The still unfolding story of Kabang, now dubbed a hero dog, shows how we’ve moved forward with animal welfare issues in the Philippines even as we are reminded of how far we still have to go toward becoming a more compassionate society, and I mean compassion both for humans and animals.
Just to make sure we’re on the same page, here’s a quick recap of the Kabang saga. Kabang is an aspin (asong Pinoy, apparently now the term preferred by animal welfare advocates, over askal or asong kalye/street dog). A stray puppy adopted by the Bunggal family in Zamboanga City, Kabang (Cebuano for “spotted”) was reported to have saved two children—9-year-old Dina Bunggal and her 3-year-old cousin Princess Diansing. The two would have been hit by a motorcycle had Kabang not lunged at the motorbike, throwing it off balance. But in doing that, Kabang was caught in the front wheel of the motorcycle, causing serious injuries to her snout.
Animals, especially mixed breeds, have amazing resilience, and Kabang, despite the mangled snout, survived, even delivering a litter of pups. But the damaged snout made Kabang more vulnerable to infections.
News reports on fund-raising efforts have been somewhat confused, but it’s clear many people pitched in—veterinarian Anton Lim, the Tzu Chi Foundation (a Buddhist group), the Animal Welfare Coalition, and an American nurse, Karen Kenngott—so that by October 2012, eight months after the accident, there were enough funds to bring Kabang to the University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, one of the best veterinary centers in the world, for reconstructive surgery as well as treatment of various health problems.
Early this month, Kabang flew home to a hero’s welcome at Manila as well as Zamboanga, part of her upper snout still missing, but with a reconstructed face that makes her almost cuddly.
I’ve been asked by friends what motivates dogs to save humans. We’ve seen all those rescue missions after disasters, with dogs deployed to sniff out survivors. Humans have learned to tap the dogs’ amazing olfactory (smelling) skills to detect prohibited drugs, food, or even guns in luggage, as well as to rescue humans trapped under earthquake rubble, or inside a caved-in mining shaft. As we’d say in Filipino, trabaho lang yan, all in a day’s work.
In Kabang’s case, as with other stories we hear about dogs rescuing their humans, there’s more involved than instincts and work. Humans have had bonds with dogs for several thousand years, enough for co-evolution to occur, the term referring to the way certain behavioral and personality traits are selected.
Let me translate that technical part by going back in time to the way dogs became part of our lives. We know Canis familiaris, the scientific name for all domesticated dogs, whether pedigreed or aspin, that came from wild wolves. One theory about the wolves that joined human bands is that they were “friendlier” (meaning, more willing to approach human groups), very much on guard, one can imagine, hoping to get food scraps. There had to be humans as well who were intrigued by these friendlier wolves, willing to entice these wolves to come closer and to follow the humans as they moved from one place to another. In so many words, man and wolf co-evolved around “friendliness” and trust.
Fast forward to the 21st century and you can see how dogs and humans have evolved many times over. There are dogs bred for all kinds of functions—from hunting types to lap dogs and, sadly, to fighting animals.
We’ve seen how dogs have moved into human homes, into our bedrooms (and, to the chagrin of some spouses, to our conjugal beds). Dogs “know” what they need to do, all the way up to facial expressions, to get you to feed them, to pet them, to carry them, to forgive them for all their trespasses (as, it seems, they forgive us our trespasses).
While dogs are part of all human societies today, there are vast differences in the way dogs are perceived, even within one society. In the Philippines, we have dogs pampered like children mainly by upper- and middle-class Filipinos, almost to the point of absurdity. In rural areas, the views of dogs are more utilitarian, with dogs left to roam around but with bonds built, especially with children. No “shake hands” and “sit” and cute tricks here, but there are farmers who train dogs to join them for hunting.
The utilitarian view has its dark side. Alas, the view of the dog is still “alaga,” something owned, which means, if needed, the dog can become pulutan or food.
It’s in urban poor areas where dogs have the worst lives—seen as pulutan or serving as bantay, a super-cheap alternative to security guards, kept barely alive with scraps and tied on the shortest imaginable leash to make them vicious. The most affectionate puppies grow up to mistrust humans, growling and trying to attack anyone who passes by, even their owners. There’s no loyalty in all this—the dogs just guarding the one or two square meters of territory that they’ve been relegated to.
So how come we have a Kabang?
Dogs are pack animals with strong bonds for fellow dogs. I learned that the hard way, many years ago early after graduating from vet school. I was vaccinating a dog, who then cried out. Another dog in the house came to the rescue, jaws going for my. . . butt. Fortunately I was wearing jeans.
The pack instincts are extended to include humans. As far as they’re concerned, we’re fellow dogs and, as you know from watching The Dog Whisperer, the trick to getting them to behave is by asserting yourself as an alpha dog, kind but firm.
Kabang would not have done what she did in December 2011 had she been a mistreated dog or kept on a leash. From the television coverage, I could see she was a dog comfortable with humans, the scenes funny and poignant because Kabang clearly has a mix of German Shepherd genes and yet seemed almost more like a lap dog, licking people with half a snout missing.
I read that Kabang will be mobilized to promote responsible pet care. A message that we have to get to people is that dogs can be worth much more if only we’d go beyond looking at them as pulutan or as security guards. Dogs have evolved to become our companions and, if treated well, they can and will guard the house. As I mentioned earlier, they’re actually guarding their territory, and if you allow them some freedom to roam, they will guard your entire house and not just the place where they’re chained.
More than guarding the house though, they will protect their humans who they see as fellow pack animals. From the way my dogs react to my visitors, I can tell if they’re good to animals. Sometimes too, the dogs “tell” me the visitor is afraid of them, perhaps because they’ve been bitten. Which I see as part of national karma: Our dogs bite not so much to attack as to defend themselves from more maltreatment.
We waste thousands of years of co-evolution because out there, we could have more Kabangs, not just as dog heroes but as companions who help us through the day, comforting and reassuring—a friend, kaibigan, rather than alaga.
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