Though it takes just five minutes, the walk from home to the gym can be quite eventful. Starting in China Town, it passes the ornamental symbolic gate, where I am often caught, inadvertently, in tourists’ photos; then past the ATM on the corner, where the regular beggars have learned not to accost me; thence around the back of the coach station, where travellers sometimes ask for directions to the front of the coach station; then across the main street in the gay village, where I dodge another beggar-cluster and – occasionally – hear a busker; then, finally, past a bar-cum-nightclub that sometimes hosts daytime events for specialised-interest groups, such as Furries, Goths, Transvestites or visiting Belgian football supporters. Last Sunday it was pug owners.
Approaching the bar, I had become aware that I was sharing the pavement with more than the usual number of dog-walkers. Strange, I thought. Stranger still, however, was the fact that the dogs were all of the same breed. Later, on my way home and with my curiosity unabated, I approached a man standing by the door of the bar who had custody of two of these dogs. I asked him what was happening. “Pugfest” was his curt reply. Seeing that I was none the wiser, he repeated it. “Pugfest,” and then, elaborating, “in ‘ere,” he said, cocking his (pug-like) head toward the doorway of the bar. I suppose he deemed it a waste of effort to explain to the uninitiated the purpose of a Pugfest, let alone why it should be held in a bar in the gay village but, since he was disinclined to engage further, I went on my way, stepping deftly over a trio of tiny turds on the pavement.
Later, however, I looked up pugs on the internet. What I discovered was intriguing. They are bred as lapdogs, a project which seems to have been successful in that they are small and deemed to be playful, charming, docile, clever and sociable. On the downside, however, they are prone to flatulence, which must be something of a disincentive to actually holding them on one’s lap. But perhaps the dogs manage to overcome any consequent embarrassment or unpleasantness by deploying one of the other traits attributed to them – a good sense of humour. So far, so amusing; but there is a seriously undesirable consequence of their breeding – the panoply of health problems inherited from and exaggerated by their small gene pool. I am indifferent to dogs (and suspicious of the notion of their ‘ownership’) and, though some people interpret my indifference as dislike, it is nothing of the sort. The absence of love does not imply the presence of hate. From a neutral stance then, it seems fair to ask whether the breeding of pugs constitutes cruelty, since their genetic manipulation disregards the creatures’ suffering in order to maximise their human entertainment-value.
So, are pug-owners cruel people? Encounters like these, brief though they may be, highlight something that we know exists, yet do not necessarily or ordinarily engage with: social diversity. The walk to the gym takes me past people of various interests, beliefs, backgrounds and ambitions. Sometimes I speak to them. Sometimes I merely observe. Inevitably, I make value judgements about them. By the end of the walk, I am inclined to marvel that so many people, of so many different persuasions, can actually live together in relative harmony. Do we really have anything in common other than a degree of tolerance that keeps the peace? How do I respect the pug owner while pitying the pug? And if I were to stage a protest at the next Pugfest, would they set the dogs on me?