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Archive for August, 2018

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Every hare, every day, evades predators. Hares have evolved in different directions than humans– one of the most pernicious fallacies of animal rights is that animals feel and in some ways think that they are just deformed humans….Hares are splendid at being hares, and likely don’t dwell for a moment on the horrors of the chase. If a human were chased every day, he would become neurotic, fearful, crazy. Hares, if chased every day, still enjoy life. How could they not, and still be around, be hares?

–Stephen Bodio, The Hounds of Heaven: Living and Hunting with an Ancient Breed.

Night fell upon the newly mowed hay field.  It was the last cutting of the year and final tall stalks of grass were now lying out flat upon the ground. The dry September sun would dry out the stalks for a few days. Then the baling machines would arrive, and the grass would be bound as stored forage for the hoofed stock on the coming days little sunlight and hard freezes and driving snow squalls.

On hot summer evenings, cottontail rabbits like to see along the tram roads that lead in and out of the hay field. The roads make for easy running and the clover grows thick in the tracks, and clover is the best thing for the lactating rabbit does to munch down. The tall grass obscures their body forms from the piercing eyes of hawks and owls, and so the tram roads become their little restaurants, where the clover nourishes their bodies but the killers from the sky cannot spy them.

But the mowing has changed this dynamic. The tall grass is down, and the refuge it provided was gone.  The hawks and the owls would surely see the rabbits on the road now, but the rabbits are creatures of habit and territory. So they came to the tram road to graze uneasily among the clover.

The predator that came did not come from the sky that evening. The mowing machine cuts up quite a few mice and voles and bog lemmings as tears through the grass, and their blood and offal and decaying forms cast scents into the air. The local turkey vultures spent much of the late afternoon sifting through the downed grass stalks for a bit of sweet, juicy carnage. A pair of ravens joined them in their sifting, for ravens don’t have the keen sense of smell of the turkey vulture. But they have keener brains and can easily figure out that where the turkey vultures are congregating, there will be carrion to scavenge.

But now that night was falling, the birds of the day had taken to the roost. The sifting for rodent bodies would have to wait until the sun rose again, so the hay field was empty of all beings but rabbits and stridulating katydids and crickets.

The scent of dead rodents brought in the meat-eaters of the night, and the first to arrive was a big male gray fox. He lived out his entire life in the brier thickets in the hollow below the hay field. No one knew of his existence or really seemed to care, for he lived a life of a sort of cat dog in the brush, stalking songbirds in the forest and occasionally raiding a cottontail’s nest the early spring grass. He also plucked fresh raspberries from their bushes, but he was skilled at his hiding from humans of his very presence. He was a poacher in the night who slipped in and slipped out, and no one was the wiser.

But now he sensed a chance to get a little easy food among the fallen grass stalks, and he began a slinking approach into the hay field. The wind was in his face so that he could smell if any hunters or nasty dogs were about, and the wind kept telling him that carrion was around for him to pick through and devour at his foxy leisure.

It was as eased upon the tram road that another scent caught his nose. It was a big cottontail doe, in fine fettle and all spry for a good run. His years working this tram road after mowing days told him that he probably shouldn’t waste any energy running such a big healthy doe, but the cool September night air had given him a bit of a sporty itch.

And so the big gray fox crouched into stalking position and eased his way closer to the big doe. She grazed the clover, and he stalked in a little closer. She would hear the faint sound of fox steps upon the grass, and she would rise up and hold still. The fox would hold his stalk, and no sound would cross her ears. And she would eat at the clover again.

And so the stalk went on for about five minutes, and by that time, the fox was 15 feet from the rabbit. At that point, though, the fox’s impetuous side got to him. The scent of rabbit was that close to him. His black nostrils just quivered each inhaling breath. Rabbit scent, so sweet, and so close.

And when the rabbit sat still with her ears up again, the fox charged, and the chase began. Cottontail rabbits run in great, wide circles, and in those circles,there are several brush piles, groundhog holes, hidden culverts, and misplaced pipe. The rabbits know that when they run they can run out long and hard in those circles, and if they are healthy, they can hit one of those hiding places before the predator is upon them. And if the predator still comes, they will have more than few minutes to catch their breaths and let their heart rates return to normal in case they would have to run again.

So the big cottontail doe fled the charging fox. Early in the chase the fox’s flying gallop, a mixture of a sighthound’s run and the feline’s bound, gave him some edge. For thirty yards, the fox’s jaws were within near striking distance of the fleeing rabbit.

But her leporid running anatomy is built for a good flight, and very soon, she was well ahead of the gray fox when she saw her chance to dive into a bit of cast-off gas-line pipe that had been stored at the edge of the hayfield for so long that the multiflora rose grew thick and thorny all around it.

The fox saw her dive into the pipe, and he sailed upon the pipe’s entrance. It was too small to afford him even the hope of entry, and for five minutes he pawed at the pipe and stuck his nose down the entrance, trying in vain to see the rabbit had foolishly languished near enough to the opening for him to grab her.

But then, his fox-like caution set in. He cast his nose into the wind and twitched his ears around to catch the sign of any fox killer, and when he found that none was about, he slipped along the edge of the hayfield, casting his way around to where he could approach the tram road again with the wind in his face.

He would have a good night’s repast of vole, mouse, and bog lemming meat and offal, but in the cooling September night, he’d had a bit of fun, a bit of sport, and now he could get back to the real business of survival.

The big doe rabbit emerged from the pipe about an hour after the fox left. She stayed in the multifora rose thicket a for a little while. The rose had some nice little hips for her to browse upon, and then, as the morning sun began to cast red into the sky, she eased her way out of the thicket and wandered into a grove of newly apple trees that had just been planted the March before. She gnawed on the apple trees a bit, until a car passed the apple grove and made her take flight into a distant brush pile.

And so the rabbit was not traumatized in the least from having a good course by a fox. She would have to run every day of her fleeting of life, just as all her ancestors have had to since the beginning of the rabbit and hare clade some 40 million years ago.

We can think of the rabbit as the terrorized victim of vicious foxes, or we can consider them as they actually are. They are prey. They evolved as prey. Their brains and their bodies are all evolved perfectly as prey species. Their essence to be vary and make good run and a hard dive from predator’s jaws.

They live lives in terrific bliss. Many things want to eat them, but they simply live as long as they can without obliging this desire.

Their psyches do not become traumatized as they live with such terror every day. Their psyches, such that they are, are perfectly wired for this existence. This is their existence and not ours.

And if we truly love animals, we must respect their different existence and avoid simplistic appeals to anthropomorphism that only makes sense in a society devoid any real contact with nature.

But these simplistic appeals are harder and harder to avoid, and so the fox might not be deemed the enemy in this story, but the beagler or rabbit courser certainly would be.

And this is the reality that true animal lovers, who see animals in all their naturalistic animalness, must work hard to combat.

And hope to all powers that be that we will not lose. But the odds just aren’t in our favor.

Ignorant anthropomorphism is the scourge of carefully considered human-animal relations, and the danger is that it is an ignorance that revels in its own self-righteousness.

So the fox chases the rabbit on a September night, and the rabbit lives on in that terrific bliss of having evolved as quarry.

And we can only hope that we humans respect that bliss. For only then can we understand what a rabbit truly is and appreciate its essential majesty.

 

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dire wolf skeleton

I am not big on popular culture these days. I have not watched one second of Game of Thrones, but I do know that dire wolves have something to do with that series.  I am not into that genre of television. Give me an actual documentary about dire wolves, and I’ll be happy.

But I know that dire wolves are thing from that series only because I do sometimes get asked about them. I don’t know how they are portrayed in that series, but most people think of them as just super large gray wolves that went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene.

The funny thing is that there actually was a super large gray wolf that specialized in hunting large game that also went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene. This animal has been called the Beringian wolf, and although no one has dared to give it a subspecies status, it was essentially a form of gray wolf that hunted megafauna in much the same way that the dire wolf did. The two species were contemporaries, but the Beringian gray wolf did not live in the same parts of North America as the dire wolf, which was found through most of the Lower 48 of the United States and ranged down into northern South America.  This Beringian wolf apparently ranged from Alaska to Wyoming, while the dire wolf was found in mid-latitude North America and ranged south from there.

No one really pays that much attention the Beringian wolf, but it is very likely that everything we know about modern wolves would have applied to that animal. The only difference would be that this wolf was much more specialized in hunting large prey such as bison than modern big-game hunting wolves are.

The same cannot be said for dire wolves.  Dire wolves evolved solely in North America. The general consensus is that it evolved from Armbruster’s wolf, but the exact origin of Armbruster’s wolf is a bit of debate. One well-known hypothesis is that the common ancestor of the modern gray wolf and the Armbruster’s wolf-dire wolf lineage is Canis chihliensis, a Pliocene wolf-like canid. This is the hypothesis suggested by Tedford and Wang, who are leading authorities on North American canid evolution.

However, there is a whole host literature in Eurasian wolves that posits Canis mosbachsensis as the ancestor the modern wolf. This literature, I think, is a bit more robust, for the large numbers of samples of both archaic Canis lupus and Canis mosbachensis show how the wolves of Eurasia went from being small and gracile to larger and more robust over time.

It is possible that this Armbruster’s wolf/dire wolf lineage evolved from an entirely different grouping of the wolf-like canids. It also would place the common ancestor of the dire wolf and modern Canis lupus back millions of years, even to the point where dire wolves were at least as genetically divergent from modern wolves as modern wolves are from African wild dogs.

If that is true, then we cannot make many wild assumptions about dire wolf behavior by comparing them to modern wolves at.  We don’t have any preserved dire wolves in permafrost. They never lived where there are currently big stands of permafrost, so we will never have dire wolf pelts.

Attempts have been made to get DNA from the many Rancho La Brea tarpit dire wolf remains, but they have not been successful. It was found that it was just too difficult to separate the bone from the tar.

So we really don’t know exactly how closely related dire wolves are to modern wolves, but I would be surprised if they turned out to be as closely related to modern wolves as modern wolves are to coyotes.

Indeed, the real problem with all of this is much of Canis taxonomy and systematics is not entirely resolved. The real issue I have now is we have good genome comparison literature that shows a much closer relationship between wolves and coyotes than we previously believed. Much of our understanding of Canis evolution is that we have tended to think of a linear evolution from jackal-like forms to wolf-like form, when the truth of the matter is we have had jackal and wolf-like forms evolve independently of each other within different lineages of the wolf-like canids.

So we are taken aback with the findings that the two endemic African jackals, the black-backed and side-striped jackal, are the two most basal and divergent forms of the wolf-like canid clade, and we are even more taken aback that the dhole and African wild dog are not as distinct from the rest of the clade as these two African jackals. This finding has led to the rise of the genus Lupullela for these two jackals.

In addition, the creatures formerly known as African golden jackals were revealed to be much closer to wolves and coyotes than to the Eurasian golden jackal, which has led to a bit of a taxonomy war on what exactly to call these creatures, though the popular press likes to use the term “African golden wolf,” which was the name suggested in one of the papers documenting their discovery.

None of these discoveries would have been indicated through morphological analysis alone. One would think that black-backed jackals and coyotes were particularly close relatives, for they look and behave pretty similarly to each other. At one time, we would have classified both as primitive or basal Canis.  Today, I think the best description is that the black-backed jackal is a basal Canis, but that the coyote is actually a very derived but diminutive one.

So we have these problems with extant Canis species, and it is very likely that we’re missing the full picture on how dire wolves relate and compare to modern ones.

One thing that should be noted is that dire wolves had very odd bacula.  The baculum is the penis bone that exists in all but a few mammals, and you, if you are a male human being, are among these few mammals without one.

Dire wolves had longer bacula than gray wolves of the same size and they were kinked upward at an odd angle. This bone is probably indicative of a larger penis in a dire wolf than the modern one, and it also might give us some interesting clues about how dire wolves might have behaved.

I have suggested that having this male anatomy might have meant that dire wolves had more competition with sperm penetration than actual male on male conflict during the mating season. We know that within primates, those species that are better endowed tend to be less aggressive with other males of the same species. Those with smaller genitals tend to be more aggressive, and the reason posited for this difference is those with larger genitalia have given up on intermale aggression and the real competition is how far and how much sperm the male can produce.

Maybe something like this was going on with dire wolves. Maybe mating season with dire wolves was just a big ol’ wolf orgy, and the male that could penetrate the female deepest and with the most sperm wound up siring the offspring.

Even calling Canis dirus a “wolf” may not be accurate at all. If it truly is a more distant relative to the gray wolf than we currently assume, then we really need to be careful what we assumptions we are making.

A few years ago, there was a bit of fun speculation on the internet that the dire wolf was actually of South American wild dog clade. A few scholars had toyed with the idea, because there was these two odd species wolfish like canids that were known from the fossil record in South America, called Canis nehringi and Canis gezi. The former was always thought of as being very similar to the dire wolf, and the latter appeared to be somewhat similar to both.

This speculation led to this wonderful image, a depiction of the dire wolf as being an overgrown bush dog.  (The one on the right speculates a South American origin, while the one on the left just turns it into a wolf).

dire wolf bush dog

Of course, serious scholarship performed a phylogenetic analysis of these canids and revealed that Canis nehringi was actually a dire wolf offshoot. Canis gezi was found to be a South American clade wild dog.

So yes, this was a fun bit of speculation, but it’s not much more absurd than assuming that the dire wolf was that fundamentally similar to the modern gray wolf.

We just don’t know. I’m sure that we’ll get a good ancient DNA sample from a dire wolf soon, and we’ll be able to answer some of these questions.

But right now, we need to be very careful in assuming that the dire wolf was just an odd Pleistocene gray wolf.

We’re missing a lot of information, and a lot of the research on dire wolves was performed before we had all these “molecular surprises” with extant Canis species.

There is just so much we don’t know, and it might be a good idea to be careful about making assumptions about dire wolves by comparing them to their supposed modern equivalents.

Those equivalents might not be any more equivalent than those equivalents are to modern African wild dogs and dholes. Yes, there are some similarities, but African wild dogs and dholes are very different from wolves in terms of the exact dynamics of their pack behavior and hunting styles.

So we’re assuming a lot now about dire wolves, but it’s best to wait for me evidence before we play around with speculation. Hollywood will never take this cue, but maybe we should hold back a bit.

We just don’t know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Boulder Fiefdom of the Chipmunk

chipmunk

I used to hike along a forest trail that cut through the property of an absentee landowner. It was a steep ATV track that was used only during that week-long madness that is the modern firearms season for white-tailed deer in West Virginia. The other 51 weeks of the year it was wilderness reclaiming itself.

The ATV track switch-backed down a steep hill that led a nicely bass pond, where you could see the largemouths swimming in the crystal clearness of the spring that fed the impoundment. I never fished there, but I knew of people near me who came down to that pond to poach and loaf and be in nature for a couple of hours.

When I went, I usually had a dog in tow, usually poor old Miley, the golden retriever that didn’t much like to swim and preferred to use ponds for her mud baths on sultry summer days. I could clear out my head and breathe in the sweet air and dream a bit and compose essays in my head, which I am constantly doing, even when I probably shouldn’t.

Sometimes, my approach would lift a band of deer from their sleeping beds in the heavy cover. Many times, I’d accidentally jump a wily grouse from its covert, it’s loud wings drumming wildly as it soared up from the thorny bush and then casting about in the air around the trees and out of my clear view.

And I always came across the sign of bobcat, gray and red fox, and Eastern coyote. Their tracks and scat would litter the ATV trail, calling cards of species that knew damned well to keep as far of the trail as possible when the sound of human footsteps plooded the muddy tracks and rustled the invasive Japanese stiltgrass that festooned the whole tram road.

A whole world of creatures existed that never revealed themselves when I graced the scene, and I felt a certain amount of sadness that I never got to see them, only their scat and paw prints in the mud.

But one creature always turned up on my walks.  The only exception to this rule was when I was out in the dead of winter, and these creatures were deep in their hibernation dens.

I am, of course, talking about the Eastern chipmunks, those “striped squirrels” that run around on the ground, often darting out without consideration about where they were going, just running first and then dealing with the consequences later.

When they dart out, they usually would let loose a trilling alarm call, then dive among the furrows of some ancient sandstone boulders. The boulders were the castle forts, and this was their little fiefdom. If I approached, they would dart out, trill, and take for the boulder furrows.

I came to see them as the most banal of creatures, but they are at the same time exquisitely marked little things. They are chestnut brown, with a dark stripe running down their backs, and a white stripe running down each side, bracketed at the top and bottom with dark stripes running parallel to the white one. Their doe-eyes are brown and softly sweet, almost like a nice Cavalier King King Charles spaniel, and that softness is further accentuated with the white stripes running just above and below each eye.  A black stripe runs behind the eye, making it look as if the little squirrel were wearing some kind of mascara.

In my childhood, I had known dogs that would give a chipmunk a good chase. The old golden retriever Strawberry was a lazy sort of dog, but in her youth, the one thing that her charging like a predatory beast was the trilling alarm call of the chipmunk. And she would dive after them running them to their lairs and then bark in her hoarse, raspy bark that was her calling card that she had found the quarry’s lair and the world needed to know.

But most dogs give up chipmunk hunts when they hit maturity. The chipmunks run too stupidly to give much of a chase, and they take refuge in places that most dogs don’t want enter. They usually run for boulders or take refuge in some mislaid pipe. And if a dog catches one, it is so easily dispatched, and there is not much meat on the animal at all.

So most chipmunk dogs discover that gray squirrels and cottontail rabbits are better things to chase.

I’m sure the bobcats and gray foxes did take a few chipmunks every year. A gray fox in particular is well-suited to hunting this kind of quarry, and they are small enough to get a decent amount of their daily caloric intake from catching such a minuscule bit of prey.

But the real enemy of the chipmunks in the boulders was a species of snake that everyone in West Virginia just called a “black snake,” and that I usually just called a “black rat snake.” The exact species I encountered is currently a taxonomic boondoggle, and in some quarters, it would be better called a “gray rat snake,” even though its body is mostly obsidian shiny black.

These are the great predatory snakes of most of the Eastern US. They grow quite long– five or six feet is not unusual. And the boulders full of chipmunks drew in more than a few of these slinking customers. Many times, I’d be walking along and hear the leaf litter crinkle so softly. And I would turn my head and see the form of a great serpent slipping out of my view.

Sometimes, I’d catch them sunning themselves along the ATV trail, and then they would coil up and flash the white scales of their necks and underjaws at me. And they would buzz their tail tips in the leaf litter to make it seem as though I’d come across a very large timber rattlesnake, which also often comes in that same obsidian black color.

And I would always notice the lumps in their coils. The snakes had been able to make their way through the furrows on the boulders and thus scale the castle fortress of the chipmunk fiefdom.

And so they were the dragons in our tale, true monsters of death for the striped squirrel lords of the manor.

My wanderings along this road, though, were cut short. One of the sons of the landowner came back to his family’s little wilderness farm, and set about putting up posted signs. He bought a bunch of chickens and filled an oak lot with swine. And turned out a white German shepherd to guard it all.

One day, a few big sows took down the fence, and several dozen hogs and weaner pigs took off for the country.

Most of them were rounded up within a week, but a few of the wily ones lived up in the woods, wandering over the big acreages of oak and hickory until the madness of deer season started.

And the deer hunters, smarting from a lack of deer to shoot, found that forest grown hams on the finest of Allegheny Plateau pannage was quite a nice treat.

I am sure the chipmunks still hold court among the boulders. I bet I could step out there on a chilly crisp day in October, and I could hear their little popping calls as they flitted from oak to hickory back to oak.  I bet they still use the boulders as their little castle forts.

And I bet the black snakes slip among the boulders and take the odd chipmunk from its sandstone refuge.

And life goes on in the microcosm where I used to tread daily.

And will go on so long as there are oaks and hickories to drop mast, and boulders with deep furrows for sprightly ground squirrels to take as their castles.

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The great but simple accounting

wondering where the lions are

The truth of the matter is that all this ends with slipping off into the great unknown. It probably ends with nothingness, though I suppose one can hope for an afterlife in which all is just and all is fair and all our loved ones and dogs are there waiting on us.

I can’t bet on that ever happening.  I lie down in the cool grass of August and let gentle breezes caress me, and I feel that ecstasy that takes me away from the banal considerations of life and places me into the moment, where we all ultimately live. Ruminations be damned.

Someday, my turn will come when I cease to be. I hope to live on only as a memory. Maybe my frenzied words on this page will last through the digital ether, and someone from the far future will read them. That more enlightened being of the long coming on years will probably stare at my vapid prose, laugh at my imbecilic barbarity, and maybe will come to some weird conclusion that I chronicled some bit of the current zeitgeist.

But once I go into that nonexistent state, I will not know any of these facts. I will know nothing. I will feel nothing. I will be nothing.

And yet I will be something for having lived as a human and passed on whatever talents and thoughts I could while I lived out my days as this particular creature.

And that’s the best I can do. For it ultimately comes down to these immortal words (oh, yes, words can be quite immortal!) of the great Sam Cooke:

“It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die
‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there, beyond the sky.”

Indeed, I sometimes think it’s that fear that keeps mass suicides from happening, but even when I think that I know that the ecstasy of the cool grass in August and the soft breezes kissing the skin. I know that feeling when your dog looks you in the eye and asks only that you go and do something together.

And I know what it’s like to stare into your lover’s adoring eyes in the moonlight and feel so special to be loved so much by the person.

These are the things that make life softly sweet, despite what horrors and stupidity lie ahead.

So I will go on, casting my writings into the ether, and I’ll let your reading eyes peruse them and dissect them. And I hope you’ll tolerate me for my essential humanity, my triumphs and failures, and my irritations and my soothings.

And yet I know I have no more rights to existence than a silly old hamster.  Strangely enough, it was hamsters that got me on this current flight of reverie.

I have been keeping a pair of Campbell’s dwarf hamsters as pets in a sort of vain attempt reclaim my childhood in which I kept a big colony of Syrian hamsters. For two summers, I was a hamster puppy miller, and I came to be such an expert on hamster behavior that I could tell a male from a female at a distance and I could tell when a female was receptive for mating just by the strength of her musty estrus odor.

Those were glory days for me. I raised my hamsters in my grandparents’ outbuilding, and I remember those nice summer nights when I would sit on their deck and listen to the hamster wheels screeching in the building just over there in the far end of the lawn.

This time as a hamster keeper, I switched species. The Campbell’s dwarf hamster is much more social than the Syrian species, and I purchased a pair, both wild-colored, dark gray with a dark dorsal stripe. The male and female were named “Boris” and “Natasha,” and I hoped they would breed.

And about six weeks after getting them, Natasha gave birth to four pink babies. I had heard wonderful things about the males of this species taking care of the young, but in truth I saw none of that behavior from Boris.

But he showed no aggression towards them at all, and I became quite excited at the possibility of having a little hamster colony once again. But in this colony, I would have my anthropomorphic husband and wife hamster that would raise their babies with love.

The little ones grew in their gray fur, and within three weeks, they were running about the terrarium which I had set up as their hamster enclosure.

And I expected more babies to come very soon. But yesterday when I went to feed the hamsters, I noticed something odd. Boris was nowhere to be seen, and I could count only three babies.

I sifted through the shavings that lined the hamster tank,and I discovered the macabre form of one of the babies. It was lying cold but not stiff. It had died with a simple bite to the skull. I assumed that Natasha had killed it. It is not unusual for hamsters to kill their own offspring, after all.

But I could not find Boris at all. So I sifted deeper and deeper into the shavings, and there I found a dismembered carcass. Boris had also been killed, but instead of leaving his remains alone in the corner of the tank, he had been cannibalized. His feet and head were eaten off, and all that remained were just some legs attached to a body trunk.

My little anthropomorphic fantasy was simply destroyed, knocked away in a quick, bestial act of interfamily cannibalism.

But I cannot just the brutish hamsters by human metrics. They are a long way from the Central Asian steppe, and despite being bred for generations for their tameness and ease of care, they are still quite wild animals.  And more than that, they are wild animals we’ll never fully know, for they are still base and instinctive.

And yes, I’m sure that many are raised in nice little pairs like I thought I had, but this time, luck was not on my side.

I know that I live a safe existence as a human being, who is truly loved, and who does his best to show his love back. We are higher animals, after all.

And thus we tell ourselves that fact, even though when that time comes, we will be no better than a hamster whose wife decided he would make a nice meal.

We will be nothing more, and that fact surely is hard to fathom, when you live your whole life as a species that believes it is beyond nature so much that it will delude itself into believing that it won’t die.

I won’t delude myself. Or at least, I won’t do it so much as to cloud my better judgment. That’s a certain appeal of Christianity. Just believe that Jesus washes it all away, and you will live forever.

But you surely know you won’t. I don’t want to argue, but I know that no one really believes that death is not final. We all know it is.

It’s how we deal with that knowledge that sets out how how we will live. I will live as if it is finite, that there is nothing extra, and I will try to enjoy what there is to enjoy.

That’s the best I can offer. It’s not the hope of the faith of my youth, but it’s more realistic, if more grim. To stare the bear in the eye as it begins its charge requires a bit of courage, and a simple accounting of oneself in the universe.

And I will been doing that accounting from here on out. At least that’s what it looks like.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Harzer Fuchs tricks

I’d love to have one of these dogs someday. I don’t know if anyone is breeding them in the US, but I’d love to be able to have some over here. They are so much of what I like in the standard working GSD. The expressions are so much of what I love about Anka.

These dogs are so sporty that I’m actually surprised there isn’t a larger international following of them. They are sort of a GSD meets border collie.

 

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bones of the tabby.jpg

To die as a feral cat is to die so ignobly that your existence might as well have been nonexistence.

This feral cat fell to the motor car sometime earlier this summer. The maggots and carrion beetles made quick work of its flesh, and the sun pelting down upon the bones is bleaching them so white. All that remains of its tabby pelt is the hide on the face, which retains the striped markings of the generic wildcat in domestication.

We dream of cats now. The digital era has unleashed an epoch of cat worshiping not seen since the Egyptians. The urban and techy and prole youth are forced to forsake the noble dog for the ersatz carnivoran companion, and some do so willingly, because they like an animal with felid autonomy and wit, which a true dog person like me would never be able to appreciate.

But for every cat that is loved and coddled, at least one is out there trying to make a go of life as a wild animal. They are not so far removed from their Lybica wildcat ancestors to have lost their wild instincts and essence, and although we’ve certainly produced a few domestic strains that wouldn’t last five minutes in the wild, the vast majority of cats born into this world are still very much what their ancestors were.

And we can romanticize their wildness, their proclivities that allow such feral lives, but we cannot gloss over the fact that a domestic wildcat gone feral lives the life of a mesopredator. It is not the tiger of any urban jungle or farmstead. It is a predator that targets the small and the meek, for it is a small and meek predator.

Coyote jaws and speeding cars take out so many cats, as do the various communicable diseases that sweep through cat populations.

We love this animal, yet we allow so many of them to live such terror-filled and fleeting lives. We must surely be doing better by this species than we were several decades ago, but the vast throng of ferals living at the edges of our civilization are still with us.

And they will always be with us. So long as people let their queens roam and get bred in the great outdoors and so long as those same queens drop their kittens in the wild, never giving them a chance to become imprinted upon people, there will always be a supply to fill feral cat colonies.

And the cars and the coyotes and the feline leukemia and distemper will take out the excess.

And we’ll claim to love our cats and post beyond stupid memes about them online, and we’ll still cast a blind eye.

The crisis of cats is a big part of the pet overpopulation problem, such that it exists.  Yes, I would totally agree that our frame about pet overpopulation has been misguided and stupid for quite a long time. I generally support the goals of the No Kill movement, but I think that those goals can be applied only to dogs.

Dogs don’t readily breed out in the wild, and no place has the same tolerance for big populations of free-roaming or feral dogs as currently exists for feral cats.

It is always said that cats are more popular than dogs, but this statement is misleading, at least as it applies to Americans. More homes in the US have dogs than have cats, which is a better metric of which animal is actually more popular.  It’s just that there is a larger population of cats as a whole. If you like cats, you can keep scores of them, and no one will ever know. Dogs require some public display of their existence, and they are a lot more work than any cat.

So many cats are born feral and can never become socialized to humans, and the only hope for these cats is that they are part of one of those TNR programs. I remain hotly skeptical of TNR, simply because this problem is next to unsolvable, even with dedicated people trapping, vaccinating, and neutering thousands of ferals every year.

And I am leaving out the ecological aspect of what goes on with this most permissible and innocuous of mesopredator release.

This problem is usually trivialized with the wonderful fallacy of relative privation. Cats might kill billions of birds and small mammals, but cars and pollution and deforestation kill more.  True, of course, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that cats still kill all those animals, and if we had more rational and humane policies towards these animals we claim to love, we would not become so defensive.

And the cars, at least, do take out quite a few cats, as the bones of this poor customer reveal to anyone with a bit of curiosity.

But the cars pass its bleaching bones and rarely cast a glance in his direction. For these are the bones of another feral cat that died so ignobly that he might as well have never been born. And so he is forgotten and the wheels keep turning.

And each night the wheels keep turning and taking out the surplus in this Malthusian world of the feral feline.

 

 

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bat-eared fox

I have not yet been asked to review the new film Alpha, which is a story about early dog domestication. I have not seen the film yet, but I do want to see it.

I do think we need to get beyond the Coppinger model for dog domestication, and I think there have been some serious attempts recently, but I’m not going to play around with that right now.

Instead, I’m going play around with some speculative domestication reverie. Forgive me my flights of fancy. I must play around a bit.

Let’s say that domestication didn’t involve wolves at all. Let’s say it happened with a very different canid.

And you really can’t get more different from wolves than bat-eared foxes are. Bat-eared foxes are odd little creatures. They are intensely social foxes that live almost entirely upon harvester termites. They do eat other things, and they have even been known to scavenge carrion. But most of what they eat is harvester termites.

Let’s say that somewhere in East Africa some 50,000 years ago, a wandering band of nomad came into the land, but found the whole countryside devoid of game.  The only quadruped messing about the scene were several bands of bat-eared foxes.

And the hunters speared the foxes and ran them down and roasted their bodies on campfires and ate away at their manky fox flesh and hoped the spirits would bring forth a kudu or an impala from the bush.

So for many weeks, the people hunted the bat-eared foxes, and they choked down the fox meat.

But then the fox numbers dwindled, and the disgusting pains of hunger swept through the people. And the babies starved to death, and the children grew gaunt in the piercing sun.

And so the hunters set out on a big journey into the rising sun hoping that they would some place so wondrous as to have plentiful hoofed game.

One hunter, though, knew of a little trick that he’d learned from the hot days of fox chasing in the sun. He knew that the bat-eared foxes like to hang near the termite nests, and he knew that if he staked out one big termite nest, he’d eventually run into a fox.

For two hot days he sat in silence. But on the nightfall of that second day, he the hoary gray form of a bat-eared fox. It was a vixen, and she was all heavy with milk.

Her form was gaunt and tight, and he teats were all swollen with the milk. And the hunter felt pity for her, and so he could not cast his spear upon her.

He sat there watching as she picked up the termites and marveled her rapid mastication.  Rare is the hunter who can avoid watching his quarry and empathizing with it. It is man’s ability to empathize with an animal that ultimately makes him great hunter. It is his ability enter into the animal’s mind and see its ways and its habits as the animal sees it.

But he still can kill it and kill it with skill.  It’s just that every once in a while, the empathy subsumes the hunter, and he feels that odd profound kinship with the animal. It is a feeling I have felt so profoundly on my own hunts, and it is one that I know has made me pass up more than a few shots.  And these are the feelings I do not wish to lose. If I do, I will be a monster, not a fully human hunter.

So the hunter sat and watched the vixen eating the termites, and he let her pass. He then followed her tracks through the arid country. He kept his distance back on the trail, hoping that he would not spook her.

He followed her out of nothing more than curiosity, and as he followed her, he noticed the cloven hoofs of a kudu. The fox and the kudu were following the same trail,  so the hunter knew that if he tired of his little fox tracking, he might be able to get on a kudu trail and bring home some nice meat for the band.

As he followed the trail, the kudu sign grew fresher and fresher. And out of the bush, a young kudu materialized out of the heat waves.  Both hunter and kudu were suprised to encounter each other, but the hunter knew to throw his spear.  It hit home, and the kudu ran and ran. The hunter followed its blood trail, and then found the beast lying in its death throes.

He dispatched the kudu with a simple blow to the head, and it became meat in very short order.

The hunter covered his kill and began the journey back to where he had left his companions. He had dropped a kudu bull, and they would soon have food to eat.

But he had to make his way carefully home, for the stench of blood could bring in lions and hyenas. So he started homeward,  when he sensed presence of another being staring at him.

When he turned to look for his stalker, he was shocked to find the vixen standing upon a little boulder. She was transfixed by him, and he was amazed by her.

He turned to walk away, and the bat-eared fox squall-barked.  He turned to look in her direction. He waved a blessing at her, and then turned to walk again. The vixen squall-barked again, this time with frantic intent.

The hunter turned to look at the fox, but then another movement caught his eye, He turned his head to make his eyes register upon the form before him, and then he realized that a young male lion had come to stalk him. It had been trailing the wounded kudu, and now, it had come upon a bit of human flesh. All it had to do was lie in wait, and there would be a kill.

The hunter stood tall on his legs and reached for his spear. He had but one opportunity to make the lion fall as it began to charge, and he knew that he had to make it count. Otherwise, he would be lion’s meat.

He made his spear aim dead on the lion, and as the beast began its horrific charge, the hunter steeled his nerves  and began his spear cast. It home just as the lion’s charge reached within ten feet of him.  The arrow hit the lion lungs, and her ran off in terror to die the death of a mortally wounded beast.

But the hunter lived. And he owed his survival to the little squall-barks of the bat-eared vixen.

He just began to make his way home when he herd the sound of many hoof-beats. All around him were vast herd of zebra and wildebeest.  And there were many kudu and impala flitting about.

In his journey following the bat-eared fox, he had accidentally stumbled onto some game rich country, and he had to bring his people here.

And he had to make them thank the fox.

And so these people survived a long bout of famine all thanks to their guardian spirit, a little bat-eared fox.

And so the legend was passed through all the people’s children and their children and their children’s children.  And the people came to revere the fox, and bring the kits into their villages and make them their guardians and good luck talismans.

And soon there were whole populations of bat-eared fox that lived in villages and ate people food along with their normal insectivory.

And they followed the people out of Africa into Eurasia, where they diversified into so many forms.

And the bat-eared fox is found on every island and on every continent where people exist.

Some herd our chickens and ducks. Others keep malaria mosquitoes at bay, while others rat as proper terriers do in our present reality.

But in this reality, man’s best friend is the bat-eared fox, not the domesticated wolf. And wolves themselves never survived into the present era. It was too clunky and too churlish to fit into the world dominated by man, and it was fully extirpated from all the land.

And so I’ve laid out some silly reverie of speculative domestication. Forgive me my folly. I sometimes can’t help it.

 

 

 

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