Archive for July, 2015
The story of Cecil the lion is one I’ve avoided. I absolutely abhor stories that involve one animal cause celebre, be it Marius the Danish giraffe or some abused dog.
I dislike animal cruelty. I dislike poachers even more.
So you will not be getting any defenses of Dr. Walter Palmer from me.
But we’ve been dealing with poaching in Africa for a long time now, and that is not the part of the story I find disturbing.
What I find disturbing is that social media has turned into a giant lynch mob.
When an American dentist named Walter Palmer killed a beloved lion named Cecil, the social media platforms that allowed outraged web users to spread the story also enabled them to do more than just fume. It gave them the power to act on their anger, to reach into Palmer’s life and punish him for what he’d done, without having to wait for the wheels of more formal justice to turn.
Web users uncovered Palmer’s personal information, including about his family, and published it online. They went after his business, a private dental practice, posting thousands of negative reviews on Yelp and other sites. The practice has since shut down. Users also went after professional websites that host his profile, leading the sites to remove his information. On Twitter and on his practice’s public Facebook page, people made threats of physical violence.
This should look familiar: It is the same set of tactics that has been used in online harassment campaigns such as the “Gamergate” movement that targeted women in technology, or the seemingly endless online harassment conducted against female journalists. It is a growing trend of internet mob justice, one that often bleeds into real-world harassment with real-world consequences.
It’s actually pretty similar to Gamergate.
This is the mob, and because the mob has projected onto Dr. Palmer the worst possible evil, it is totally okay to be an asshole to bring about justice.
Of course, this also gets mixed in with calls to ban all lion-hunting, and at the risk of getting the same treatment as Palmer, I’m going to say that this is a very short-sighted reaction.
Let’s get some facts on the table first.
Lions are not easy animals to live with. They are huge predators that have killed people, but they also do enjoy eating cattle.
If you’re a poor farmer in Sub-Saharan Africa, you are not going to like lions very much. You’re not going to be sitting by the campfire at night in awe of the roaring lions. You’re not going to be proud that all these Westerners love lions so much that they will raise an internet lynch mob to get someone who poached one.
Instead, you’re probably sitting by the fire with a gun or a spear, hoping that the damned things don’t show up an take a calf.
And you certainly hope they don’t kill your children while they sleep.
Most of the people engaging in the lynch mob who are also excoriating hunting have never lived anywhere near large carnivores. Even those of us who live near black bears in the East Coast honestly don’t have a clue. Black bears are timid creatures that have killed very few people in recorded history of this continent.
We have no clue what it’s like to live with large predators. Predators would be a constant worry for our ancestors living in hunter-gatherer camps, and even in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, predation by wolves was a constant worry.
Most Westerners live in cities, and the city has an insulating affect. Most people have never seen an animal kill anything, unless they see it on television.
And what most people see on television is pretty sanitize. Sir David Attenborough readily admitted that the most gory parts of predatory sequences had to be clipped from his documentaries.
Most Westerners think of lions as being really big cats.
Which is exactly what they are.
However, even a domestic cat can be a fierce predator to a mouse or a songbird.
And when you scale up a cat to the size of a lion, you are the mouse or the songbird.
We have a very distorted view of what lions are about. The Lion King posits that the lion cub gets presented by the mandrill on top of the big cliff and all the subject animals, which are mostly things that lions eat, are just elated to see their new prince.
In truth, most of these animals would be avoiding a lion with cubs, and in the case of African buffalo, they would be actively seeking out the cub to trample it to death.
It is certainly true that lion numbers have dropped in recent years.
In 1975, there were an estimated 250,000 lions in Africa. There are now 25-30,000.
Were those lions all killed by trophy hunters?
Even if we accept that some were, there is just no way there are that many trophy hunters in the world who would kill that many lions.
No, what really got the lions is that in many countries where they are found populations are on the rise, but the economies are not growing fast enough to keep up with the population growth. Millions of people are being forced to farm and raise stock in the last redoubts of lions, and the lions start to cause problems.
If your’e a poor person living in Africa, you have every reason to want lions dead. Lion poisoning is becoming quite common in Kenya and in other parts of Africa. Poisoning does in entire prides of lions, but it takes care of the problem from the perspective of the poor farmer.
If we Westerners truly value lions, then we have to think of ways to make the lives of people living in those regions better. One way to do this is to create some sort of economic value for lions, and the best way to do this is to allow some limited, managed hunting.
Now, hunting like this can be abused, and it is certainly true that a lot of the money spent on this kind of hunting doesn’t stay in the communities, but it is still enough of a payment to give people incentive to keep lions alive.
Managed hunting, by definition, is not the same kind of hunting that seeks to make animals extinct. It is a kind of hunting that we’d recognize in our own country, especially if we paid some attention to the conservation policies of Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt began a conservation revolution in this country. Before his time, we saw wild animals as either commodities or nuisances. When we began to conserve them as game animals, they were seen as creatures with value that extended beyond that animal’s life.
Using this conservation tool, we’ve seen all sorts of species rebound from near extinction. The cougar that was wiped out in the East is making a strong comeback in the West, where it is still hounded with strictly regulated hunting (except in California, where the cougars carry off dogs on a pretty regular basis).
But the US is rich country, and most of Africa is not. Land and resources are being stretched.
If we do want lions to exist, we either say that the lives of Africans don’t matter or we say that we have to use trophy hunting as way of generating funds and adding value to the people who otherwise would be better off without them.
No country in Africa would ever set up such a draconian conservation policy that would deny people the right to graze their cattle on public lands or on private property. They might deny it in a park, but outside the park, they are much more likely to look the other way if a lion gets killed.
Westerners look upon the lion situation with self-righteous ignorance. We can’t be bothered to elect politicians who will actually do a thing about climate change, which is driving extinctions left and right, and we can’t be bothered to stop having children or curbing our rapacious desire for new stuff.
But we can tell the poor nations of Africa that they must save their lions– just don’t ask us to pay for it!
Cecil the lion was named for Cecil Rhodes. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, perhaps you’ve heard of the Rhodes Scholar program at Oxford that was funded through his estate. Rhodes was champion of British imperialism and a diamond magnate in Southern Africa. He was instrumental in getting a chunk of southeastern Africa added to the British Empire which were called “the Rhodesias”. Rhodes wound up ruling that region as a part of the British South Africa Company. Yes. It was essentially a corporate colony, which Rhodes as the CEO. The region of the Rhodesias became a land of white landowners with large numbers of landless native Africans working on the plantations and mines.Southern Rhodesia became independent under the racist regime of Ian Smith. Dylann Roof, the Charleston church shooter, would pose with two flags on his jacket. One of these was Ian Smith’s Rhodesian flag, and Rhodesia, Ian Smith, and Cecil Rhodes have long captured the imagination of white supremacists
So Westerners have named a lion in honor of a brutal imperialist.
The West has grown fat off of Africa. First with the slaves. Then with the gold and the ivory and the diamonds.
And now when the Africans try to live in basket-cases we’ve left behind, we excoriate them for killing lions. We excoriate them for poisoning them, and we excoriate them when they try to raise money for conservation by selling a few tags to trophy hunters.
The West has forgotten what it’s done to Africa.
And the West is now so far removed from that natural world and its processes that it cannot have a reasoned moral discussion about how to best save the African lion.
It’s all turpitude masquerading as morality.
Cecil the lion was a killer. He killed game animals to survive. When took over his pride, he killed his predecessor’s cubs in order to bring the lionesses into estrus again.
He was not Mufasa or Simba.
He was a great cat who lived by the tooth and the claw, and he was magnificent. He lived a life far better than most dogs in North America, who spend their days pacing behind closed fences. He lived, breathed, fought, and fucked.
A poacher killed him, but if a poacher had not, he probably would have been killed an in an even more horrific manner. Male lions don’t rule over their prides forever. Soon or later, another male lion or a coalition of males would have overthrown him, and he would have either been killed by them or died from his wounds. Or he would have starved to death as he tried to eke out an existence on the edge of pride territories.
He may have been already a victim of an overthrow, and maybe that was the reason he was so easily lured out of Hwange National Park so easily.
The poacher may have actually done the old boy a favor.
What irks me most, though, is that we now live in this bizarre world that combines ignorance of wildlife management issues with the disgusting behavior of a lynch mob.
It’s more sound and fury, but this does signify something.
Western man is a totally adrift in this world.
He will either burn us all up or blow us all up, because he’d rather be self-righteous than think critically.
And that scares the hell out of me.
A study was released today in the journal Current Biology that will radically change how we classify the genus Canis.
Using genome-wide analysis, researchers led by Klaus-Peter Koepfl found that African golden jackals, including those that have recently been classified as African wolves (Canis lupus lupaster), are all genetically distinct from Eurasian golden jackals.
But they are also distinct enough from wolves to be considered their own species, which has been posited as Canis anthus, the African golden wolf. Previous studies had suggested that certain African golden jackals were actually a primitive form of wolf, but these studies were based upon mitochondrial DNA alone.
This study compared a relatively large sample of nuclear DNA from several related Canis species, and it found that golden jackals of Eurasia and those of Africa were not even closely related to each other. African golden jackals split from the coyote/wolf lineage some 1.3 million years ago, while Eurasian golden jackals split off about 1.8 million years ago.
This pretty much ends the question of Canis lupus lupaster, but it does create an interesting question.
In the Guardian‘s article on the study, Koepfli thinks that the reason these two species, the golden jackal of Eurasia and the African golden wolf, were considered the same species is because of parallel evolution.
I actually disagree with this assessment. If you go back and start looking at fossils of old wolf-like canids, they all start to look very jackal-like.
Indeed, as I’ve pointed out here many times, the black-backed and side-striped jackals are quite genetically divergent from the other wolf-like canids. They are more genetically distinct from the rest of Canis than the African wild dog and the dhole are, and both the dhole and African wild dog each has its own genus. (My remedy for this paraphyly in Canis is to put the dhole and African wild dog in Canis, but it also could be solved by creating a genus for the side-striped and black-backed jackals, which is what I think the move will be).
The reason why these two jackals look like both forms of golden jackal and the coyote is that all of these animals represent primitive forms of Canis. The ancestor of the large northern wolves that everyone knows was a coyote- or jackal-like canid, as was the ancestor of the African wild dog and the dhole.
“Primitive,” as I am using it here, means that an animal retains traits of the ancestor that sister taxa have lost. So in this perspective, the various jackal and coyote species still look very much like the common ancestor of all Canis. This type of dog is quite versatile, for it is big enough to defend itself from many other predators but it is small enough to subsist on rodents and carrion.
So now, genome-wide studies have done the following to canid taxonomy:
1. Found that the eastern wolf and red wolf are recent hybrids between wolves and coyotes and are not actually an ancient wolf species.
2. Found that red foxes in North America may be a distinct species from those of Eurasia and North Africa
3. Found that there are two species in what we used to call the golden jackal: the African golden wolf and the Eurasian golden jackal, which we might just drop to “Eurasian jackal” for common nomenclature.
So we’ve lost two species in the dog family and gained two.
And I would argue that we should recognize the tanuki of Japan as a disctinct species from the rest of the raccoon dog species, and I would also argue that the island fox of the Channel Islands is a subspecies of the mainland gray fox. It is far less genetically distinct from the gray fox than the domestic dog is from the wolf.
We also need to do similar studies on South Indian and Himalayan wolves, which have distinct mtDNA lineage.
I would really like to know what the genome-wide analysis would reveal on those two wolves.
I would also like to see an examination of black-backed and side-striped jackal populations, because I suspect there is some interbreeding where the ranges of the two species overlap.
Jackals have never been really interesting to scientists studying the dog family, but it is likely that the first canids that wandered the camps of our hunter-gatherer ancestors were black-backed jackals. It was their barks that alerted us to approaching leopards, and they got to lick some of our pots and eat some offal.
But they never made the same leap that wolves did. It is for this reason alone that I think one should be skeptical of hypotheses on dog origin that rely upon scavenging and the inheritances flight distances alone as the determining factor. No one has seen a spotted jackal of any species or one with floppy ears, but they are the world champions of scavenging.
Jackals just lack the charisma of the larger dog species, but I do know that if I ever get to Africa, the first species I want to see is the black-backed jackal. Then we’ll worry about the big cats.
Yep. I’m that much of a canid enthusiast!
This is a clipping from the Illustrated Sporting News from March 28, 1908. It is about Lewis Harcourt’s golden retrievers and their talents compared to other strains that were bred for a more uniform type.
The text of the piece, for those who might have trouble reading the text, goes as follows:
When Mr. Harcourt’s yellow retrievers were exhibited at Cruft’s Show, the dog-show critics condemned them for want of uniformity. That was a display of ignorance, of educated ignorance, for in any pure bred, and necessarily inbred race, the greatest characteristic it can possess is its differences. In other words, the breed qualities condemnatory of the mongrel are the salvation of thorough-breds. For thirty, or more, years, Lord Tweedmouth has passed this breed of sandy-coloured retrievers. Ideal breeding cannot be found in breeding for colour, because it is reminiscent of the remark of the Suffolk sportsman, that “there is a toy in the kennel of every sportsman, from his honour to the rat-catcher.” But there has been no ideal retriever breeding for many years. It has been governed by show influences, or breeding for uniformity of error. Consequently, the colour fad is quite as likely to have done less harm than the breeding for uniformity [of type], particularly when we remember that the colour faddists have always been sportsmen and the uniformity faddists have not. Besides this, there is evidence of a public sort that there is working instinct left in this race. Mr. A. T. Williams’ crack field trial Don of Gerwn was by one of them, and no dog has distinguished himself more in public than this liver-coloured one. Now that a race of breeders of retrievers are arising who breed for nothing but work and have a large field of choice, it will become harder to maintain a particular colour in small numbers at the high working standard that is sure to be set. On the other hand, it does not follow that crosses with best working black dogs will stamp out the golden colour (pg. 126).
This piece points out that this strain of flat-coated retriever, which became the basis for the modern golden retriever breed, were actually pretty influential in the main flat-coated retriever breed at the time. Don of Gerwn, mentioned in the piece, was the winning of the 1905 International Gun Dog League’s retriever trial in 1905, and his sire was one of Lord Tweedmouth’s yellow retrievers named Lucifer.
The author of this piece was obviously a practical sportsman, excoriating show breeders and pointing out that if you start breeding for type alone, you start producing lots of useless dogs. The author’s line about every kennel having a “toy” in it is probably always truism, no matter what sort of working dogs are being bred, but the implication is that retriever breeding up to that time had gone astray as wavy/flat-coated retrievers were being bred with a heavy emphasis on making them look more uniform in type.
The original wavy-coated or flat-coated retrievers were quite variable in type. Some showed a stronger St. John’s water dog or “Newfoundland” type, while others were very setter-like. Both really wavy coats and extreme straight coats were found in the breed, which is one reason why the breed had two different names.
The “golden retriever” strain had been closely held by only a few devoted sporting families, and they were used for sporting work, mostly picking up from grouse and pheasant shoots and tracking wounded deer. There was not a strong selection for uniformity in type, just for the yellow to red color.
The “golden retriever” strain retained a lot of variance in type that was being lost as the wavy-coated retriever began to develop along a much more narrowly defined creature. Flat-coats were having the bone bred out of them, and in the drive to make them straight-coated, there was a selection away from the dense undercoat that protected their Newfoundland ancestors from the cold water and kept British land retrievers well-insulated from thorn pricks.
Today, the golden retriever’s diversity in type is something that ought to be celebrated. It is in the golden retriever breed that the old wavy-coated retriever’s diversity in conformation was preserved, and it is in part because of this diversity that the golden retriever wound up thriving as a breed while the flat-coated retriever has become quite rare (and almost became extinct).
Beyond the narrowness of discussion of golden retriever types, though, is the pernicious desire of the show ring culture to produce cookie cutter dogs. Many breeds have excluded colors, like the pied in mastiffs, the white in German shepherds, and the yellow in modern flat-coated retrievers. Others, like the Portuguese water dog, have a coat type that is excluded. These dogs with “improper coats” look a lot like flat-coated retrievers, but they have been deemed essential for the breed’s survival. Even though a genetic test now exist that determines whether a bearded dog carries the improper coat, the breed club urges breeders not to exclude those dogs.
Which is pretty forward-thinking for the modern dog fancy.
Diversity is seen as an aberration in the world of purebred dogs. In working dogs, people are more willing to allow for conformation or color differences because it means one can select more for working characteristics, but in a show dog, the looks really do matter to the point that it becomes much harder to select for working traits. It also becomes harder to select for health and genetic diversity.
The more one narrowly defines the “correct” criteria for breeding selection, the harder it becomes to breed for sustainable gene pools across the breed.
In this way, in a purebred dog the greatest characteristic it can possess is an acceptance of diversity. In golden retrievers and Labradors, there is already a very wide acceptance for diversity, but in breeds like mastiffs and pugs, there is very little tolerance for this essential diversity.
In 1908, golden retrievers were just a few years from becoming an actual breed, instead of a strictly working-bred strain of flat-coated retriever. Ever since the two breeds have split, yellow flat-coats still pop up, and they are now usually sold with the understanding never to be used for breeding. However, they tell us very clearly that these two breeds didn’t arrive as separate specially created kinds that jumped off of Noah’s ark.
The two breeds are part and parcel of each other, so much so now that the flat-coated retriever that exists now is really but a sub-type of what we call a golden retriever– at least that’s what the DNA says. If you ever follow the pedigrees of golden retrievers, you’ll hit black flat- or wavy-coats soon enough.
Much more so than in 1908 does the modern flat-coat needing new blood. Plans to cross flat-coats with goldadors (golden retriever/Labrador crosses) from guide schools have been rumored. There was even a discussion about crossing them with Labradors in Britain a few years ago, but it never went anywhere.
The closed registry system no longer rewards innovators like Lord Tweedmouth or Lewis Harcourt. Innovation, which we celebrate with our crossbred hogs and beef cattle, is now abhorrent in the world of dogs.
And has been for quite some time.
But it still stands that diversity is not the enemy of sound breed management.
So here’s to the yellow flat-coats, pied mastiffs, and parti-colored Gordon setters.
Someday, you’ll be appreciated for what you give to your breed, but it make take a lot more disease and suffering for us to recognize it.
Until then, let this article from 107 years ago tell us that truly knowledgeable dog people knew better than the modern fanciers. It was our fair warning.
To which too many didn’t heed.
He’s almost done growing in his adult breeding plumage:
And he has discovered his purpose in life, nailing two pekin hens within five minutes:
Just don’t give her your cell phone number!