“We need Westy to become the new Democratic mascot. Everybody loves
Westy. I’m going to take him on tour with me.” Senate President Stan
Matsunaka—who’s also running for governor—commenting on Westy the
cat, who survived being set on fire by two teenagers last year and who was at
the Capitol on Tuesday to help pass an anti-animal cruelty bill.
—Denver Post, January 31, 2002
WHEN CLAUDE LEVI-STRAUSS (1963) observed, “animals are good to think,” meaning that they are food for symbolic thought, he inspired anthropologists to examine how different groups think about animals (Shanklin 1985). While some sought to discover the principles of classification involved in this thinking, and how these principles compose logical systems of belief and action (e.g., Tyler 1969), others explored the metaphorical use of animals in nonwestern cultures (e.g., Leach 1964). More recent anthropological work extends this tradition by examining the symbolic and practical value of animals in Western societies (e.g., Lawrence 1984; Marvin and Mullen 1999; Noske 1997).
This thinking about animals is shot through with contradictions, as is our thinking about their mistreatment. On one hand, it is hardly surprising that people disagree about whether certain acts constitute cruelty. The most common explanation is that suffering’s subjectivity guarantees a struggle over what it means. Since animals cannot speak for themselves, people must guess their inner states, opening the doors to a flood of divergent interpretations. And the very notion of suffering, whether in animals or humans, is inherently unclear.
These explanations are problematic because they blame our confusion on the inability of animals to articulate, in human terms, their suffering or on the inherent ambiguity of suffering itself. Our confusion about which acts constitute cruelty, and how much we care if they qualify, can better be explained by the symbolic interactionist approach underlying Just a Dog that sees the meanings of objects and events—and