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Archive for March, 2019

erika on the run

Many techniques of the study of history exist. One of the most innovative is what is called “environmental history” in which human castes, classes, and professions are given ecological/economic niches that allow their behavior to operate as if species in an ecosystem.

It is this history that Edmund Russell lays out in his Greyhound Nation: A Coevolutionary History of England, 1200-1900.  This is a book that anyone interested in dog history should read, for it is an odd comprehensive history of the redefinition of a particular type of dog through the social, economic, and political changes of a nation shifting from feudalism to capitalism and democracy.

Russell’s book is not the history of “the greyhound,’ the breed we know today. That breed is included in this work, but it is also the history of the proto-whippets that worked the rabbit warrens and larger forms of greyhound that were used to hunt deer and wolves. It is also the story of eventual breed standardization within the context of the rise of the kennel club and the closed racing greyhound registries.

Russll begins with the earliest mentions of greyhounds in England, which is around the year 1200. The dogs belonged solely to the patrician class in the feudal system, and different forms of greyhound were used to on different quarry.  Large greyhounds coursed the deer and the wolf.  Mid-sized ones worked hares and foxes. Smaller ones were used to catch rabbits in enclosed warrens. And commoners were never allowed to own a any of these dogs, except under very explicit circumstances.

For over five centuries, various forms of greyhound were used in this way, but then in the late eighteenth century, the forces of democracy and early capitalism began to change the way the English related to their land. The Enclosure of the commons meant that vast tracts of territory could be set aside of the protection and promotion of hares for what was called “club coursing.”

In this coursing clubs, patricians ran their dogs on these hare estates. They were clubs that were quite exclusive, and the commoners could not own these dogs. Russell includes the account of a commoner convicted for owning greyhound, which the commoner tries to pass off as an Italian greyhound.  But he is still convicted of the crime.

At this time, greyhounds are bred to lurchers and bulldogs to improve their runs on hares, and we learn about the various eccentricities of Lord Orford, a founder of the Swaffham Coursing Society.  He was an extreme spendthrift, infamously selling countless priceless family paintings to Catherine the Great of Russia to pay off debts that he had accrued. He also died while running one of his hounds, Czarina, at a Swaffham meet. He had been ill but left his bed to run the hound. He is said to have either died in the saddle or fell from the saddle then died.

As the eighteenth century progresses into the nineteenth, big coursing events, called public coursing, became a popular rural activity. The famous Waterloo Cup began in 1836, and as the sport became popular for spectators, a National Coursing Club was founded to standardize coursing rules. Commoners were eventually allowed to own these dogs, and coursing became more democratic and meritocratic endeavor. The working classes begin to have leisure time and money, which they put toward gambling on coursing events and speculation on various hounds.

This democratic shift in coursing coincided with the rise of the Kennel Club and the purebred dog fancy. Here, Russell introduces us to Sewallis Shirley, the same founder of the Kennel Club and retriever fancier who has been mentioned on this blog many times. Russell portrays Shirley as purely patrician. He is anti-democratic and opposed to tenant rights on his estate in Ireland, and his anti-democratic leanings lead to his promotion of the show greyhound over the coursing one.

As the nineteenth century draws to a close, we see the closing of the greyhound registry with both the Kennel Club and the National Coursing Society. No longer would anyone consider crossing to lurchers or bulldogs to make a better greyhound. The goal was to produce a superior greyhound within the population already ascribed as greyhounds.

Russell leaves us at this juncture but alludes to the rise of greyhound racing in the twentieth century in which the dogs are reborn as objects on which to wager in a new event.

This type of history could, in theory, be written about any type of dog in virtually any European country. However, this particular breed in this particular country is documented well back in the Medieval period, and because it was owned solely by the wealthy originally, the documentation can be followed fairly easily into the modern era.

If one is interested in an academic history of dogs, this book is a great read.  Russell uses the primary sources in his work so clearly, and the prose is posited so logically that one can easily follow the winding history of running dogs in England.

These dogs were made to run, but we now live in a world where they are slowly losing their purpose. Nation after nation, state after state, coursing is losing its legality.  Professional greyhound racing is likely on the way out in much of the world, but we will keep them alive. We will run them, even if it is just after plastic bags raced along on pulleys.

 

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Our travels took us the Ocala National Forest, where there are plenty of Dolomite roads to let the dogs rip.

ocala national forest dogs

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One year old

My Poet was one year old yesterday.

poet one year old

 

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quest in a mountain stream

We came to the mountains from the south.  For two days, we rose out of the heat of Florida into the rolling hills of Georgia. We spent a night in Greenville, South Carolina, and then began our ascent into the Blue Ridge.

We came into the woods with a van full of dogs. The two whippets, the greyhound, and our German shepherd were ready and steady, yearning for a good run. So after climbing up into the land of the rhododendron, we eased onto a forest service road and let them rip.

The sighthounds hit the ground running. Double-suspending in their gallops, they seemed to float over the trail But it was Quest, our maturing German shepherd, who came to into his own in the mountain forests.

His meaty wolf paws carried him over the rough country, as did his sound gait. He leaped wildly, cavorting as if he were a young stallion just racing out from his band in search of new territory.

For a tossed stick, he dived into the clearest mountain stream. Any little brook trout that might have been lurking in the depths would have shot back under their fallen log redoubts, for they were under an aerial assault of the canine kind.  Young dog leaping into the  cold water,  ecstatic joy that our own species either cannot experience or ever hope to tap into.

The whippets and greyhounds are the speeding luxury cars. They would be made by some Italian manufacturer to zip around the highways of Rome, but the German shepherd is all-terrain and amphibious.  What it lacks in speed, it holds up better when the terrain turns rugged and muddy.

For decades, so-called experts, especially self-appointed ones, have told us that the German shepherd is a catastrophe on four legs.  They are all hock-walking and broken and dysplastic. They are no longer the true working dogs of Central Europe.  They just cannot do all the things normal dogs can.

But watching this creature charge about the forest, leaping over logs as if they weren’t there, I now know even more that much of what we read about these dogs is just rubbish.

Experiencing a rugged Appalachian woodland in Western North Carolina with one of these dogs is certainly eye-opening.  This is a dog bred for the show ring. His ancestors have been bred mostly for that purpose for decades. From what we all think we know about this breed, one would assume that he would have such a hard time being a mountain dog, but he covers the land with power and grace and, yes, simple elan.

And so we trundled away from our time in the mountains. Our hearts were filled with sorrow of leaving, but my mind was on the stolid nobility of this young dog when he stops to stare back at us on the forest trails.

He is a creature meant for this world of long forest hikes and cool dips in mountain springs. He is natural but still domesticated and cultivated and fancy. He is a contradiction, a paradox of sorts, but a magnificent one nonetheless.

He is a youngster just coming into his own. He has a lifetime of running and swimming ahead of him. Many adventures are yet to come. Much is unwritten, but stories that will unfold will be rich ones.

So we left the mountains. For a little a while.

But we will be back. And the young dog will get his chance to cavort in the woods and water once again.

 

 

 

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raccoon

Europe has no living native Procyonids.  Germany and the countries on which it borders do have a well-established population of raccoons, but the British Isles were thought to be raccoon-free. In fact, I refused to watch one version of 101 Dalmatians because it featured raccoons in England. Every English person knows there aren’t any raccoons running around.

However, the same cannot be said of Ireland. Rumors of errant raccoons have been filtering through the internet for quite some time. I got wind of it in 2011, when raccoons were sighted in County Cork. 

I didn’t think it was possible that there could be a breeding population in Ireland, but in recent months, a raccoon was hit by car in County Clare back in September.

In November, a raccoon was live-trapped and humanely euthanized in Cork.

These might be errant escaped pets, but errant escaped pets are the basis for a potential breeding population. And if you think that sounds far-fetched, well, Germany has a growing population of raccoons that were introduced in the 1930s.

Ireland has a much milder climate than most of North America, and this species of raccoon lives where the winters can be quite harsh.

These sightings could very well be the start of a real problem in Ireland. Raccoons are the ultimate mesopredator in that they relish raiding bird nests and even killing ground-nesting birds and poultry. Their numbers have flourished in North America since the widespread extirpation of wolves and cougars, and in Ireland, they would likely find a paradise. They would have to compete with badgers and red foxes, but because they are such adept climbers, they would also have access to food sources in trees.

We can hope that an established population of raccoons isn’t being founded in Ireland right now, but I almost wouldn’t bet against it.  They do very well on the continent. Ireland is ripe fruit, reading for the clawed hands to pick.

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great white in the surf

The shark was a torpedo with teeth. She swam the seas in search prey. Her preference was dolphin meat, and she often pursued her quarry into the surf zone.

Bottlenose dolphins are wiser creatures than the great fish. They knew about her presence often before she knew of theirs. All she could do is slip around where the dolphins might be hunting and hope that one slipped up.

On this day, she was working them close to the crystal sand beach. Every time, she thought she might get the drop on a dolphin, another dolphin would raise an alarm and they would swim around her, mobbing her, almost taunting her, until she slipped back into the depths.

Hunger was starting to take its toll, and now she began to work the surf once again.  Her black eyes noted something whitish pink and smooth suspended in the rushing water.

Her shark brain asked “Could that be something to eat?”

And she swam over and tested the pink thing in her mouth. When she bit down, the blood gushed everywhere. But the meat had no fatty taste to it, so she let go when she felt the quarry slap her.

She then swam back into the depths, scenting the water again for that delicious odor of dolphin.

What she had not known on this first sultry day of May on this desolate beach on North Carolina’s Outer Banks is that she had bitten a person, the son of a wealthy corporate lawyer.

The young man screamed in terror. He had been wading alone in the surf, hoping to make communion with the local pod of dolphins. He felt that thing brush up against him and then the hard pressure of the bite. Then the flowing of red blood.

His right butt cheek down to his right thigh was hanging open and bleeding, and how he managed to swim with that much blood gushing from his body no one really could fathom.

He made it to the foamy line where the white water splashes on the crystal sand.  He landed hard on the compacted earth and groaned in agony.

His girlfriend found him five minutes later as she came down to walk their obese golden retriever on their private beach. He was sent to the hospital. Hundreds of stitches and blood transfusion were his treatment.

In week, he knew that he’d met the sea monster and had lived.

The biting had happened. The great torpedo fish claimed a victim without knowing anything other than she’d bitten into something quite disgusting.

And she was two hundred miles away when the young man’s family finally got together and took stock of the situation.

The father believed he should sell the beach house and buy a nice cabin on a quiet mountain lake, were the largemouth bass rose in the April sun and the ducks sat fat upon the shore.

The mother believed they should keep the house at the beach, but under the condition that no one ever go into the water deeper than the waist.

The young man had no thoughts on the matter. He had not expected to be bitten. It felt like something so random, so strange, that he didn’t know what to think of it all.

Yes, the bite had harmed his hide. But he was going to live, and although he felt physical trauma, he was oddly at peace with the whole thing.

The shark had bitten in error, not in malice. He had seen enough nature documentaries to know this fact, and the odds of it happening again where somewhere in the winning the lottery category.

But the victim can try to reason with those who see the aftermath and still not be able to assuage their concerns.

The father had called up the department of fisheries in hopes that he a posse could be assembled to wipe out such large sharks from the waters. When he found that the great whites were protected in these waters, he was filled with bellicose anger.

He paid for that spit of sand, and now, the government was telling him he could not protect his property and family from sharks?

He called everyone he knew in the world of government. They listened as intently to him as they would anyone with potential to flip out some campaign money, but nothing was done.

The laws were the laws, and what’s more, every single expert told him that the shark was long gone.

Man has this odd tendency to take personally the banal violence of nature. The young man had come to the realization that this was not a personal attack at all, but just an accident of predation. The father never could accept this reality.

He put the beach house up for sale, but the sell did not go through until the July of the next year.

The young man didn’t tell his father what he was going to do, but on the last weekend hte house remained in his family’s hands, the young man went to the beach. He slipped on his rash guard and wandered into the surf.

He hoped to make final contact with the dolphins. Yes, that was certainly a goal.

But he also wanted to make peace with the sea monsters, the ones that still stubbornly hold onto their domains despite ourselves.

The dolphins came at high tide to cavort among the surf and hunt baitfish. He felt their echolocation against his skin once again. He felt at peace in the saltwater.

And he felt the true humility of a human in the sea. The ocean suffers the onslaught of our civilization in such horrific ways, but it still exists undominated, uncontrolled.

And that briny wilderness is an affront to those who worship in our domination, but it beguiles those who see it as the last redoubt of unblemished life.

And the young man felt that sublime beguilement and felt the warm water rushing around him.

And he then left the sea to the ancient struggle of dolphins and sharks, which he hoped would go on long past his mortal existence as a man on this earth.

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bobcat

When Europeans arrived in the Americas, the cougar was the most widespread wild cat species, but in the modern era, after we have extirpated the cougar from most of the East, the most widespread cat is the bobcat.

It is found throughout the Lower 48, but it is conspicuously absent from most of the Midwest. In Ohio, they are found almost entirely within a short distance of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, or Kentucky. In the Northern Great Lakes states, they live towards Canada and the lakes themselves. But they are fairly numerous elsewhere.

The bobcat is a species of lynx, which is conveniently classified in the genus Lynx.  Four extant species roam across Eurasia and North America. The bobcat includes the smallest individuals of the genus, but they are the most variable in size. 13-pound queens can be found, as can toms that exceed 40 pounds in weight.

The lynx species likely evolved in North America.  The dentition of a cat from the Pliocene that has been called Felis rexroadensis suggests that it was the earliest form of lynx.  Some authorities now call this cat Lynx rexroadensis. Bjorn Kurten believed that this species is the ancestor of the Issoire lynx (Lynx issiodorensis), which is the likely ancestor of the Eurasian, Iberian, and Canada lynx.

The bobcat is either a direct descendant of rexroadensis or is derived from the Issoire lynx that came back into North America.

The latter seems more likely,  because our current understanding of the molecular evolution of the cat family finds that the lynx species last shared a common ancestor 3.2 million years ago. 

Ancestral bobcats appear in the fossil record of North America 2.6 million years ago, and the modern bobcat evolved from a population that became marooned south of the ice sheets 20,000 years ago.

So the most likely scenario is that bobcats have a deep evolutionary history in North America, but their exact line went into Eurasia and then came back.

It should also be noted that Felis rexroadensis has sometimes been placed into another species called Puma lacustris, which fits somewhere in the cougar lineage. The cougar and lynx lineages are closely related, and as you go back towards the common ancestor of both lineages,  the basal forms tend to resemble each other. However, it is well-supported now that the lynx lineage first evolved in North America and then radiated into Eurasia.

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