Archive for August, 2009


I know this title of this post is a bromide– even a cliche– but I think  it is in need of repeating every once in a while. It is always worth repeating when one watches nature documentaries.

I am a  fan of nature documentaries. I’ve always loved them, and watching them has given me insights into all sorts of conservation issues.

However, I am fully aware that a lot of these documentaries are staged and contrived.  The first time I learned about this unfortunate fact was when I learned the truth about Marty Stouffer. I loved the Wild America series, and it really troubled me that such things had happened. However, I’ve since gotten over it. What Marty Stouffer did wasn’t any worse than what I’ve seen recently.

The current craze for the channels that show wildlife documentaries is to do reality shows that mix in at least some elements of the nature documentary. The formula goes as follows: Get some half-assed Rambo or starry-eyed Farley Mowat wannabe and film him doing incredibly stupid things with animals.

Now, I distinctly remember watching a certain filmmaker’s nature documentaries. His documentaries almost always used captive animals, but he often compensated for that problem by focusing his attention on his relationship with the animals. As far as I am concerned, that is fine.

However, in 2003, I watched another documentary made by the same filmmaker.  This one was about his attempt to create a wild population of tigers in South Africa. Now, never mind that releasing wild tigers into South Africa probably isn’t the best policy. After all, South Africa has its own endangered species. Such an effort would take away from efforts to conserve them. However, at one time, there were discussion about setting up game ranches in the Southwest and Texas to conserve lions and elephants.

Now, I can’t blame the good intentions inherit in such a plan. There have been some successes with these endeavors. In Arizona, a similar program turned captive-bred oryx into the deserts, where they lived as wild animals perfectly suited for wilds of their native habitat.

However, in the case of tigers, there are really bad problems with such a plan. Tigers are predators. They are born with predatory motor patterns and prey drive. However, they have to learn how to use them to kill prey.  As far as I know, only one tiger has ever been released into the wild–“Tara,” a crossbred Amur/Bengal tiger that was raised by Billy Arjan Singh and trained to live in the wilds of Dudhwa National Park. It is possible that Tara actually polluted the gene pool of the pure Bengals living in that park, for tigers with Amur characteristics have been spotted in the park.

Now, this hybrid problem also affects the documentary in question. The only pure Bengal tigers in captivity are in India. India is not too keen on releasing its tigers to these sorts of projects.

So the filmmaker in question goes to Ontario, where he finds a zoo with lots of tigers. None are purebred. None are part of species survival plans, and at this zoo, there is trainer. This trainer offers to teach the filmmaker how to train tigers to “go wild.” (You may know this trainer from his other work. He thinks he’s the Farley Mowat of the lions. He’s likely to become Timothy Treadwell II.)

They then move a pair of tigers to South Africa, where they lease massive acreages to train their tigers. These tigers are not purebred or part of any species survival plan. Furthermore, they carry the white gene, which is much sought after in zoo tigers. However, that particular gene is not at all of any use to the tigers in the wild. Think about it– can you imagine a deer in a forest being stalked by a white glacier of a cat?

Now, the film goes like this: The trainer and the filmmaker procure game species, which they release into the tigers’ massive enclosure. The cats don’t know how to hunt them properly, but they soon learn to run the game into the fence, where they are more easily dispatched. Because these cats are inexpert hunters, they totally torture these game animals before they can place a proper kill-bite.

After the film is finished, the filmmaker takes his tigers to “wildlife preserve”– a for profit one. There he keeps them what amount to huge enclosures. The cats do not live in the wild.

However, we’ve all been sold the pup, for the documentary claims that he has created a wild population of tigers in South Africa. Of course, the cats aren’t wild. They do not have the actual skills to live in the wild. They aren’t of any recognized subspecies and are of no use to any survival plan breeding programs. They carry the white gene, which is not of any use to a wild tiger.

These facts don’t seem to trouble the filmmaker, who thinks that if he could get a private reserve with a “wild” white tiger living in it, it would be save the species. He also claims that free enterprise alone will save the tiger, because governments never work. Never mind that virtually all successful conservation programs have had to involve state action. Private enterprise might help some species– like crocodilians and maybe elephants–but most of these species need habitat protection and anti-poaching laws that are enforced. These things cannot be guaranteed by private enterprise alone.

In essence, the whole thing is a giant fraud, but it was good television– if you like watching tigers hunt in a very half-assed manner.

So after learning about this particular documentary, I’m no longer have anything negative to say about Marty Stouffer. At least he never tried a stunt like this one!

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I’d like to see these pups

“The father is a golden doodle and the mother is Lasah, Boston Terror, and Corgie.”

Let’s see, I assume “Lasah” is Lhasa apso. “Boston Terror” is Boston terrier. And “Corgie” is obviously a corgi.

All of these crossed together would produce a small dog– a rather strange looking one.

Then this dog has ten puppies with a goldendoodle, which do vary in size.


Most small dogs don’t have over 5 or 6 puppies per litter. Small dog puppies are larger in proportion to their mother’s size than large dog puppies, so bitches are normally limited in how many puppies they can have.

My guess is these puppies are very interesting in appearance and behavior– if indeed the breeds in question are the actual breeds in their make-up.

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Seriously. WTF?

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Seriously. WTF?

And if you want to see how doomed we are in terms of scientific literacy, check out the comments!

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 Photo of a collie from 1915.

Photo of a collie from 1915.

I discovered a rather interesting story about how the collie became a fancy breed. I had always heard that the collie was mixed with the borzoi to make its narrow muzzle, but I was later presented with evidence that this may not be the case. However, I did find that outside blood did indeed shape the collie into a fancy show breed. It was not what I was expecting. It is also a very interesting case study into what happens to a breed once they become “fancy” or, as their breeders call them– “improved.” I am going to directly quote what I found, for it is quite instructive:

The collie was the most popular pet dog of late Victorian England and a  prime example of a breed reconstructed to meet the figurative needs of fanciers. Collies were originally valued for the qualities they had developed as hardworking Scottish sheepdogs–intelligence, loyalty, and a warm shaggy coat. Once they were firmly established in the Stud Book, however, breeders began to introduce  modifications and improvements, which were tested not against the rigors of the Highland winter, but in the fashionable marketplace. [Emphasis mine] By 1895 there were seven independent clubs devoted to the breed’s welfare, many of which sponsored all-collie shows, as well as strong collie representation in the Kennel Club and regional canine associations. The large number of pedigreed collies seems to have been exacerbated the tendency of fanciers to fabricate subtle points of distinction between animals and artificial models to measure them against.  As a result, fashions changed swiftly and collie standards were among the most volatile; breeders redesigned their animals or restocked their kennels in accordance with the latest show results. Plasticity could even take precedence over pedigree; in order to instill some temporarily admired attribute, breeders were sometimes willing to contaminate the strain. In the early days of showing, collies were often crossed with Gordon setters to achieve then fashionable glossy, black-and-tan coats. For decades experts could detect “traces of the bar sinister”– telltale ears, head, and general heaviness– in many show animals.  Even without crossing (which became less common after the Stud Book gained sway), fashion could undermine the character of the breed. The 1890s saw a craze for exaggerated heads with long, pointy noses. In 1891 a Kennel Gazette reviewer complained that show judges had given away all the prizes “to dogs of the greyhound type whose eyes bore an inane, expressionless look.” Critics alleged that such dogs could hardly display the intelligence characteristic of their breed because there was no room in their heads for brains.

Harriet Ritvo, The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age (1989) p. 113-114.

Now, these developments partially explain why the fancy went to the closed stud book system. That certainly could reduce volatility in type, but dogs have such plasticity in their phenotype (because of tandem repeats) that fad breeding can still lead to massive shifts in type.

I’ve seen it in my own breed in just a the past few years. To me, the most of the goldens that are being offered today are nothing like the dogs I remember. The type has shifted from a more moderate and less exaggerated dog into something more heavily built and excessively feathered. The color range has shifted almost entirely. One can no longer find the darkest mahogany color in goldens, unless one really looks hard and doesn’t automatically assume that light builds and dark colors are indicative of cross-breeding with Irish setters.

So in that piece we see that one breed of dog started out with functional behavioral and physical conformation, and after just a few decades of fad breeding, it becomes a very different dog. So much for the fancy preserving dog breeds. The fancy may have that intent, but as an institution, it is very much susceptible to fads and trends, as well as contrived characteristics that are actually detrimental to the health and function of the dogs. What shepherd would want a collie with such a narrow head and very little herding instinct?

Now, I found it interesting that Gordon setters were used to increase the number of black-and-tan dogs in the bloodline. However, black and tan  and solid black were the most common colors of the British herding landrace that became the collie-type dogs. The Gordon setter got its black and tan coloration from an outcross with a black -and-tan collie. One must remember that Queen Victoria’s collies were all black-and- tan, but that particular coloration may not have been universally evident in all show collie populations. So the best way to remedy that problem was to cross-breed with Gordon setters.

I’ve heard of other such outcrosses with show dogs. Many of these have been clandestine, for the modern institutionalized fancy is based upon a closed stud book.system.  For example, I’ve read that Labrador breeders crossed in golden retrievers to reduce houndish characteristics in yellow Labradors, as well as to increase biddability (which was always a perceived problem in yellow Labradors) and lengthen the coat. As well all know, the yellow Labradors were heavily outcrossed to lemon foxhounds to increase the likelihood of producing that color, which was not evident in the St. John’s water dog. It is also well-known that flat-coated retrievers were heavily interbred into Labradors to make them more competitive in early twentieth century field trials. The faulty black-and-tan color in Labradors has always existed within the breed and within the old wavy-coated retriever, which is the ancestor of the flat-coat and the golden, but I’ve come across more than one person who claims that the black and tan color in Labradors is the result of interbreeding with Rottweilers. However, I think it is much more likely that the color is the result of the founder effect from the St. John’s water dog and from the infusion of collie and Gorden setter blood in the old wavy-coated retriever.

So the early fancy had license to crossbreed for phenotype, and the modern fancy has always had rumors about clandestine crossbreeding. My response is actually quite simple: Why can’t we have license to crossbreed for health reasons?

How could this be accomplished? Well, in the early days in which retrievers were separated into show dog breeds, there was a class called “Interbred.” Interbred dogs were a mixture of two different strains that the KC had declared separate breeds. These dogs would be run as “Interbred,” as would their offspring for three generations. After being bred to a specific breed for three generations, the phenotype of  the descendants of this interbred dog would be examined to allow it to be registered as a purebred.

I don’t see why such a system could not be implemented today, but I do worry that fad breeding would run amok in such a system, as it did with the early show collies. That is why breed standards must be evaluated and written with functional conformation in mind. Such a system is entirely absent in the dog fancy right now.

We also need controls on how often a stud dog is used to keep the gene pool more open. Today, virtually all dog breeds (especially mine) are suffering from a compromised gene pool– most of which can be blamed on using just a few stud dogs to produce a high percentage of the offspring.

I would be very happy if we got some of these reforms. It would mean that we’re finally thinking about dogs are organisms and as creatures that have feelings, emotions, and intelligence. I can’t imagine any conservation organization that would try to breed endangered species under such a weird system. Indeed, in the case of the subspecies of cougar called the Florida panther, the Texas cougar was introduced to Florida to increase genetic diversity.

But dog people don’t think like biologists. They think like proper Victorians.

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I have some complaints. Alby was known to re-film and contrive scenes. In fact, I’m sure most of this clip was faked.

He also was (I think incorrectly) accused of throwing a dog off a  moving truck. The dog jumped off  to chase a kangaroo. I believe that some dogs would actually do that!

There’s also a controversy about his infamous wreck in Brazil, which led to an even more infamous journey through the Brazilian hinterlands into Peru. That comedy of errors that was his attempted crossing from Brazil into Peru is one of my favorite Alby Mangels segments. (Hint: He doesn’t make it–not even by donkey!)

Despite the controversy, I used to watch the Travel Channel series that was made from the films. It was something of an evening ritual.

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