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Jack bite

It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. This came from a deer hunting page on Facebook.

Supervise your little dogs in coyote country, which is pretty much all of North America at this point.

coyote takes out jack russell

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Summer’s final grasp on the land is slowly but surely being released.

We had a bit of frost at the end of September. Then we had a few weeks of balmy weather.

But the weather is about to change again.

And this monarch butterfly will soon be on its way to Mexico. The leaves will be off the trees, and the deer will be in full rut.

Snow will  soon be on everyone’s mind.

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sartorius small greyhound

As a result of my recent experiences with a whippet, I’ve been thinking a lot about how a breed can evolve such a strong bond with its special human.

Some of this strong social bond has some roots in their origins as sighthounds. Most sighthound breeds are somewhat more primitive in their development compared to more derived breeds.

With whippets, though, this devotion to just a select handful of people borders on separation anxiety.

It seems that the evolution of this trait has to do with the development of the whippet as a commoner’s dog.  The origins of the whippet come from the larger greyhound, which have been bred in the British Isles for centuries for the pursuit of deer and hares.  Coursing was mostly a pursuit of the wealthy, especially in the Middle Ages, but within greyhound kennels, there would be born smaller individuals that obviously could not handle a deer.

So these dogs were either killed or given to the commoners. Commoners had to have their dogs “expeditated” to prevent the dogs from bothering deer. This procedure involved cutting off two of the toes on the front feet, so the dog could not run a deer at all.

The commoners had an incentive to breed for smaller size. Smaller dogs eat less food, and a smaller dog would not get the attention of authorities that might lead to a dog being confiscated.

Further, there was a selection pressure placed upon a commoner’s greyhound that would select for dogs with a stronger tendency to bond to one owner or family. Dogs that wandered in the forests would be killed, but dogs that stayed at home had a much stronger tendency to pass on their genes.

As time progressed and the poaching became a way of survival in much of rural England, the need for a dog intensely bonded to its owner became even more of a necessity.  Any dog that ran off and got lost would either be killed by the gamekeeper or offed by the fierce “night dogs” or mastiffs that would be patrolling the estates.

So the evolution of the whippet as a commoner’s greyhound forced the breed to evolve a tendency to bond to just a handful of people.

Now, these thoughts could be entirely wrong, but breed temperament often follows its history. The super social temperament of golden and Labrador retrievers has to do with their use as retrievers on shoots where lots of strange people would be wandering about.  Livestock guardians have been selected for a very strong distrust of strange dogs, while pack hounds have been selected for super tolerance of other dogs living near them.

So it is very possible that the whippet’s strong devotion to just a select few people has to do with its evolution as a breed among the working class of England.

 

Born again pagan

The deer are gray-coated now. The season of the canopy flame will soon give way to the long season of the gray tree trunks, where the deer so appropriately colored seem to materialize as phantoms among the smudgy gray.

The repast of acorns is falling hard on the leaves.  A creation of the oak from those days of bright sunshine and long lazy days, the acorn feeds the beasts. The chipmunks store them in their dens, and the deer and the bears devour them to make their winter fat.

I step into this forgotten forest as a visitor, the same as I stepped into the taiga of Denali National Park or snorkeled among the sea turtles and bird wrasse in Kauai. I come here more often, but my basic humanity is that I am but a visitor here. I will never know this land the way the wild coyotes do, where they use the land to hide themselves from our firing guns. I will never have that wisdom, nor will I have the wisdom of the old men who ran the hills setting traps and hunting for hides.

And I am far removed from those first Siberians who came into this continent and lived of the bounty of the land and began their own nations before being cleared off by the Europeans.

It is as the visitor that I step into the woods. I am a visitor, a wannabe pilgrim, who has come looking for the divine. I search not for the divinity of my own Anglican-Methodist childhood, for I’ve moved beyond it. The questions I have cannot be answered in that tradition any longer. These questions I have about what it means to be good. To be good is the fundamental question for me.  How can I be decent toward others? What does it mean to be a good man?

And my other question is about my position in the cosmos, and notions that I am the center of the universe and that some omnipotent being loves me don’t withstand my skepticism.

The only deity I know is nature. My worship of this deity is to spend time alone or with dogs in that which has not be forged by its forces and meditate and ask questions.

I live in a world in which those questions can be adequately answered in the traditions of the Bible.  I live in a world where people are hurting and lost. The coal industry will never return, and the steel mills are running silent. The middle class created here has been gutted, and the unions are no more. An apocalypse has happened, and people want answers. Traditional religion provides those answers, and I will allow them to find some comfort there.

My church is the wild woods,  and my hymns are the the hoof-beats of deer, the falling of acorns from their oaks, and the soft panting of a golden retriever puppy as she leaps around on her first sylvan excursions.

I think of the spinner dolphins I saw cavorting on a quiet bay in Kauai last summer.  They leaped and spun in the pure joy of existing, a sort of ecstasy that I only dream of experiencing. The azure sea was their home. They weren’t visitors. They were truly at home in their native universe.

A piece of me wishes to feel that nativity, to feel that ecstasy.

Yet I know that as a human living in this century, I am already an alien. My world is digitized and pixelated.

But the real world is organic and pungent smelling. It is carbon and oxygen and nitrogen. It is the green stems and the fur and feather.

The real world is a place I can touch, but with which I can never fully be.

I am thus separated from the only deity I will even known, but deeply I will yearn for it. I will keep asking my questions. I will keep on going.

I am born again a pagan each time I step beyond the world of man. It is here that I find my solace, my closest sense of peace.

And thus I will be until I take my final breath.

Maybe my life will signify nothing, but for now, I will let my reverie be my meaning.

And I will take you along.

If you want.

 

 

 

Several books came back with me from Florida. Among them is this book edited by Gail Goodman:

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Better photo of the cover and title:

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Because I have such an eclectic interest in dogs and breed history, I’ve been told by more than a few people that I need to read this book.

So I have it now, loaned to me by Jenna Coleman. I think this will be an interesting expansion of the book I recently read by Stephen Bodio about the tazis, the Central Asian “salukioid” dogs.

 

 

 

I am revamping my Patreon rewards, and I have opened up my own Red Bubble account.

These are great ways to support my work here, but if you would like to do a one time donation there is always Paypal.

Thank you for reading, and thank you all for any support you can give to my work.

golden hamster

Photo by Robert Maier.

It should be little surprise to readers of this blog that I have always been a bit into animals. My childhood dogs have featured heavily on this space, but the truth is I’ve had a wide variety of animals when I was a kid.

From grades 4-6, I was a hamster fanatic. At the time, it was very difficult for North American children to buy dwarf hamsters. The mainstay of the hamster world was the golden or Syrian hamster, and there were very few people breeding for docility in pet hamster strains. The goal was to produce as many different morphs as possible with very little regard to the temperament of the hamster.

As a result, many children from my generation have horror stories about biting hamsters.  Over my years of hamster keeping, I came to accept their bites as part of keeping them.

I got into hamsters rather on a lark. I was always reading the Barron’s pet guides, many of which were translations of German pet manuals, and the one on hamsters was written by Otto von Frisch.

hamster otto von frisch

This book created my hamster obsession.

The book was not just a pet care manual. It was full of anecdotes about pet hamsters, as well as discussions of scientific studies on their behavior.  It also talked a lot about the Central European ideas about hamster, for as I learned from that book, that there are hamsters native to Germany and Austria (the very large common hamster).  The species was well-known to farmers in the region as an agricultural pest and as a rather vicious creature that shouldn’t be messed with.  As someone who predominant ancestry is from that region, I was quite fascinated by these accounts.

And I knew I had to have a pet hamster.

After much pleading, I was given permission to get a hamster, provided I kept it at my grandparents’ house. My mother was an extreme murophobe, and I had to accept her conditions.

The first hamster I got was what was called a black-eyed cream. I named her Linda, because I was a child and thought that was a nice name.  And her variety may have been black-eyed cream, but her tendency to bite led to her receiving the moniker “the black-eyed bitch.”

I soon found that it was very easy to get hamsters. People were quite literally giving me new ones, including an old long-haired female that live for about two weeks then fell over dead from old age.

I longed, though, for a true “wild type” hamster.  I wanted one that was marked just as the wild ones are in Syria, with white cheek flashes and sabled golden coats.

I never was able to purchase such an animal. The closed I got was what was called a cinnamon hamster. She was marked just like a wild type, but she had no black hair at all on her pelt.

She had come from Walmart, where she had been kept in a cage with several banded hamsters. The banded ones were wild type in color, but they had a white band going through their mid-section. I had managed to get two females from that cage:  this cinnamon one and a banded one.

Two weeks later, the cinnamon hamster dropped pink babies all over her cage. Apparently, a male hamster had been kept with her, and she was just in the early days of her pregnancy when I got her.

In five days, their fur started to grow in. 9 were wild-type but banded, but one was wild type in full!

I didn’t understand my Mendel in those days.  The banded trait is dominant over the non-banded, and the wild-type markings are dominant over the cinnamon. Cinnamon bred to a banded wild-type would produce young that were banded wild-type, but if the wild-type were a carrier for a non-banded hamster, it is possible to get at least one in the litter that lacked a white band.

That’s what this hamster was, and I was instantly transfixed. I spent my summer that year handling hamster babies, knowing fully-well the stories of mother hamsters eating their young if they were stressed.

The young wild-type hamster was a male, and he became the tamest hamster I ever knew. I named him Houdini, after a children’s book I had read, but he really didn’t live up to his namesake. He escaped a few times– always because I left a latch on the cage a little loose– but he was easily recovered.

One time, he did escape and was gone for several days. I was certain that he had wandered out of the house and had eventually fallen prey to some nocturnal predator.

I had all but given up on him, so I sat with a heavy heart in my grandparents’ guest room watching Nature on PBS.  I heard some rumbling sounds in the wall.  I thought I was hearing things, but the rumbling sound grew louder and louder.

I then caught movement out of the corner of my eye. It was Houdini crawling along the side of the wall. He stopped and sniffed the air, and he scurried right up to me and let me pick him up.

My childhood mind said that Houdini came to me because he loved me. My adult mind now recognizes that Houdini recognized me as a source for food. He had spent several days wandering around the walls of my grandparents’ house and had become famished in his freedom. He caught my scent on his evening travels, and he came to me to figure out if I might have some food.

But a child’s mind saw Houdini as the Lassie of the hamsters. He’d come home out of the walls just because he loved me.

Despite that childhood flight of fancy, the hamsters taught me much. I learned what it was like to be around an animal that utterly has no use for humanity.  Dogs and horses are personable animals, but a hamster is solitary, remote, and mostly nocturnal (at least in captivity).

The world they reveal is a world in which territory matters the most. The males have greasy scent glands on their hips that they rub along their tunnels to mark their realms.  The females have a musty odor, and when they are receptive to males– every four days if not bred–they get quite stinky indeed.

I got to where I could tell if a female hamster was receptive just by the intensity of the odor. This odor is an adaptation to a species with such hyper territorial behavior that they are forced to live pretty far from each other. The strong estrus odor of a female hamster is necessary to announce to the male that it is okay for him to enter her territory and mate with her. When she is not receptive, she will attack any hamster, male or female, that comes near. In this species the females are bigger and fatter than the males, and males that don’t heed the odors wind up with a dangerous situation indeed.

These captive hamsters– all derived from a single litter captured near Aleppo in the 1930s– opened my eyes to another world.

The solitary Syrian hamster lives and breeds well in captivity, but it is still mostly a wild animal. In the past few years, breeders have produced truly more docile strains of hamster, but I knew them in the raw.

In fact, I think that if I were ever to be a hamster keeper again, I would try to get a little more of the more rugged strain. I would not be buying a cute pet for the kids. I would be be buying an animal that I wish to appreciate as a wild being with its own instincts and drives and desires.  I would want to be the naturalist hamster lover again. I would keep them with the cool detachment of an adult who understands animal behavior and not the childhood anthropomorphism or “cynomorphism” that turned them into furry people or severely debased dogs.

The Syrian hamster will always mean a lot to me. They were terrible pets for the typical child, but they were the ideal subjects for a budding young naturalist who needed to know animals that weren’t dogs or horses.

They opened my mind to something else, and I will always appreciate them for their indifference and their solitary grumpiness and their general remoteness.

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This is my contribution to Rodent Week.

 

 

 

 

 

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