We are all created equal, except your terrier

Warning: Unpopular article ahead.

Before we go on, please understand that I truly love animals. I travel too much for pets now, but as a teenager, my parents called me Dr. Doolittle. During a particular two-year period, I had two dogs, three cats, two guinea pigs, three fish and a parakeet.

One day, one of the cats pushed a planter too close to the guinea pigs’ pen, and Penny went to work on that plant like I’d never fed her before. That was the day the zoo closed. One dog survived.

Truth was a large German shepherd. She weighed over 90 pounds and could put her paws over my shoulders when standing on her hind legs. Truth was never formally trained, but learned to obey commands that kept my mother from running us both off. Truth was never allowed to run rampant. (Snicker.)

My mother’s most important command was that I never allow Truth near anyone unless both I and the other person got my mother’s consent. Truth was never allowed outside of our gated yard without a short leash.

Though laws require leashes, many of today’s pet owners have developed reasons not to leash their pets outside of their home. Most that use leashes allow the longest possible distance between them and the pet, as though everyone wants to pet and play with little Fifi.

Every ounce of research I’ve done recommends that owners never let their pets approach other people (or their pets) without first asking. There is no way to know how your pet is going to react to a strange person. Conscientious owners inform others that there are pets in their home. In this way, guests can pleasantly decline invitations based on allergies, fears or their desire not to be bothered.

The whole conversation takes a bizarre twist when race is added. In the era of Black Lives Matter and in a country whose Constitution recognized Black people as only 3/5 human, there are Americans that equate or even exalt their pets over their Black neighbors.

Gentrification has been slow but certain in my community. With our new neighbors come new pets. Only with regular confrontations are people becoming aware that animals don’t supersede human right-of-way on sidewalks and in recreation areas. I was shocked to learn that in the past two years there have been two incidents in our subdivision that have made the evening news. One of my neighbors, a 73-year-old woman, was out for a morning walk in a neighborhood in which she’s lived for over 20 years. Following those wildly popular words, “he won’t bite, he just likes to play,” she has had three restorative surgeries.

I was further shocked to hear that one of my neighbors prioritized their family pet over their own child. They moved their newborn son to live with his grandmother when he was jumped on by their “playful” 8-year-old golden retriever. The dog stayed; the baby moved.

In one situation, a man went so far as to declare that the prestigious, 153-year-old, historically Black college Howard University move their campus after students complained that their campus was being disrespected by non-students using their campus as a dog park.

To be clear, there are Black folk who have adopted the attitude of the dominant culture and have to occasionally be reminded about human beings’ priority over pets.

Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of animals (Proverbs 12:10). The problem is not the pets. It is never the pets. It is always the pet owners. My hope is that pet owners will someday all realize that, speciesism aside, we are all created equal and worthy of each other’s respect and love.

In the meantime, I’m in conversation with my wife about a Maltese or a Yorkie. This is going to get real interesting real fast. 

Carlton Johnson

CARLTON JOHNSON is the operations officer for Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta and associate minister at the First Afrikan Presbyterian Church in Lithonia, Georgia.