getting farther and farther off, thanks to the popularity of people like Cesar Milan. Grrrr.

Catherine said...

I have not read your blog in a while and this just enrages me. You were good to get up and do what you did. The event will no doubt be scarring for a long time to come.

But what I wonder about myself is this: I would have done the same thing you did, without question (while wanting to shoot the man myself or put a leash around his trachea, at least). Yet, when people are yelling at their children in a public place, like when you see a family that is ridden by squalor and despair, I say nothing and turn away.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

I know, I know. I have *so* many times been tempted to go up to parents who are emotionally abusing their children (creating those films that later you see imposed on their behavior to those who are smaller), but in our society this is "OK." It's "discipline." And the underlying message is that children "belong" to their parents.

I have seen parents screaming at, or ignoring, a struggling, weeping 1-year-old who has been imprisoned in a shopping cart while Mom endlessly peruses the racks at Walmart. No thought to bringing a toy, a snack, anything to fulfill the needs of a child that age. Then, when Baby expresses his natural frustration and anger, he gets yelled at. Sometimes really brutally.

I know the urge to say something. But in all these cases, what would it accomplish, but foment a fight?

Your guilt, Catherine, is premised on the idea that you *could* change matters but for your inability to speak up. If that were the case, OK. But alas it's not. You do nothing wrong with silent sympathy.

Holly said...

Hi Ms. Pierson,
I'm just a random internet person barely starting on my on blog. But I love animals deeply, and I suppose that's how I stumbled upon your words today.

This story brought tears to my eyes. Your voice of disapproval-however meaningless to the violent dog owner-was important for your son to see. Sometimes in the this world the best we can do for our own safety and sanity is to "let it be known" that we disagree. This quiet, peaceful disapproval can be a seed that grows into full-blown action and change at the right time.
Thanks for sharing.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Thank you, Holly. Yes, it was the kind of disturbing thing that haunts one--it's the worst sort of powerlessness, when we can do nothing to prevent another's suffering. I had a different type of experience in that line on Mother's Day, of all times, seeing a gosling who was obviously separated from its mother, running around a roadway in such obvious distress it made me feel nauseous. My son saw that one, too, and days later is still saying, "I wish I could have helped that poor baby!" Me too.