Sunday, March 20, 2011


Guest Post by Brett L. Walker -- In recent days, film footage of dogs has heightened the emotional intensity of coverage of Japan’s devastating earthquake and tsunami. One video clip features a restless, obviously agitated dog guarding its injured companion in a flooded, ravaged neighborhood. The Japanese reporter remarks on the dog’s defense of its injured friend, but, frustratingly for viewers, appears to offer no immediate aid. Then, Mr. Kenn Sakurai, a supplier of dog food in Japan, announced on Facebook, perhaps fishing for “likes” from his “friends,” that he rescued the two dogs. But Sakurai’s unwillingness to post pictures of the now globally famous canines has left many wondering whether Sakurai is in fact a fraud. Another bloodcurdling clip features a dog trying desperately to flee a swirling, bubbling stew of shattered homes and mauled cars, only to be consumed by the killer waves. In different ways, these clips, by depicting the suffering and death of Canis familiaris, our most faithful animal ally, evokes fresh agony from the devastated northeastern shores of Japan.

Dogs suffer and die, and they may even elicit misplaced Facebook “likes,” but they also work and rescue and respond to human emotions. A twenty-five member Swiss rescue team with nine dogs was the first to enter Japan after the quake and tsunami, only to be snared by Japan’s strict regulations regarding the transport of dogs. In countries where rabies has not been eradicated, such as the United States and, apparently, Switzerland, Japan requires information such as microchip identifiers, exact dates of rabies vaccinations, documented rabies antibody levels in the animal, and proof that the animal underwent a 180 observation period in the exporting country. If not, then the animal undergoes the 180 observation stint in a cage in Japan. Such was the initial fate of the Swiss dogs. The South Koreans sent a five-member team with two dogs. Four dogs were dispatched from a Gwyenedd rescue team, including a stray Labrador from the streets of Caernarfon, Wales. The Search Dog Foundation in the United States dispatched six rescue dogs: Pearl, Cadillac, Baxter, Riley, Hunter, and Joe. Many of these high-strung, active dogs had clawed their way to rescue-dog status after being passed from owner to owner, and shelter to shelter. Some of them, such as Pearl, Hunter, Joe and Cadillac, are veterans of the 2010 Haitian earthquake and other serious disasters. They bring with them loads of experience.

Dogs evoke powerful emotional responses in people – viewership of these video clips attest to this fact – and we, through facial expressions and other forms of emotional projection, trigger strong emotions in dogs. We have coevolved together; dogs are artifacts of our values and cultures. Human rescue workers desperate to find victims in Japan’s drenched rubble no doubt conjure strong emotions in their dogs. The photos of these dogs in the rubble, their sheer intensity, make this fact clear enough. As for the homeless dog and its injured companion, it is hard to know what collective human emotions they sensed in northeastern Japan’s tattered landscape. We are often cautioned against projecting human emotions onto dogs, this is the specter of anthropomorphism. However, we were most moved by the dog putting its paw around the shoulder of its companion. It’s hard to mistake the dog’s compassion and its profound unease in the wake of the tsunami.

Even across species lines, we are all in this together.