Pet peeves

What’s a dog or cat got to do with your masculinity?

pet peeves

When Angela Merkel called on Vladimir Putin in 2007, she found that the Russian president had invited an unexpected guest to their meeting — Koni, his big black Labrador. It seemed like a casual ice-breaker to have a cuddlesome pooch sniffing around two world leaders. But the Russian president, not known for his subtlety, was aware that the then German Chancellor, who had once been attacked by a dog, would be uncomfortable in Koni’s presence. Putin employed the dog as a power lever to subdue a woman widely acknowledged as a charismatic and influential global leader. Press pictures show the Russian premier looking smug and visibly enjoying Merkel’s discomfort. She later said, “I understand why he has to do this — to prove he’s a man. He’s afraid of his own weakness.”

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It wasn’t the first time that the Russian strongman, famed for photo-ops that showed him swimming shirtless in an icy lake and riding an enormous brown bear, had used a dog to make a statement. Former US President George W Bush recalled how Putin had scoffed at Bernie, his little Scottish terrier. 

Putin chose a dog, and not a cat, for good reason. Ever since they evolved from wild wolves, dogs have been bred to suit every human need, and match every human personality. Big, fierce dogs have long been the macho man’s ally. The image of a strong dog straining at a leash, fangs bared and muzzle furrowed in a menacing snarl, has been associated with power, aggression and manliness. 

The first animals to be domesticated, dogs have lived alongside humans for nearly 15,000 years, long before agriculture and permanent settlements came to be. In dogs, early humans found hunting companions, loyal guards, playmates, and chaperones for their livestock. 

Faithful and affectionate, dogs have earned their place in culture. Yet, stereotypes abound. Poodles and chihuahuas have been typecast as arm candy for society ladies while brawny men are associated with aggressive breeds. A bold, imposing dog may compensate for something its owner lacks — perhaps courage or assertiveness, or social status. When it was the fashion du jour for men to sport their masculinity on a leash, they raised dogs for their ferocity. Ancient Romans, descended from wolves, bred war-hounds while 19th century white Americans hunted escaped slaves with bloodhounds. Male fascination for dangerous Pit Bull terriers, Dogo Argentino and Japanese Tosa has forced governments to enact dog-control laws. 

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Man and best friend could have led a charmed life, except for a critical inflection in history. About 12,000 years ago, a small, lithe animal with a gait both graceful and unhurried strode into a homestead in Mesopotamia and made itself right at home. Descended from a wild African ancestor, it evolved into a mouse-catching, milk-lapping, gently purring companion of humans that, unlike the dog, was invited indoors and allowed the run of the house. 

Secretive, with a practised aloofness and mien of mystery, the cat was regarded with wonder and awe. Ancient Egyptians elevated it to a deity while the Islamic world, which reviled dogs, welcomed it with open arms. Although denounced by a papal bull in medieval Europe, cats returned to favour following the bubonic plague of the 12th century when their absence as pest-control agents was deeply felt. 

If the domestication of Felis cattus didn’t exactly cast dogs away to, well, the doghouse, it challenged the machismo that had once accompanied the male preoccupation with big, aggressive pets. Our vocabulary is replete with canine references. One may be called a son of a bitch, or lead a dog’s life, or be dog-tired. A skirmish between warplanes, inevitably flown by men, is a dogfight. Modern male chauvinists clawed back by naming a part of the woman’s anatomy derisively after a synonym for cat. But as philosophers and men of letters professed their adoration of cats, the animal’s pride of place in a gentleman’s household was firmly cemented. 

Cat-lovers can stop reading from this point on. The stereotype of the cat-cuddling, softer male is an epic fallacy of our times, stemming from man’s unwillingness to know the cat for what it is — a dangerous social parasite in search of a host. 

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Cats may not maul small children, but they more than make up by being nature’s worst nightmare. Riding on the shoulders of sailors, the cat has followed humans to the edges of the earth, including far-flung islands where they have preyed without mercy on defenseless native wildlife. If cats meant well, they could have done us a favour and rid the world of feral pigeons. Instead, they stalk only the most vulnerable creatures. In Hawaii and New Zealand, rare birds have gone extinct, ending up as something the cat dragged in. Culling even a million cats cannot offset the damage this species has wreaked on the planet.

So here’s some parting advice for pet owners: Let the dog out by all means, but not the cat. When your pet feline gazes pleadingly into your eyes, don’t let your machismo go all soft. Man up and keep that door shut. 

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