SANDSWA book club recap: Citizen Canine by David Grimm

By Mike Price

I didn’t grow up a dog person. For the majority of my life, the closest things I had to pets were short-lived betta fish (I graduated to aquatic frogs in college). I married a dog person though—when my wife and I moved to San Diego, getting a dog was her top priority. And so it was that Pico, a small Chihuahua mix with a big, grumpy personality, entered our lives and I found myself doting on him as a father dotes on a child. A few years later, we added Winnie, a German Shepherd–Chihuahua mix, and ventured further into the “crazy dog people” category.

Because my induction into the cult of pet ownership—excuse me, guardianship—came at a later age, I can still remember a time when I couldn’t imagine a dog sleeping in my bed, eating by my side at restaurants and costing us outrageous sums of money in vet bills. Now, I can’t imagine my life without those things. That same evolution of mindset is explored over a much longer time period, and on a societal scale, in David Grimm’s 2014 book, Citizen Canine, the topic of discussion at the second SANDSWA book club meeting. In his book, Grimm traces the ancient evolutionary origins of dogs and cats, details their journey to domestication and pethood, and examines their blossoming status as full-fledged family members in our eyes and in the eyes of the law. (Disclosure: Grimm is a news editor at Science and frequently edits my work as a contributor to the magazine.)

Reactions to Citizen Canine among the SANDSWA book club members were mixed. One meeting attendee remarked that he felt the chapters were often too long, and that Grimm spent too much time describing the banalities of travel or providing a bewilderingly large number of examples to illustrate a point when one or two would have sufficed. Another attendee, however, said she enjoyed Grimm’s attention to detail and abundance of data. A few remarked that Grimm’s descriptions of science—such the “self-domestication” of wolves, which most likely took place as part of an effort to get access to early man’s leftovers—were the highlight of the book, while his explorations of the legal and social ramifications of our relationship with dogs and cats sometimes felt incomplete by comparison. Others thought the way he described scientific research and its implications was a bit surface-level and could have used some more depth and explanation. Most, though, agreed his description of pets dying en masse during Hurricane Katrina, and how reactions to that tragedy directly led to overhauls in disaster relief laws, was  emotionally charged and compelling.

A section of the book outlining the ethics of pet guardianship forced attendees to confront their feelings about why certain animals deserve rights and respect, while others are destined for the stewpot. One attendee asked whether it is ethical to spend so much money, time and effort on improving the plight of dogs, cats and other pets when there is still staggering human suffering all around us. In 2017, Americans spent nearly $70 billion on pet products. A number of experts have pegged the cost of ending world hunger at $30 billion per year.

Are our pets worth it? What are we getting for that money? As one attendee put it, pets build community. They help unite families. They bridge political divides. They encourage neighbors to meet one another. And they bring people together for book clubs. This was perhaps Grimm’s biggest accomplishment—writing a book that brought readers together to reflect on and share their own personal experiences with pets.

close up photography of french bulldogs
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

The next SANDSWA book club meeting will take place on September 18 and will discuss John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood, the story of the too-good-to-be-true blood testing startup Theranos. See you there!

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