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It Used to Be by David Fritsche

It used to be that people lived on farms and grew their own food and traded with their neighbors and, well, - things were different then.

Johnny used to go with dad into the fields to work at daybreak, learn the rigors of agricultural life and prepare to do it himself on his own land when he was old enough to marry. And, inevitably Johnny grew up, mentored by dad and did get married and was given the south 640 acres of the family farm for himself, with the understanding that in a few years, when mom and dad grew too old, he would be taking care of them.

Mary, similarly was mentored by mom in the finer points of tending to the domestic chores of the farm, which revolved around the animals, the food supply and the feeding of the men who tended the greater boundaries of the farm.

It was not but 60 years ago or so that the vast majority of our population lived on the farm while a small minority lived in the cities. Today, it is more than reversed in proportions; very few people live rurally and raise their own food. Yet, with far fewer people tending the farm, today’s agricultural yield by far exceeds the total crop production in total and in yield per acre.

What used to be simply is not here anymore…

Did you ever attend a PTA meeting with your children? You know, where the President of the PTA introduces the Principal of the school who tells us, “Here at Elm Crest Elementary School, we like to think of each of our students as a little flower; each blooming in their own time and in their own way. Our educational program is designed to give the best in individualized instruction, keeping the ratio of student to teacher low so that our individualized focus is consistently maintained.” - and so on! So today, Johnny has the opportunity to graduate from high school, having accumulated 12 years of individuality focused education, and when he graduates, he is asked, “Johnny, what are you going to be?” To which Johnny with invariably reply, “I dunno!”

Then off to college and a liberal arts education majoring in political science or basketball, and another graduation in which Johnny is again asked, “Now Johnny, what are you going to do with your individualized education and major focused research?” To which Johnny will probably still answer, “I dunno!”

You see, the Johnny of the past did not have individualized education in an adaptive focused curriculum of multiple-choice. The Johnny of the agricultural era in reality had no choice. He was going to grow food so he could eat and feed his family. He was going to rise early and work hard and if he did not, he was not going to eat. The setting was one of occupation, land management and animal husbandry as the focus of life and the animals and the land were utilitarian instruments of survival. We were closer to the land and to the animals, yet our relationship were far more utilitarian than they are today.

The dog of the past was a necessary part of the animal husbandry that consumed our time. It was a working animal, expected to carry it’s weight along with everyone else. The dog of today, by contrast is caught in a changing role and an uncertain future. For many dog lovers, it has become less of a tool to tend the stock on the farm and more of a family member, even a surrogate child. Where in the agricultural environment every child the farmer had made him $2,500 richer in the labor it provided, the child of today costs the family $350,000 to raise with no appreciable labor savings. From a purely economic frame of reference, it is easy to see why the large 12 child farm family no longer exists and why we have moved to a national average of 1.3 children per household. (You will have to figure out which of your children is the .3).

Somewhere back there in the agricultural past, our farming and ranching forefathers decided that having an occasional horse race, county fair or dog show would be interesting entertainment. I am not sure why they did not just stay home and watch American Idol or play Xbox! But it all got started somewhere in ancient history and it became formalized and regulated and rather sophisticated. It has history and tradition now and a continuous following. Even though we are no longer farmers, the traditions of the past, in some cases have survived, and we, in the dog show world, continue the traditions of the sport of the pure bred dog and the joys (and frustrations) or the AKC Dog Show world.

It is here that we see at least one example of the conflict of the past with what has become the reality of our present world. Not everyone thinks we should have show dogs or dogs as pets. Animal Rights groups have sprung up in what appears to be a well-meaning attempt to save the animals of the planet from human mismanagement. Sociologically, that was not possible in our former agro-culture, simply because the rights of ownership of the animals was presumed, because of the practicality of their use.

But something happened some 60 or so years ago. The legal doctrine of ‘parens patria’ came into vogue. It is not that it did not exist before that, but that it’s use was simply not thought of because of our cultural values and structures. ‘Parens patria’ simply means – the state as the parent. It is the underlying premise used when the irresponsible parent does not take care of the child, so the state steps in to assume the role of parent, doing what is best for the child. That premise has increasingly becoming a thorn in the side of dog ownership, animal sports and agriculture. It’s popularity and those who assume it is the right thing to do, erode the traditional presumptions of our agricultural past in which ownership of the animal was an agricultural necessity and conveyed the care of the animal and its asset value to the owner.

Now we live in a day in which the base line of ownership is shifting, and ownership is seen as evil and the rights of the animal become greater than the rights of the farmer, dog owner or rancher. Within that challenge of human husbandry over the animals is the legal doctrine of the state as the parent; that is, that the state has a responsibility to rescue the entire animal populous from human irresponsibility. Now please understand, I am an avid supporter of proper and humane care of animals. In fact many have commented that if they are ever reincarnated following their death, they want to come back as my dog.

The end result of this shift of responsibility is that the state becomes responsible for all of the children and all of the animals, and the parents and farmers and pet owners are let off of the hook, so to speak. This is not the only arena in which the social shifts in our culture shift the responsibility from the individual to the state, creating a political crisis of sorts, in which contrasting values come into play. Should the state take greater responsibility for the welfare of the child than does the parent? Should pet ownership be changed to ‘guardian’ status, so that ultimately the state is more responsible for the welfare of the animal than the owners? Is it healthy for governmental influence and regulation to impose itself into the agricultural arena and interfere with the asset value of agricultural animals? And, the ultimate question of welfare is, will the state necessarily do a better job? Is there any evidence that governmental bureaucracy increases the welfare of anything or the effectiveness of anything?

These are hard questions in light of the increasing population of unwanted animals in shelters and of repeated stories of animal cruelty and mismanagement. But is it possible that we are addressing the wrong problem with a blanket assumption that will be worse than the issue at hand? I personally believe so.

Some years ago I was irritated with a lady in the church I pastored, who was constantly making a spectacle of herself and drawing attention to herself in a way that turned people off and shocked visitors. So, at a church board meeting I proposed a policy that would regulate behavior in general and hopefully solve the problem. The nodding heads in the meeting evidenced that I had thought it out, written it well and that this was our way out of the dilemma. Then an elderly gentleman on the board, cleared his throat and said softly, “You can’t solve every problem with a policy. Sometimes you just have to confront people personally.”

Silence came over the meeting as we recognized that we were doing what is the tendency of all human government, to solve every problem by making a law. That being true, I would suggest that attempts to regulate breeding will have little affect on the problem we face. Responsible breeders and dog sports enthusiasts will continue to breed and be responsible for what they breed. They are a rare group of highly committed people. And those who just let their animals run without taking responsibility will still be irresponsible and allow chance breedings of unwanted animals. Blanket regulations do not always focus on the real problem. The problem is animal cruelty and irresponsible owners who do not confine their pets or properly care for them.

Sometimes you just have to confront the people and enforce the existing laws. Stacking a new law on top does not necessarily mean that we will achieve a better result, and will probably mean the erosion of our traditional values, our underscoring our agricultural past as evil and the loss of freedom that no one really wants.There is nothing really wrong with how “It used to be!” In fact, we might benefit from revisiting the social structures of the past and learning from them. In the mean time, resisting the do-gooders who propose to solve the issues of animal welfare by taking away personal responsibility, seems like a good idea. God save us from those who would save us and our dogs!

David Fritsche