Crime fiction pulls back the sheet and looks at the bodies. People commit acts of violence against each other. Government commits acts of violence against people. The occasional shark eats a person, or a grizzly does. But the large scheme of violence, such incidents are rounding off error compared to human against human carnage. When it comes to violence against other species, most cultures draw distinctions between a gold fish and a dog. You won’t likely win any hero awards for flushing your gold fish down the toilet, but intentionally killing a dog is an order of different magnitude.
In the West most people are raised to believe that a dog is man’s best friend. When you think about it, that is quite a compliment. Yet it is embedded in our culture. We form Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals as well. When someone commits an act of wanton brutality against a dog, the authorities in many countries would intervene and arrest such a person.
Thailand is not the West. And the East and West go separate ways when it comes to the dog. A good place to find out what a culture thinks about a dog is to look at the language used in that culture, idioms or expressions commonly associated with the animal. If someone in London or New York calls you a skunk you have a pretty good idea that this wasn’t intended as a compliment. As far as my research indicates, there is a fairly small, thin margin of people in the West who would be willing to think of skunk as their best friend.
A Thai blogger Kaewmala who writes about Thai language and culture has written about the many Thai idioms that refer to dogs. She says, in Thai culture being called a dog is a ‘curse’. The Thai idiom is ไอ้ชาติหมา /âi châat mǎa/ (or อีชาติหมา /ii châat mǎa/ if female) or the person is condemned to lead the “life of a dog” or is a [cursed] “reincarnated dog.” Playing dirty invites another insult in Thai เล่นหมาๆ /lên mǎa mǎa/ lit. ‘play like dogs’. If you’ve made an unforgivable error of judgment or displayed a major character flaw; you’ve really done something that makes you an outcast so that no one wishes to associate with you, then you’d invited the Thai expression: หมาหัวเน่า /mǎa hǔa nàw/ lit. “rotten-headed dog”
These three idioms represent only the tip of the cultural iceberg of deep-seated suspicion, hatred and mistrust of dogs. There are many more such idioms and virtually all of them are negative about dogs. The cultural attitudes about dogs shape the way many Thai think about dogs and how they treat dogs. In the past twenty years, I’ve had two dogs poisoned by locals. I know this is a common occurrence in Thai. One shouldn’t be surprised as we’ve seen the low esteem that Thai culture holds dogs, there is little of the built-in cultural restraints that prevent the helpless creature against the boot, the gun, the knife, the vial of poison.
Poison is quite popular as it allows for an extremely twisted version of Buddhism, allowing the assassin to soothe his conscience by telling himself he didn’t kill the dog, the dog through its own volition chose to eat the poisonous meat and killed itself. Probably tells himself he’s done the dog a favor. The belief being this is karma earned as the result of some transgression in a previous life for which the dog paid for by being born (and poisoned) in this life.
The consequences of these cultural views are real and the horror stories of mistreatment and abuse of dogs are daily fair in Thailand. On Tuesday evening, according to Thai press sources, a Thai woman arrived at police headquarters in Bangkok to collect 11 dogs. She’d found a home for them somewhere outside of Bangkok. When she arrived Tuesday evening, she found the dogs had been poisoned with blood coming out of their nose and mouth. It seemed that the prime minister was expected to visit the next day, and having a large assortment of dogs hanging around the police headquarters might, under Thai culture, raise all kinds of questions. Such as they probably were in the shape of street dogs and therefore not pretty. Also they wouldn’t have been Hi-So breeds but ordinary mixed Thai breed dogs. And lastly, one may be forgiven to wonder if it might imply a curse if such a band of mangy dogs are wagging their tails to greet the prime minister.
Of course, the police have announced an immediate investigation. No one knows nothin’. No one ordered it done. No one did it. Poison arrived at police headquarters from a UFO? Sometime next life, an answer might emerge, but that would likely be late in the afternoon of the next life. Or maybe in a couple of years, the next batch of WikiLeaks.
Attitudes, perspective, point-of-view are shaped by our culture, history and language. It is unavoidable. If you are taught something is a taboo, that feeling stays a lifetime causing guilt and shame for transgressions. If there is no taboo against murdering dogs, and the idioms, if anything treat it like flushing a gold fish down the toilet, you end up with a lot of dead dogs. And those doing the killing simply don’t understand why a foreigner would make a fuss over a cursed animal such as a dog. The irony is that I know a number of Thais who are horrified at the local attitudes. They remind me that it could be worse; the dog could be born in Vietnam or Korea where they eat dogs. One day I would like to unearth Vietnamese and Korean proverbs about man’s best friend and compare them with the Thai ones.
Remember, not all Thais are heartless dog killers. That would be a mistake. Many Thais love dogs as much as anyone in the West and are as upset about what happened at police headquarters. That said, the idioms say something that we need to pay attention to; these is the well where idioms are pulled up and that well goes straight to a person’s view of the world.
Around the same time someone was poisoning dogs at police headquarters, the military cornered a Thai man in Chiang Mai, said to be a leader of the Red shirts, and shot him 18 times in the chest. It is hard to know if that is a record but it must come close to one. Normally after a couple of chest shots the target is on the ground. I haven’t seen an explanation as to how this happened. Oh, and the military found 7 ya baa pills clutched in the dead man’s hand. I would defer to a physicist to confirm that a human body being hit 18 times in the chest correlates with the target clutching a handful of pills. It seemed the dead man was a supporter of one political faction that is out of favor, and his anti-government views were intensely held. What does appear to, at least on the surface, correlate is that political outliers and dogs had better watch their step. Because killing them is not a taboo.