What the fascination with pure-bred animals says about us as people
Sitting at a veterinarian’s office in the upscale neighborhood of Zamalek, I thought about Karl Marx’s Das Kapital and his theory of commodity fetishism. The German philosopher’s multi-volume work on political economy makes some good points, regardless of whether its readers considers themselves Marxists or not. The value of an object, Marx writes, isn’t only determined by the labor put into it and the materials used. Society also attaches a whole other meaning to some objects that give them power to convey prestige, status or attractiveness. It’s the reason why a quality leather bag is just a plain wardrobe staple. But if that bag is from Louis Vuitton, then it symbolizes wealth, French fashion and glamour.
The sight of the waiting room at veterinarian’s office in Zamalek, full of Siamese cats and pure breed dogs waiting patiently for their appointments, shouldn’t have shocked me. I’d seen plenty of Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds in my life. But it was surreal nonetheless. I had just walked to the doctor’s office and passed at least a few dogs living on that tree-lined street. Were those animals less valuable commodities, and have pets become just as much of a status symbol as handbags? If it’s hard to imagine a wealthy socialite carrying anything less than a Chihuahua and a Chanel under her arm, then you could argue they already have.
Pet owners are free, of course, to own any breed they like, and just because some pets are more expensive doesn’t mean their owners love them less. But buying a pure-bred pet doesn’t seem to make sense in a city like Cairo, where the streets are filled with baladi dogs and cats, where state officials shoot down strays and where animal shelters are filled to capacity. Because baladis are so common, they are not seen as very valuable and they’re not in demand as pets. Fashionistas would hardly crave a Chanel bag if everybody had one.
In countries where stray animals wandering the streets are a rare sight, there are still campaigns that encourage people to adopt instead of buying. Taking in a disabled animal is often seen as admirable, while saying you got your pet at the shelter is a boasting point that suggests you were clever enough not to have fallen for the hype over expensive breeds. Should society be collectively responsible to take care of its most needy first, until the demand for pets exceeds the supply and then we can pick and choose?
If you take in an animal from the streets of Cairo, be prepared to face some critics. When I picked up an orphaned kitten in Souq Bab al-Louq who was suffering from an eye infection, one Egyptian friend asked if I wasn’t worried to bring something dirty into the house. Another expat friend asked if the kitten wasn’t too wild to handle. Since when does any kitten behave and follow commands? But it seems to be a common misconception, especially when it comes to baladi dogs: that pure-breed animals are better-behaved, friendlier or have more of a personality, while those out on the streets are rabid and hostile.
Last summer, I split a taxi with a few friends and took a day-trip to Saqqara to visit an animal shelter run by the Egyptian Society for Mercy to Animals (ESMA.) As soon as we walked into the shelter, we were surrounded by dozens of happy baladi dogs that competed for our attention as they excitedly wagged their tails, all friendly towards humans because they’d been shown kindness. After a couple hours, we all had our favorites that we thought were the cutest. If there was a difference between those baladi dogs and pure breeds, I couldn’t see it.
ESMA now holds an event every Friday at 5 pm where visitors can come to volunteer, walk and play with the dogs, or sponsor an animal if they’re unable to adopt. A friend of mine who volunteers at the shelter says some people attend and only want to walk the breed dogs while ignoring the baladis. In a similar incident, requests flooded in when a pitbull was put up for adoption, but they were all cancelled when it turned out the dog wasn’t a pure breed after all. Yet most people who attend the dog walks are open-minded, and the event is a good step towards taking the stigma out of adopting baladis.
“It’s part of the discrimination phenomena we have in our community that unfortunately clouds all aspects: men and women, baladi and breed, white and black,” ESMA chairperson Mona Khalil told me. “A breed pet usually goes with the villa and the car. Others like to imitate what they see on the screen and in the movies, and believe they got these dogs from abroad… We have the most friendly dogs. [Baladis] are easier than breed dogs, less demanding and more friendly. They’re very appreciating and they respond to the minimum attention they need and lack on the street. Once they get it and know you are safe, then they show their real personality.” et