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The Thinning of Ludlow

To name a dog Ludlow, one must have a truly avuncular animal. And basset hound with crooked legs, pendulous dewlap, and massive zebu ears certainly fit the bill.

Ludlow was purchased for $3,000 from a breeder who had true European basset hounds for sale, and these dogs hang more loosely than the typical American basset, which still (in theory at least) being bred for the pursuit of hares and rabbits.

But Ludlow’s job was not to run the rabbit. He really didn’t have much of a job at all. Just wander the grounds of Judge Smith’s stately Georgian home, and not tear anything up.

As a pup, he’d failed a bit as at his task. He’d chewed up an expensive sofa, gnawed away at the binding of a few good books, and let his excrement fall on some imported rugs.

But he’d made it through the scoldings, and the exasperating fights where Judge Smith’s wife demanded that the pup be sent back to the breeder but eventually relented when she looked into those deep brown puppy eyes and couldn’t resist him.

A six-week obedience course smoothed out Ludlow’s rough edges, and by the time he was 18 months old, he was a nice dog to have around the house.

He got meatballs and sausage as daily treats. Sometimes he got ice cream just before bed, but he lived on dog food and bits of cheese parceled out of the fridge.

And he grew to be a fat old basset that waddled down the lawn and bayed at squirrels that leaped among the treetops of the stately oaks in the Judge’s lawn.

Such is the life for an American dog. It is a life of luxury that few other beings in the history of life have experienced, and unlike the people who daily toiled to maintain the home, he could live the life of a retiree while at the prime of his life.

When he was seven years old, though, the discs of his spine began to act up. Some weeks, he could barely walk. The vet who prescribe anti-inflammatories and rest, and above all, he would demand the Smiths put the old boy on a diet. 115 pounds is not a healthy weight for a basset, even a big boy like Ludlow.

And the Smiths would do the diet thing. They’d get Ludlow back down to 100, even 95 pounds, and then the Judge, who’d locked up his fair share of criminals, would see those sad basset eyes staring at the refrigerator.

And the fattening of Ludlow would begin again. 

For three years, Ludlow was on this seesaw diet regime. He would still have back trouble, but how could anyone refuse to feed the poor dog?

But when Ludlow hit ten years of age, it became apparent that something had to be done.  The vet said the dog was falling apart, and he had to go on a diet soon.

And it just so happened that the Judge retired within a week of the vet’s stark advice.

And this time, the Judge decided that he would do it. This time, he would switch to salads for himself and diet dog food for Ludlow and the walking would begin.

For the first two weeks, Ludlow barely made it around the neighborhood, but after that second week, he’d built up some nice muscle and a bit of endurance.

And for six months, man and dog walked and dieted. And both grew trimmer and more fit.

At next annual checkup, Ludlow weighed in at a strapping 83 pounds. The vet estimated that his ideal weight would be 78 pounds, but he was closer to that weight than he’d been since his was a puppy.

Ludlow’s back and joints were tighter, and he looked like a true hound of noble breeding and not some slobby old seal of a dog.

His back stopped bothering him, and that winter, Ludlow realized a new activity: chasing squirrels.

For the first time in his life, Ludlow began to run the squirrels, and he would do it for several hours a day.  No longer encumbered by so much fat and a lack of muscle, he was now a lithe running dog.

And at the age of 11, he was now fitter and more trim than he had ever been.

The next time the vet weighed him, he was 80 pounds, but he was no longer the fat dog he once was. He was a fit beast at last.

Never again did Ludlow get fat. He lived on to the ripe age of 16, truly ancient for a basset.

Fat is never good for a dog.  They are adapted to run long and hard. and we’ve made them softer and less healthy than we ever have in history.

But we can make it right. If we can refuse the sad eyes at the fridge and take them out for a good run.

That’s all they need.

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Herding with Quest

So Jenna and I tried something very different today. We went up to work with Quest on sheep with  a herding trainer instructor, Tonya Haney of WORK N GSD

We thought Quest might possess the instinct. He tries to herd Poet, the little brindle whippet,  when we play ball with them, and his mother has been on sheep before and does have the instinct.

Keep in mind that Quest had never seen sheep before, and he is of a breed that relatively few people use on livestock. So we honestly had no idea what he would do.

Well, this 8-month-old pup really does have the instinct.

After we saw that he could do it, I gave it a go.

He’s just started on sheep, but it is really amazing to see that he has this instinct to gather up the sheep. The brown one kept breaking off from the other three, and he would put pressure on it to make it flock properly.

We had  a lot of fun trying Quest out on sheep, but I doubt we had as much fun as he did. He really loves to do what his ancestors were bred to do,

Yes, Quest is a show dog. He will very likely have an AKC conformation championship and maybe an actual show career as he matures.

But it would be great to get him some titles on both ends of his name.

So we will be doing this a lot in the future.

Plus, there are few things more beautiful than a well-bred, sound German shepherd trotting around you as it herds sheep.

If you’ve never seen it in person, it is truly a sight to behold. 

We have a fox

I’ve written many, many words about wild canids, but I’ve never lived with one.

Until now. Jenna asked me one morning if we could pick up a free fox that was being offered in Craig’s List.

And I didn’t say no…

So we got Clive, a cross phase red fox. His previous owners were feeding him cheap dog food and not the cat food he really needs to thrive. He also was being kept in a tiny dog crate. He now lives in a German shepherd-sized dog crate with lots of house time to run around.

I had no idea Ohio was so open to allowing people to keep pet foxes. You have to apply for a $25.00 permit through the Ohio DNR, and a conservation officer comes to your house and approves it. So Clive is fully legal through the state of Ohio. In Ohio, you can buy a fox from a breeder with your permit, but you cannot just catch little ones in the woods and try to make them pets.

Jenna and I have a lot of dog experience, but he’s still not fully domesticated. He likes to steal things and hide them, and if he decides an item is worth guarding from you, don’t try to take it. Also if you don’t keep his cage clean enough, it will smell like burning rubber. That’s what his glands smell like.

I wouldn’t recommend one of these to just anyone, but if you want something a little different, it’s worth looking into. 

Most states in the US are not as lax as Ohio when it comes to keeping foxes, so please consult your state’s wildlife agencies before trying to get one of your own.

This is the most interesting animal I’ve ever lived with. He wags his tail at you just like a dog, and he loves to have his ears rubbed. He gets those zoomie things that dogs get, which he does all over the house.

We don’t let him interact with the dogs, because he’s a bit stroppy, they are bit leery of him, and he’s pretty fragile. He’s really not much more than an Italian greyhound with lots of fluff.

He’s not a Belyaev domestic fox, but whoever bred him was definitely concerned with producing a fox that is fairly docile and friendly.

You may judge me for keeping such an animal, but I think we can provide him a far better home than just about anyone else who’d pick up a fox on Craig’s List.

I’ll be writing about him a lot more, and there will be Youtube video. I am looking into buying a gray fox from a breeder this next spring, which is sort of my dream animal.

So yes, we are crazy, Crazy to like foxes!

When I was a kid, Nature on PBS had a documentary about Simien jackals in the Ethiopian Highland. I remember being so fascinated by these jackals, particularly how they lived in extended family groups centered around a breeding pair. Even then, I marveled at how these animals had such a similar social structure to wolves, and my childish speculations made me wonder if these jackals could have told us how pack behavior in wolves first evolved.

But I grew up in an era before the internet, and I didn’t spend time looking at Simien jackals until I was in undergrad. I was at an old Borders bookstore, which don’t exist anymore, and I picked up a guide to African mammals. I perused my way to the canid section, hoping to find the section on bat-eared foxes. I had just read a book that documented the touching paternal behavior of this species, and I wanted to see if the guide mentioned this behavior. As I flipped through the pages, I came across the photo of the Simien jackal, but the caption under it said “Ethiopian wolf.”

I was somewhat confused by this new designation, so I read through entry on this new “wolf.”  The entry elucidated that some new DNA studies had found that the Simien jackal was found to be much more closely related to wolves than to other jackals in Africa, and the new name reflected this genetic discovery.

At the time, I was much more science illiterate than I am now, and I began to wonder if wolves had truly lived throughout Africa during the Pleistocene. Maybe these wolves were the source of the domestic dog, because we humans were a truly African species.

Later on, more studies came out.  Lots of papers suggested that some North African golden jackals were some kind of relict form of wolf in Africa, but most strongly suggested that there still were golden jackals in Africa. It was only 2015, that more in depth analysis of golden jackal, wolf, and coyote DNA revealed that all golden jackals in Africa were actually derived from a gray wolf-like ancestor. The current move it to call these animals African wolves or golden wolves, but a huge debate exists on what the exact scientific name should be: Canis lupus lupaster? Canis lupaster? Canis anthus?

I remain agnostic on what the exact scientific name for the golden wolf should be. I need more evidence, more data, before I’m going to latch  onto something. All of these problems are greatly complicated by the discovery that coyotes and gray wolves are much more closely related to each other than we thought, and the proposed million-year split between the two species was often used to gauge when the rest of the genus diverged.  These animals might all be much more closely related to each other than we imagined. 

But an even more surprising discovery just came out.  A recent genome comparison study revealed that hybridization was a major part of the evolution of wolf-like canids, but it also revealed that the golden wolf was itself a hybrid between Ethiopian wolf and the gray wolf. The authors did not estimate when this hybridization happened, but it clearly did.

This discovery points to this possible story about the Ethiopian wolf. Ethiopian wolves and gray wolves are not in any way sympatric. When the Ethiopian wolf was thought to be the only wolf in Africa, it was marveled at how a wolf managed to hold on in Africa, holding onto the last remaining cold parts of East Africa in the Ethiopian Highlands.

But if the golden wolf is really a hybrid between the gray wolf and the Ethiopian wolf, the Ethiopian wolf must have had a wider range. I bet it was even more generalist in its predation habits to have had such a wide range than the current rodent-filled diet of its surviving population. 

And then at some point, gray wolves began to wander down into Africa. These were probably primitive forms of the species, perhaps explaining why Himalayan wolves, a supposed basal form of gray wolf, share an x-chromosome with the golden wolf.

These gray wolves swamped the Ethiopian wolf range in North and East Africa, mating with the Ethiopian wolf.  This African gray wolf evolved to become smaller and more generalist, much like a jackal, but in the main, it retained a hybrid genome that is 72 percent gray wolf and 28 percent Ethiopian wolf.

For whatever reason, the gray wolf and the hybrid golden wolf never spread into the Ethiopian Highlands, where the Ethiopian wolf remained as relatively pure species.  These Ethiopian Highlands wolves had adapted to a rodent-rich diet in some of the harshest terrain in Africa, and there, they live on a relics from a time that has since passed.

They are like the last woolly mammoths of Wrangel and St. Paul Islands. The woolly mammoth of North America and Eurasia went extinct 10,000, but the ones on these two islands held on for much longer. The one on St. Paul went extinct 5,600 years ago, while the Wrangel Island population went extinct around 4,000 years ago. The St. Paul population went extinct as the lake on the island failed to provide them enough water, while the Wrangel population suffered a damaging blow when a deleterious mutation, which caused the mammoths to develop coats much like “satin” rabbits in which the coat grew shiny but less dense and useful for protection against the element, spread throughout the very inbred population.

By the time those mammoths went extinct, human civilizations were already well-advanced. We were already moving well into the agrarian epoch of Mesopotamia and Egypt, and we ceasing to be creatures of nature and becoming what we think we now are.

If the mammoths of Wrangel had never developed that deleterious mutation, we might be able to see them today, just as we can with the Ethiopian wolf.

Ethiopia today promotes the Ethiopian wolf as a major attraction in ecotourism. The country is doing all it can to preserve the species, and it very well be saved, so long as diseases from domestic dogs are held at bay and inbreeding issues don’t result the gene pool becoming swamped with a deleterious mutation or just general inbreeding depression.

No Ethiopian wolf will ever be on display at a Western zoo. You have to go to Ethiopia to see one. They hold onto this precious relic and treasure it as a vital natural resource and national treasure.

And that is how an endangered species should be treated. 

Not so long ago, in terms of the history of our species and certainly not long ago in the history of the world, two “cheetahs” roamed North America, probably running the pronghorn and Odocoileus deer. They were fast and svelte like that cat of Africa and Asia, but they did not make it into the present fauna guild of this continent. 

The great extinction of the megafauna eventually wiped out the dire wolf and these running cats, which were replaced by the gray wolf sweeping down out of Eurasia and from the cougar recolonizing from South America.

Humans probably saw these cats and maybe stole their kills, maybe not though. They were running cats in the era when North America was like frigid Africa, where the faunal guilds of Eurasia and South America ran long and hard into each other. That of Eurasia eventually dominated in the end, but the opossum and the North American porcupine still made it, even though they were part of that austral losing team.

And where there were scores of fake antelope running about with our swift deer, there were two species of coursing cat to put them to flight.  
Miracinonyx was their genus, and M. trumani and M. inexpectus were the two species.  Trumani was more like a cheetah, and inexpectus was more like a very svelte cougar.

For much of my life, these animals were classified as American cheetahs, and there was a whole mythos about cheetahs first evolving in North America. And yes, it’s true that the cheetah’s closest relatives that still live today are the cougar and the jaguarundi, both of which are truly cats of the Americas.

But a few enterprising researchers were able to get some ancient mitochondrial DNA from trumani, and with careful comparison, they found that trumani was most closely related to the cougar. 

So we now think that the cheetah evolved in the Old World from an ancient cougar-like ancestor, but in North America, one form of ancient cougar begat two species with cheetah-like adaptations.

We call this sort of evolution “parallel evolution” in which two descendants evolve similar characters that are not shared by the common ancestor. It is similar to convergent evolution, which is the same sort of evolution without a direct relationship, but in convergent evolution, the common ancestor is so distant that it almost isn’t worth considering, such as the common ancestor of aardvarks and anteaters.

So North America never had any kind of cheetah. What we had instead were “coursing cougars.”

A piece of me longs to have seen one in the flesh, and for a time, cryptozoologists traveled around Mexico looking for such an animal. There were always references to “onzas” in the colonial literature of Mexico, and even today, onza is the term used for a particular cat in the countryside.  Onza means cheetah in Spanish, and there was always a hope that it referred to these old coursing cougars. 

But every lead led to a jaguarundi, which looks like an oddly-colored cheetah-cougar hybrid in miniature, or to really thin specimens of the cougar species.

So the coursing cougars went the way of the Smilodon and the dire wolf and the woolly mammoth.

But when you realize what was here some 12,000 years ago, it’s hard to not to be caught in flights of fancy. Our current wildlife seem picayune by comparison, but we once had all the majesty of the beasts of Africa south of the Sahara.

We’ve lost all these animals during that great extinction, and now we are looming into another one, this one definitely caused by our own actions.

And the cheetahs of Africa hold on by a thread. Those of Asia have almost gone entirely. They exist only in a narrow range in the north of Iran.  There may not be 50 of them left.

Extinction looms. We know it, and yet we feel so paralyzed by its inevitability, we wonder if we can act, if we can change, before it is too late.

To be a running cat is become a true specialist. To be a courser in a world already full of long-distance running dogs is to flirt with near extinction all the time.

But twice this form of cat evolved and ran long and hard across three continents.

Not a bad gamble in the terms of evolution’s blind whims.

They ran Charolais on this rugged green ridgeland.  For forty  years, the big white cattle bellowed across the hollows, and the cows marched with their snowball calves in the greening days of April. The big bulls sat in the last remaining copses of oak trees on the land, chewing their cuds and resting all docile and dowdy through those sweltering days of summer.

But the world moved on. The farm family that ran the cattle was losing its grip on the land. Each generation left fewer and fewer people who were willing to commit to cattle husbandry. Now, there was one son, and he was taking a job on an oil rig in the far Gulf of Mexico. He just couldn’t run the cattle anymore.

The price of the Charolais beef had dropped over the years.They bred them almost entirely as a specialty, as a tradition, and now it was all over. The herd was sold to the feedlots, one in South Dakota and another in Tennessee.  The remaining herd bulls would go to Kansas to be bred as purebred Charolais at a specialist breeding program.

The final days of the cattle were on those green, sweet days of June, when the sun bakes the land and the grass grows perfectly green succulent. This would be the time after the first hay-cutting and before the second, when the rowen started to grow up among the stalks of the fallen first cutting. The rabbits would soon be kindling among the growing stalks, and maybe a litter or two wold be born and raised before the mowing machines came again.

But this year, the rabbits bred unmolested and the hayfield grew thick and green and then went to seed in the sun. No machine would come and cut down the grass, and rabbits would have their green refuge for the season.

And so the cows took their calves into the greenery, and the bulls rested their haunches in the oak lots.

It was sweet and settling, and in any other year, it would be the time when the cattle could be watched and the farm hand could breathe in the air and take a bit of time of ease.

But this year, it was all logistics of cattle trailers and health certificates. Recalcitrant haulers and busy veterinarians were on the phone all through the morning and evening.

It takes a lot of planning to end what had been a way of life. Indeed, the idea of it all being a way of life had already become the cliche of the demise of the family farm. But just because it was a cliche, didn’t mean it wasn’t true, and it was just as painful.

The long days of June were Halcyon days, just as they always were. But the first haulers showed up, and the first batch cows and calves left. 

It was raining when the trailer for the bulls showed up, and they splashed so much mud over their porcelain white hides that one could be forgiven for thinking they belonged to an entirely different breed.

And the haulers kept coming and taking away the cattle. And one day, there just a little scrub band of cows with calves.

And the thunder rolled in that last night before their hauler arrived. The sky lit up brightly withe sheet lightning, and the muggy air seemed to sweat and sweat until the deluge of rain came falling. The lightning cast the silhouettes of cows and calves in a truly ethereal scene. They were like ghosts standing upon the green grass as the sky dropped the buckets of rain. 

And then sky drew silent, and red June sun began its rising. The robins and thrushes and cardinals lifted their voices in song, and the day came roaring in on the land.

The final hauler arrived and the last of the cattle were loaded in the mud, and the cattle trailer headed down the dirt road, casting off to the southwest to Tennessee.

The meadowlarks sang in the pasture grass.  Crows flitted about the scene, and a pair of wild turkey hens came marching through pastures with 21 poults among them. They inspected the cowpies for bits of grain and grubs, and then moseyed on through the pasture in a singing, clucking phalanx of feathers and down.

They could not know that these were the last cowpies to be deposited upon the land. They merely came through pasture land on their wild foraging excursions, and they could not know that what was will never be again.

The sun of July and August would soon beat down upon the old pasture land. The manure would bake in the sun, and the scarabs would carry off what remained.

And the only thing that would remain of the cattle-land would be the deep furrows in the steep hill pastures that marked long years of bovine inertia moving hard upon the rocks and soil with cloven hooves.

And so another cattle farm went away, and just like the bison that once ranged these same ridges, they slipped away into the long draw of history.

And thus ended the final days of the cattle, and the grass grew thick and lush.  The wild multiflora rose run riot through the pasture in the coming years, and the Virginia and white pines would come to take the land. Then would come the aspen colonies and the drumming grouse.

Back to the forest the land would return, no longer a Jeffersonian farmstead of legend, but a bit of land left feral for the bears and the bobcats and the squacking squirrels. 

Shaggy

I had an old dog. His name was shaggy.

Long matted hair and tail so waggy

His mom was a collie. His daddy a rambler,

Half Airedale and a half springer spaniel.

He killed the rats and groundhogs

Screwed the bitches and fought the dogs.

He looked so cute and brown and black

But he’d run a deer down if it had a big rack.

He didn’t listen. He didn’t mind.

He was only interested in being his kind.

Shaggy wasn’t perfect. He wasn’t well-heeled.

He just wanted to run all free-wheeled.

A farm dog born of manor and mirth,

His kind once ran hard on the earth.

But just as passed on a winter’s day,

I knew I’d never again have a dog that way.

We now must keep them locked up well

And not let them roam heaven and hell.

But still I miss that wild freeborn wag

That came from old mongrel Shag.

***

Forgive me my doggerel. I composed all this nonsense as I was going to bed one night.

I never had a dog named Shaggy, but I knew many dogs like him.

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