Sunday, July 18, 2010

ANIMAL MAGNETISM: Taming the Wild Things at Home

(In 2006, I was completing my Bachelor's Degree and required one more science course.  I chose Environmental Landscapes, because it was the only class that qualified that quarter.  Because I've been observing instinctive animal behavior up close for the past few days, with regards to my cats ambivalent meetings with my newborn grandson -- simultaneously dying of curiosity, while wanting nothing to do with him -- and with a friend's newly adopted Australian shepherd puppy as she gleefully "herds" a couple of extremely put out ducks in a barnyard, I've decided to revisit one of my favorite undergraduate papers.  

This paper, originally published on an old blog I used to post all my papers on, explores the symbiotic, baffling need that drives us to bring furry creatures into our homes to live with us. I hope you enjoy it.  One caveat -- I haven't checked the links in the citations in a while, so I have no idea if they're still good or not.)

Taming the Wild Things at Home
(Sci 335: Environmental Landscapes)
January 17, 2006

Our history of bringing wild things into our homes is at least 12,000 years, though most anthropologists estimate it’s more like 15,000. It is believed that the first animal to be tamed was the genetic precursor to wolves, the Tomarctus, which scientists believe looked like a cross between a wolf and a fox. The reasons this we can really only guess, since only a scant amount of archeological evidence of man and animal cohabitation exists.

Whatever the initial reason for bringing animals into the den or the cave, they made themselves quite at home, and have now managed to be fully ensconced in our lives. We take them with us on holidays, we buy them food and treats at huge expense that we think they will like; we get up at ungodly hours of the morning to walk them and feed them and tend to their needs. When they become sick, we spend small fortunes on their medical care. When they die, we grieve them as we would our own flesh and blood.

Six thousand years after we had mastered the domestication of the dog, it occurred to us that perhaps, if we tamed this nasty little creature, we could set about to taming something else, like a horse or a goat -- something that might actually prove even more useful to us in our newly minted agrarian lifestyle.

On Dogs
"Yesterday I was a dog. Today I'm a dog. Tomorrow I'll probably still be a dog. Sigh! There's so little hope for advancement." – Snoopy

According to the Humane Society of the United States, 65 million dogs are kept in the United States as owned pets. Slightly over half reside in single-dog homes, but nearly one-quarter live in a two-dog homes, and approximately 12% live in three-dog homes.

What many scientists do not exactly agree on is why. Some say it was in order to utilize them in the hunt for food – both as assistant hunters and – when the going got tough – as the emergency rations. Others say that early dog ancestors were kept as protection against invasions by neighboring tribes of hostile humans. Still others maintain that tamed wild dogs merely offered companionship and body heat in a harsh environment when both could mean the difference between life and death. (“History of Dogs”)

If the union of dog and man was initially a marriage of convenience, it grew eventually to love in a way most humans do not share with any other animal but the dog. It rests largely on what we have done to the species through selective breeding. Today’s dog is really a wolf pup in shitzu clothing. Ancient breeders chose dogs that held on to their puppy-like traits well into adulthood for breeding until they had bred an animal that, unlike a pure-bred wolf, would never grow up. This ensured that the obedience that a puppy shows its mother, or the other alpha leaders, continued throughout a dog’s lifetime. The key to a dog’s loyalty is not necessarily his undying love and devotion to us, but his reliance on us as the alpha leader of his ersatz “pack” to protect and provide for him.

It is for this reason that animals plucked from the wild, even as helpless infants, are capable of suddenly becoming aggressive and turning on the humans that raised them. Even if they do not become aggressive, they become decidedly less responsive and involved in the human experience. They have not been a product of the selective breeding that allows them to remain obedient, docile puppies. They grow into independent, territorial adults, who are programmed not only to not take orders from the alpha leader, but possibly to defeat the alpha leader and take over the pack themselves. It is for this reason that we do not ordinarly keep wolves, coyotes, jackals and other wild-bred dogs as pets. At the very least, they cease to desire to please us. At the worst, they see us as potential competitors, combatants and/or food sources.

In his book, Man Meets Dog, Konrad Lorenz describes his experience with a Dingo he raised from five days old, which he gave to a nursing dog he owned, to foster until the pup was weaned. At first, the Dingo displayed all the reverence and eagerness to please that any puppy might, eagerly greeting Lorenz when he returned home, becoming distressed when Lorenz disciplined him. However, when the pup was about eighteen months hold (sexual maturity in Dingos), Lorenz began to notice the change in him.

... He still accepted every form of punishment, even a beating, without resistance, but, as soon as the business was over, he shook himself, gave me a friendly wag of his tail and ran off, inviting me to chase him. In other words, his frame of mind was in no way altered by the punishment nor did it have the least influence upon him or hinder him from immediately repeating the crime for which he had just been punished, as, for example, making a renewed attempt to murder one of my most valuable ducks. At the same age, he lost all inclination to accompany me on my walks and simply ran off anywhere without paying the slightest attention to my calls. Nevertheless I must stress that he was extremely friendly towards me and greeted me, when ever we happened to meet, with all the usual canine ceremonial. One must never expect a wild animal to treat a human being differently from a member of its own species….

My Dingo evidently harboured the warmest feelings for me that such an animal, when mature, can ever feel for another one, but submission and obedience play no part in these feelings. (Lorenz 22)
Lorenz learned something from his wild Dingo that most people never get the chance to learn – all animals, but particularly wild-bred ones, revert to some sort of wild state, regardless of our efforts in the opposite direction.

We can buy them diamond-studded collars left and right, but in the end, even Paris Hilton’s Chihuahua carries the DNA of the wolf. We have merely infantilized them to keep them puppies for the rest of their lives.

On Cats
"Women and cats will do as they please, and men and dogs should relax and get used to the idea." – Robert Heinlein

Cats have been in our homes for a far shorter time than dogs – about 6,000 years. All domesticated cats are descended from African wildcats, which were tamed quite by accident. In true “cat fashion,” it was the cat who initiated first contact with the humans, and the motive was undeniably mercenary. When humans finally settled in one place and got a handle on the farming thing, one of the crops they were able to store with success was grain. Grain attracted vast amounts of rodents. Rodents, in turn, attracted vast amounts of cats from the surrounding wilderness, who subsequently realized that the wild was just fine, if you like that sort of thing. However, hanging around grain silos and waiting for the mice and rats to fall into your mouth has a certain appeal as well, and might leave more time for the truly important things in life, like napping. This first symbiotic interaction between cats and humans can be considered Step One in the process of feline domestication. What demarcates Step Two -- and whether there actually has ever been a Step Two, remains a point of contention in people who know and love cats.

Konrad Lorenz is one of those people. He has several cats, and points out that domesticated cats, even those kept indoors, have lost none of their innate wildness. African wildcats, in the wild, do not live in packs. They are solitary hunters, who mate on the fly, and rear their children in single-mother litters. Our domestic cats have retained this independence and desire for isolation. Lions in their prides are the exception, not the rule.

The cat is not a socially living animal; it is and remains an independent, wild, little panther, with nothing in its character of that infantility of domestication which makes the dog such a grateful recipient of attention and ‘spoiling’. (Lorenz 159)

Indeed, cats neither ask for nor demand human attention every minute of the day, but rather only when they want it. Thus, the cat has developed a reputation for aloofness. Anyone who has spent time with young kittens knows that they are anything but aloof. In reality, cats' seemingly stand-offish behavior can be attributed to the fact that, like Lorenz' Dingo, they merely grow up. While a well-fed domesticated dog will occasionally bite, he will rarely hunt and kill for food. The same cannot be said of cats, who, if left to their devices and taught to stalk, hunt and kill by their mothers, will continue the practice, even if they are being fed regularly at home.

The oft-quoted (and misquoted) observation by Charles Darwin in On the Origin of the Species, describes how keeping an animal so close to its feral wild self has a direct impact on the environment in which man lives. Darwin's observation is detailed by Robert Ezra Park in his published essay, Human Ecology. In the mid-nineteenth century, England experienced a population growth, which in turn spurred a profusion of rodents, who thrived on human refuse and crops. This threatened to wipe out England's native humble-bee population, which then created a sudden dearth in the amount of red clover plants along English country hillsides (humble-bees being the only type of bee that will pollinate red clover). Darwin, a native of Shrewsbury, Shropshire, which is surrounded by rolling hills, agricultural land and (now that much of it falls under the National Trust) much wide open space, began to observe a rebirth of red clover immediately outside of towns and villages in the west country region.

Near villages and small towns the nests of humblebees are more numerous than elsewhere and this is attributed to the number of eats that destroy the mice. Thus next year's crop of purple clover in certain parts of England depends on the number of humblebees in the district; the number of humblebees depends upon the number of field mice, the number of field mice upon the number and the enterprise of the cats, and the number of cats --as someone has added--depends on the number of old maids and others in neighboring villages who keep cats. (Park 22)
In fairness, Darwin did not originally mention the old maids in Origin of the Species, but he does draw the direct correlation of the re-emergence of red clover with the proximity to human populations which kept domesticated cats.

On the Good News and the Bad News
It is a long established statistical fact that people enjoy a myriad of health benefits by having pets in their homes. In 1987, the National Institutes of Health published a consensus from a two-day conference in which medical experts put their heads together and came up with some interesting facts which they deemed required more study. One was that people who owned pets were in overall better health, and general had a more positive outlook than non-pet owners. The conference posited that pets were good for everything from loneliness to hypertension. This consensus kicked off nearly twenty years of scientific study which yielded the following conclusions: Pets can be really good for people.

The combination of companionship, nurturing elements and the opportunity for pets to get their owners, especially among the elderly, out of the house and mingling with others meant that pet owners were less lonely not only for their animal companions, but for human companionship as well. Organizations like the Delta Society even specialize in using pets as rehabilitation for non-pet owners as well.

That is the good news. The bad news is that pets can be bad for people as well.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which cites the Delta Society's work with human-animal rehabilitation, on a different page lists a staggering list of health concerns that accompany pet ownership (cat scratch fever, toxoplasmosis, Lime disease). As it happens, snakes carry a fairly aggressive form of salmonella which requires that they be handled with extreme care, lest snake owners run the risk of contamination. Furthermore, the CDC's section on pandemic flu indicates that, while avian flu has heretofore only been contracted by humans who have had direct contact to infected birds, a slight mutation allowing mammals to become infected might be the gateway to human avian flu infection. No such cases have been reported, but the CDC and World Health Organization (WHO) both report an increase world-wide in zoonotic (animal-to-human transmission) diseases, and, on the heels of the SARS outbreak in 2002, expressed concern that, should an avian virus mutate to infect humans directly, the disease might be spread from agricultural birds, to pet birds, to migratory birds so quickly that stopping it would be daunting if not impossible. (Pearce)

On Ferals and Other Wild Things
I had a Doberman pinscher/Weimaraner mix when I was a teenager. His name was Siegfried, and it must be said that he was the most docile, loving creature I have ever owned. Afraid of thunder, undone by earthquakes and cowed by every cat and squirrel in the backyard, Siggy was the dog equivalent of the 90-pound weakling. He fostered three litters of rescued feral kittens, doing everything short of feeding (not that they didn’t try, mind you), until they were old enough to be adopted into other homes. He was an exceptional mother.

My grandparents had a home in Idyllwild, California, where we used to spend every holiday and vacation. Sometime in the early seventies, they acquired a little puppy of dubious parentage (but of enormous feet and head) which they named Barney. When the puppy Barney met the two-year-old Siggy, it was love at first sight, and they were inseparable during our many vacations up to Idyllwild. Over time, Barney grew (and grew, and grew) until it became clear that he was less a dog and more a carnivorous pony. He was also a dog of exceptionally sweet disposition and temperament. The fencing around the Idyllwild house was inadequate to contain either the Doberman or the… whatever Barney was (part Russian wolfhound seems a likely guess)… for any length of time, and the two took to rambling the woods surrounding the house. My mother and grandfather thought little of this, since they always came directly when called, and never seemed to venture far outside the perimeter of the house.

One late afternoon, the local police showed up during a light snow, a couple of days after Thanksgiving, and threatened to destroy both dogs if they weren't contained immediately. It seems they had attacked a neighbor’s son and had bitten him severely on the upper thigh. This was shocking news to us. Two sweet lumbering dogs, beloved house pets who, individually, had weathered the storm of being crawled on by small children and tiny needle-clawed kittens without baring a single tooth, had coordinated a fairly vicious attack on a pre-adolescent human. The boy was physically fine – the bite, apparently inflicted by Barney, had left considerable bruising, but had barely broken the skin. He was an emotional mess, however, and I am quite sure suffered from the after-effects of the attack for a long time. My grandfather placated the boy’s family with promises that we would keep the dogs locked up, which we did from that day forward. Their rambling “wolf” days were over. We remained mystified about their behavioral anomalies, however.

Years later, I was relating this story to an acquaintance who was a professional dog trainer (and self-professed pet psychic, but that’s another story). He explained why two dogs so dear and loving apart became such dangerous allies when left to their own devices.

“It’s quite simple, really,” he told me. “They formed a separate pack, with a whole new hierarchy that didn't include people. It’s what they do, you know.”

In their respective human homes, Siggy and Barney were subordinate to their alpha leaders (me and my mother, in Siggy’s case, my grandfather in Barney’s). They would not act without our say-so. But paired together, for the several weeks during the year that we spent in Idyllwild, they formed an entirely new pack, with Siggy as the alpha, and Barney as his loyal sidekick. The unwillingness to venture past a certain radius from the house was actually a display of extreme wolf-like territoriality. A male dog by himself with no particular delusions of grandeur will be more inclined to wander off and explore the outlying areas. The need to patrol the cordoned off area they’d staked as their own was a very wild thing to do. The neighbor boy most likely innocently stumbled onto the perimeter, unwittingly setting off a canine turf war.

It only serves to demonstrate that, in spite of our best efforts to breed the wild out of them, our pets still are to wild. One small shift in the balance of power, and they easily revert back to their wild states, by instinct and inclination.

“It’s what they do, you know.”

Our control over our animals – even the ones we have bred into precarious domestication – is tenuous. The proof comes when domestic animals find themselves living wholly outside of human aegis. When abandoned and left to fend for themselves, even the tamest cats and dogs can turn feral in short order. Hunger and the need for self-protection drive otherwise tame and loving dogs to commit acts of unspeakable “wildness” – such as attacking seemingly weaker humans, terrorizing children and even devouring each other.

Even dogs which have not been abandoned, but have been reared without proper supervision and care, can turn spontaneously aggressive. As reported on recently, on November 27th of this year, an elderly Texas woman was mauled to death by her neighbor’s six Pit Bull/Rottweiler mixed-breed dogs for what appears to be no reason. The dog’s owner was mystified by the attack and claimed that the dogs frequently played with his own young grandchildren without incident.

As the Pitt/Rottie mixes (and my own Doberman) demonstrate, when domesticated dogs find the company of other dogs, rather than humans, the "pack DNA" can still re-emerge and make them scary, sometimes deadly forces. This is why feral dogs are dealt with so swiftly by animal control agencies. Feral dogs are not perceived to offer any benefit to society, and to present an outright danger.

Feral cats seem to survive better than their canine counterparts, probably because they are smaller and more elusive. For one thing, they do not tend to organize in a pack and attack the nice old lady next door while she’s mowing her lawn. Also, as was the case when man and cat first came together, feral cats offer a benefit to the human quality of life. I have already documented in journal entries past the tragic results of misguided attempts to exterminate the feral cat populations at major motion pictures studios. The dessimation of the animals (based on the idea that cats are dirty) left both Paramount and Twentieth Century Fox studios dealing with an infestation of far dirtier than cats -- rats. Big ones. Los Angeles rats, who don't suffer any of the climatic challenges of their brothers in rougher weather patterns, and graced with many man-made habitats (huge ivy beds, landscape shrubs, crawl spaces) get positively enormous. In both instances, the cats were eventually returned to the studios, usually after a highly placed production executive watched a cat-sized rat waddling across her $160-per-square-yard Berber carpet, and decided that maybe life with Mittens wasn't so bad after all. The cats came back, the rat population was brought quickly under control, and foolish notions of tampering with what appears to be a well-ordered food chain evaporated.

In other cultures which are more cheek-by-jowl with wildlife, the taming and owning of truly wild things has begun to cause trouble -- to the people, to the animals and to the environment. In Nicuaragua, animal control agencies have been cracking down on so-called wild animal brokers who claim they can deliver any exotic to your door in twenty-four hours for between $50 and $100 American dollars. The result is startling.

Walk through Managua's neighborhoods-from the gritty ghettos around the airport to the lush enclaves above Lake Managua where affluent homes peak from behind high walls-and it sounds like a rain forest at dawn. The city is filled with the chuckle of parrots, the shrieks of toucans and monkeys, even the occasional low growl of a puma. (Hendrix)

The majority of pets do not go to Nicaraguan households, though. The vast majority of exotic pets rounded up by the brokers in Managua will be shipped here or to Europe, where the demand for unusual wildlife brings top money, especially for a depressed Central American economy.

Our deep yearning to bring home wild things has impacted our environment (and now environments thousands of miles away from ours) for over 12,000 years. Each animal that we add to our list of domesticated things -- the dog, the cat, the horse, the sheep -- both adds to and detracts from our quality of life in some way. They make it, by turns, more companionable, less lonely, more dangerous, less burdensome, more full of humble-bees and wildflowers, less full of rats and field mice. If we change the ground we live on just by living here, then it must be certainly true that the wild things we bring home with us changes the ground as well.

Our initial needs to domesticate animals -- for food, for pest control, for body heat and protection from predators -- have all but evaporated. So why do we still feel a need for them in such large numbers? The attraction that pets hold for us now may lie in their utter and complete lack of self-consciousness. It counterbalances our tendency to overanalyze quite nicely. D.H. Lawrence once said, "I never saw a wild thing feel sorry for itself. A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself." Maybe we keep them so close because we have so much to learn from them about life. And they catch the big rats for us. That's nice too.

Works Cited

"Avian Influenza Infection in Humans." 15 Nov 2005. Center for Disease Control.

Darwin, Charles. Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection: Or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. New York: P.F. Collier and Son, 1901. Questia. 2 Dec. 2005 .

Hendrix, Steve. "WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE - More Than a Quarter of Nicaraguan Households Keep Wildlife as Pets, but Now the Country Is Cracking Down." International Wildlife Sept.-Oct. Questia. 2 Dec. 2005 .

Lorenz, Konrad. Man Meets Dog. London: Routledge, 2002. Questia. 2 Dec. 2005 .

Pearce, Fred. "Pests and Pestilence: Why Humans Are More Vulnerable Than Ever to Animal-Borne Diseases." Foreign Policy July-Aug. 2003: 92+. Questia. 2 Dec. 2005 .

United States. National Institutes of Health. The Health Benefits of Pets. 11 Sep 1987.

Monday, July 12, 2010


World, meet Sylas.

He was born on July 9, 2010. He was 8 lbs. 8 ozs., 21" long.  He also had a wicked little lung infection that necessitated a stay in the NICU, where he seems to be doing well.

Unfortunately, it meant my daughter was forced to leave without him once she was discharged yesterday. All the time since has been trekking back and forth between home and the NICU, so that we can see him and spend time with him, his parents can feed him... He's increased his food volume tenfold in the past 24 hours, and he looks less like a newborn and more like he's around two or three months old.


Hopefully, he'll be home this coming Saturday or Sunday.  All his tests have been coming back clean, and he's responding well to the antibiotics.  He started developing a little baby jaundice today, but nothing a trip under the bilirubin lamp won't fix.

Meanwhile, I have a job interview tomorrow, so I'd better get to bed.

Just wanted to share a Nana's joy.

So, World, meet Sylas.  Sylas, meet World... And remember Nana loves you more than... chocolate. Yes... even more than chocolate....

(cross-posted at The Catharine Chronicles)