Highbrows like Chronicles readers may not know a television program called Americas Funniest Home Videos, but it’s just exactly what it sounds like. A story in Newsweek last year reported that the program’s staff were surprised to discover regional differences in the tapes that viewers send in. According to a man who screens submissions, the Midwest’s FHVs are usually episodes from family life, and California’s tend to involve “far-out stunts,” but Southerners, he said, produce endless footage of “bizarre guys sitting around drinking beer while trying to produce a video.” This man singled out one Southern tape for special mention: it showed “a small, stick-wielding child fruitlessly pursuing a frog around a yard as an off-camera voice kept shouting, ‘Git it! Git it!'”

Well, I hate to say it, but that sounds about right.

Southerners do seem more likely than other Americans to believe that frogs and other critters have been put here to amuse or otherwise to serve us. I guess I’m a case in point. Not long ago a letter-writer charged me with a pattern of insensitivity to animal rights, and I’m guilty. I have often written with indifference and even with approval about blood sports, the eating of red meat, and other activities detrimental to the welfare of individual beasts. Moreover, I have made fun of animalrights zealots—partly because they’re zealots, but there’s more to it than that. I’m afraid I’m being typical.

“Egg-suckin’ dog,” Johnny Gash sings, “I’m gonna stomp your head in the ground.” In what other region does casual violence against animals figure in popular music? No doubt you’ve seen the bumper stickers that say “I [heart] NEW YORK,” or “CHAPEL HILL,” or “[picture of a golden retriever].” Maybe you’ve also seen the ones that say “I [spade] MY CAT.” But only in the South have I seen “I [club] BABY SEALS.” There are parts of the country where it wouldn’t be safe to make that joke.

The entry on “pets” in the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture states it simply as a fact that Southerners are “less likely [than other Americans] to express concern about the right or wrong treatment of animals or to strongly oppose exploitation or cruelty toward animals.”

That entry was written by Margaret Young, a sociologist who studies interaction between humans and animals. Dr. Young teaches in a veterinary school, and she’s also a professional dog trainer. She does a good deal of outside work these days as an expert witness in court cases where people have lost hands or children to killer dogs. She says that Southerners are less likely to get in this sort of trouble, because we’re less likely to forget that dogs are dogs and don’t think like us. That is, we’re less likely to confuse them with human beings.

You could say we have more respect for their doghood; we believe that dogs should and will do doggy things, that they have their own part to play in this world, and maybe the next—a part different from ours, complementary, and, yes, subordinate. Dr. Young says Southerners are “more likely to express concern for the practical and material value of animals or their habitat”—that is, for their use to us.

I’m not a hunter (although I’ve hunted), but some of my friends and relations are mighty huntsmen, especially of doves and deer, which I’m happy to help them eat. It’s important to them to eat what they kill, because—this is significant—it’s a form of respect for the animal. These fellows don’t get theological about it, but some of them could. The most prophetic Southern voice of our time, that of Wendell Berry, has had some fine things to say about the biblical theme of stewardship, which licenses the use of God’s property, but insists that we care for it, too.

If you don’t understand the hunter’s ethic, and don’t have someone around to explain it to you, watch for a book coming out soon from Princeton University Press by Stuart Marks, an anthropologist and hunter who spent years in Scotland County, North Carolina, studying hunters of deer, duck, coon, quail, and so forth. Each group turns out to be almost a separate tribe, with its own folkways and initiation rites, and it’s weird and wonderful to see them treated by someone whose previous book was about African lionhunters.

But getting back to my friends: if you tell one of these guys that a deer has rights, he’ll laugh at you. Ask him how he’d feel if he were a deer and he’ll explain patiently that he’s not. Tell him that he and the deer are one and he might get angry. But suggest that habitat preservation or a lower bag limit this year means better hunting next year, and he’ll listen intently. There is a mutual dependence here, although it’s not based on identity or even equality.

The same is true for domestic animals. Margaret Young observes that Southerners are more likely than other Americans to expect household animals to work, to earn their keep. They are subordinate, but their work complements ours and contributes to the common wealth. Horse and rider, hunter and dog, mule and farmer: these symbiotic pairings are rooted deep in the collective memory.

Obviously, Southerners can like animals. Old Blue is a legendary good old dog. Old Shep even got himself sung about by Elvis. Another singer has made a song of his daddy’s request to his mama to “wake me up early, be good to my dogs, and teach my children to pray.”

But we value animals as individuals, not generically, and we value them for what they do for us. Dr. Young believes, for instance, that Southerners are relatively more likely to judge dogs on their performance rather than their breeding. Johnny Cash doesn’t seem to care about the pedigree of his eggsucking hound, and in “The Bear” Faulkner celebrates the bravery of a little mixed-breed dog, a “fice.” (Is “fice” the origin of “feisty,” I wonder?)

A life of loyal service can elicit genuine affection. Dr. Young writes that, “while expressing indifference or incredulity toward the idea of ‘loving’ animals, many Southerners form strong affectional attachments to individual animals.” These attachments, though based on usefulness, can outlive it. (“Once unable to work, [working dogs] still retain a special status within the household.”) But even the best good old dog may not get in the house. (“The key elements of companion animal status are frequently fulfilled without inside residence for the animal.”) We may address our dogs as fondly as our children, in other words, but we don’t say the same things to them. They’re animals, after all, and Southern pets know their place.

Look, Southerners have always drawn sharp lines between categories. All traditional cultures do. Black and white, male and female, saved and unsaved, Southerner and Yankee, “quality” and trash, human and beast—we’ve insisted on these distinctions, God-given or otherwise. We’ve even gloried in them. We’ve tempered our boundary-drawing with a pervasive particularism that recognizes considerable variation within categories, but we haven’t been comfortable with ambiguity.

Obviously we’ve overdone it sometimes. Learning to live with fuzzy and ambiguous distinctions is what cultural modernization is all about. That’s probably inevitable, in many respects even desirable, and it’s certainly well underway in the South. But Richard Weaver was voicing an ancient Southern suspicion when he wrote in “Life Without Prejudice” that hostility to society’s distinctions often masks hostility to society itself, that confusion of roles and loss of differentiation is exactly the meaning of societal collapse. We need to take those warnings to heart, and to insist on necessary distinctions when they are in fact necessary.

If my description of the place of pets in the Southern household sounds like Driving Miss Daisy, it’s no accident. Just as racial paternalism is gone with the wind, so in time Southerners may come to believe that animals don’t exist primarily in relation to us. Hell, our evolving cosmic consciousness may lead us to understand the essential oneness of Being, as we say in California. We may come to view “Old Shep” as this century’s “Old Black Joe.” But that time isn’t yet. And if that analogy offends you, you must agree.