I remember history classes in high school where essays required me to break down the
importance of an event “politically, culturally, and economically”, all for the purpose of instilling
in me the understanding of how inarguably intertwined all aspects of an event are. How culture,
politics and economics are sometimes different in name alone as they are so dependent in
defining and influencing each other. For as good as I believed I was in history- I knew dates and
locations to a pointless level- I realize now how little I understood the causality and/or
correlation between those three almost synonymous parts.
This has been yet another one of the beautiful things I’ve learned having had the opportunity to
do a lot of traveling these last few years, to learn that no one of those three co-determinants
exists without the other two, and they are all important on influencing and shaping the other.
Politics affect economy, economy warps culture, culture impacts politics. Anyway you approach
Sometimes it surprises me to learn how different some cultures are from my own and how
they have come to value what they do, and sometimes it makes me wonder how in America we
came to develop the set of values that we have. How we so often blur the line between
‘privileges’ and rights, whether it is the privilege to drive or the right to vote, and how this value
set might be so different from a culture half way around the world that has been growing
separately like an old fork in a tree trunk for thousands of years. Or even why something is
considered a privilege and something else an innate right.
And herein lies where my conflicts with cultures different than my own sometimes arise. Like
anyone, I have trouble understanding why things that I have been raised with as inherent rights
are at best privileges in other parts of the world, and at worst allowed-or-not simply by the whim
of someone or something more powerful. It always seems to arise in the most surprising ways.
No more than a week after first arriving in Iraq I found a terrified feral kitten wandering
around my building. It was maybe seven in the evening, the sun long gone, and the dirty little
thing was desperately searching for somewhere safe. I chased him through the building for a
couple minutes. It was obvious he had nowhere to go, and I figured I’d take it in for just a day or
two, give it some food and water and send it on its way. Things never work that way of course. I
took the kitten in, Amanda and I gave him a bath and we fed him. Pretty soon he was all moved
in and I had an adorable three week old kitten co-habituating my apartment. It didn’t last; I
wasn’t looking for a permanent pet, and within two weeks I had someone take him in on a
It was hard to imagine that had we not taken him in that he would have lasted very long. I’m not
saying that adopting a stray cat was indicative of the privilege-vs-right debate that I notice some
times, but it is a piece of a pattern that I’ve noticed in many places and cases. Stray cats and
dogs in Albania, Kosovo or Morocco are nearly invisible, and either one’s chance of being a pet
seem to be 50/50. In Sierra Leone it was even bleaker. I never saw a full grown cat because it
was just as likely to be someone’s next meal as their pet, whereas dogs were intruder alarms at
night and target practice during the day.
About a week ago a stray dog started showing up outside of my apartment building. He looked
like a puppy, both in disposition and because of his not yet fully formed teeth. He developed a
habit of sleeping on my doorstep, probably because I’m the only apartment in the building with a
doormat, the only place he can get away from the frigid tile floor. Whenever I, or anyone walks
out of or into the building he lopes around awkwardly, excited to see someone, and not fully in
control of his young joints. That or he’s stiff from continually napping on freezing tile.
He has not been a nuisance for any of the expat teachers, but in an email thread that was sent
to everyone in the building it was revealed that he was strongly disliked by a local teacher living
in the building, and the result was the stray dog being beaten with a stone by the Bangladeshi
man who watches over our building. The dog’s appearances have now become more rare, but I
do still see him every day or two.
Things that I believe should be inherent- like animal rights- sometimes seem more like first
world constructs of the leisure class rather than an idea that is now or soon will be a universal
belief. It seems to me like a certain perceived wealth of life or level of disposable income is the
requirement for such convictions and actions.
Do you think PETA exists in countries without disposable incomes? I honestly don’t know, but I
would be willing to make an educated guess. Our right to keep pets and their right to well-being
is a privilege that has been created in countries where people have the means to develop such
habits. This value set, and privilege, isn’t true for most of the world. Kind of like an idea from
Abraham Maslow’s pyramid of self-actualization; unfortunately many places of the world have to
worry about their personal security and survival before being able to pass on that worry and
compassion to another species. In some cultures, that personal security has only recently been
assured, and so the process of passing along the worry and compassion to say, cats or dogs,
has only just begun.
In countries and cultures where people have the leisure time and wealth to be able to pursue
things like pets and actually care for their well being, wonderful things happen and an animal’s
value raises just like the human capital needed to make it occur. Things like relatability to
animals, genuine compassion for their well being, and an interest in promoting their needs. I feel
very privileged to have come from such a background as I know it is not a guarantee in much of
if not most of the world.
And then there’s the opposite side of this entire point I’m making. Yes, I’ve been exposed to
some low developed regions of the world where there is a pattern of poor animal rights and
treatment. Of that there is no doubting. But who am I to say that this same thing doesn’t happen
just as much in America? The reasons I can travel and live away from home in the first place
are strongly influenced by the fact that I’m a lucky, educated, debt-free middle-American who
compared to the rest of the world has a greater amount of disposable income and personal
mobility due to my background.
Because of my background, I haven’t been exposed to many of the same potential flaws that
might be happening in my own country. It’s not something I have an answer to, but it’s
something that always makes me wonder.