Put Out of the Pack
When my Bichon Frise, Charlie, was a nine-month-old puppy, he suddenly took off after a dog a block away. His leash slipped out of my hands, and I watched in horror as he attacked a Miniature Schnauzer that we’d never seen before. By the time I got to the dogs and the Schnauzer’s equally startled (and now angry) person, Charlie was nipping at the terrified animal’s hind legs as it tried to get away. Fortunately, no skin was broken, but when I apologized for my dog’s behavior, the Schnauzer’s person explained that his dog was blind.
Two days later I recounted this incident to another member of my critique group who trains service dogs. She told me Charlie’s behavior was due to the instinct of a pack animal seeking to “put out of the pack” a member unable to keep up. The blind Schnauzer’s behavior conveyed to Charlie that it would not know what to do if a predator showed up and in fact may expose the pack to a predator because of its inability to follow the leader or hide.
According to animal behaviorists, dogs’ loyalty grows out of their nature as pack animals and their fear of being put out of the pack. Many dogs take on the role of “policing” the pack, something I noticed about Charlie when my daughter and I observed him in his litter. At that time, he walked into the middle of an altercation between two siblings, effectively ending the fight. Charlie’s behavior toward the blind Schnauzer made me wonder what he would do when he grew old, feeble, and blind. Somehow, I don’t expect him to nip his own back paws and run away from us.
A dog’s effort to drive weaker or nonconforming members out of the pack made me think of the way humans — also pack animals — tend to treat those who don’t fit in. One of my favorite kidlit websites is Disability in Kidlit, which reviews books and publishes guest posts from writers who have lived with and/or written about characters with disabilities. The creation of authors Kody Keplinger from New York, Corinne Duyvis from Amsterdam (Netherlands), and Kayla Whaley from Atlanta, the site debuted in July 2013. My piece on how I separated my own experience from that of the protagonist with Asperger’s in Rogue ran two months later.
Disability in Kidlit seeks to help those writing about disability to understand the experiences of those living with it, so that outsiders’ perspectives are accurate, authentic, multidimensional, and free from myths and stereotypes. Unfortunately, the myths and stereotypes, endemic to classic children’s books such as Little Women and The Secret Garden, continue in greater or lesser degree, along with the publishing industry’s impatience with the special needs and promotional challenges of those with disabilities. It’s simply a lot easier to work with an outsider who can travel anywhere without mobility limitations, doesn’t miss deadlines due to depression, or doesn’t commit an egregious social media misstep due to poor social communication skills. But giving preference to the outsider because it’s easier and more profitable in the short term reflects the same putting out of the pack behavior that proved so embarrassing to me when my puppy did it.
Social Darwinists argue that the exclusion of persons with disabilities and others who don’t fit in or who make trouble is no less part of human nature that similar behaviors in other pack or herd animals. Yet the mark of civilization is the ability to transcend base instinct for the long-term benefit of the species. The embracing of diversity has allowed human beings to create and to implement the creative work of others. Sorry, Charlie, your species didn’t invent the internet — or for that matter the camera that let me take these cute pictures.
I’ve been thinking about the impulse to put laggards out of the pack a lot these last few weeks, mainly because I slipped on black ice and injured my left ankle and knee at the beginning of March. So I’ve been moving slowly and acutely feeling the impatience of everyone forced to wait for me. I also had an unfortunate encounter with corporate Social Darwinism recently and the feeling of being put out of the pack by people who acted as though they liked me and wanted me as part of their giant corporate “family” is especially disheartening. Like everyone else, I want to belong, contribute, and feel that my contributions are valued. Though it sometimes does make it more difficult for me to fit in, having Asperger’s doesn’t change that fundamental desire.
The good news is that there are a lot of packs out there. And just as Charlie jumped into the lap of the German tourist at the Pier 84 Dog Run last summer (though I have a hard time figuring out what his issue was with my daughter and me), those of us who don’t fit in with the popular kids/big corporate crowd need to find the right pack for us.