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I got this book as a Christmas present, and it is so good:

 

This is the real world of the North of England shepherd and his border collies, and it’s so good.

Look for a review in the near future!

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At least it wasn’t Santeria practitioners.

TNR is one of the biggest problems with the No Kill Movement.

Cat colonies do pose problems to both ecology and public health.

And TNR really doesn’t reduce the cat population to the level they need to be.

 

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As I have mentioned on Retrieverman, I absolutely love this book. It is the best book I’ve ever read on dogs, and I also love it that the main dog subjects in the book are breeds with which I have some familiarity– Labs, goldens, and border collies. The author’s dog is a stray retriever of one of the following permuations: Lab/golden cross, Lab/redbone hound cross, or golden/redbone hound cross (which is what I think he was).

“Merle” was discovered on the San Juan River in Utah. He was a feral dog that lived on  the game he killed and what food he could cajole out of tourists. When he discovers the author’s rafting party, he decides that he wants to stay with the author. He almost says to the author “You need a dog, and I’m it.”

The dog is taken to the author’s residence in the wilds of Wyoming. The small of Kelly allows the dogs to roam off-leash, provided they learn to leave livestock alone.

Because of this freedom, the dogs are given a lot of opportunities to socialize with each other and with people. Further, the dogs develop an understanding of the natural world around them, which is very useful for a nature writer.

The author is brought to many interesting insights because of Merle. He notices that Merle tends to sniff the front tracks of the pronghorn more intensely than the hind tracks. When the author shoots a pronghorn, he sniffs the front hooves and back hooves to see if he can discern a difference in their odors. He discovers that the front hooves smell more strongly of sage than the back ones.

Later, while on a long hike in the mountains, Merle stops and looks into a stand of pines. When the author stops and does looks in the same direction that Merle does, he sees a grizzly bear lumbering out of the trees.

Because Merle grew up in such a rich environment and then was allowed to use his intelligence and instincts as a “free-thinking dog,” that Merle develops very good manners with people. His innate people reading skills, which all dogs possess, have been heightened because of his freedom.

Merle’s intelligence begins to reach another level, though, and this finding is one of the most controversial in the book. Merle is taken to the chiropracter regularly. The chiropracter has a full-length mirror that covers an entire wall. One day, the author sees Merle look at the mirror and then look back at him. Then the dog drops to the floor and begins doing behaviors that look like he can tell that the mirror is his reflection, wriggling his paws from side to side and rolling over. He does this with his eyes focused on the mirror. Now, dogs have never officially passed the mirror test for self awareness, but if this finding were true, then we can say that dogs are self-aware.

Today we think dogs ought to be under our control all the time. They must obey us at all times, or they will become “dominant.” Either that, or we believe that they are stupid animals that are controlled entirely by conditioned responses. Thus, we keep them under our controll all the time in order to better control their environments. Both of these theories are depriving dogs of their innate natures, which partially that of the wolf and partially that of a very strongly humanized animal.

I wish we all could live in places where we could give our dogs some modicum of freedom and allow them to interact with their own kind and us in more natural ways. But lacking such liberal dog laws in most areas, we need to ensure that off-leash areas still exist. Because of all the animals we live with, the dog is one of the most complex.  New research is showing how much domestication has turned the dog’s mind into something more like  of people. They have evolved advanced cognitive abilities that we have not seen any other non-human species, including the great apes. It is only now that we have really started to appreciate how amazingly intelligent dogs are. It is time that we kept them with a deep appreciation for this intelligence.

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Lately, I’ve been into biological mysteries and newly discovered species. it was a major interest of my youth, and in this time of grad-school induced ennui, I have felt a need to return to the interests that excited me as a boy.

And if you want to find a site that has all the latest news and analysis on these topics, check out the Centre for Fortean Zoology’s blog. It’s not exactly a single blog but a compendium of blogs from their supporters and staff.

Now, as I said before, this blog will not focus merely on orthodoxy. I am interested in unusual creatures and anomalies. Some of these issues require a bit of a shift from the mainstream. I think that too much of a focus on orthodoxy will make your brain turn to mush.

And that’s why I linked to them. When I visit the main site, I very rarely find nothing of interest. It’s not so much that you have to agree with every theory, hypothesis, or postulate. It’s about approaching zoological and natural history issues with a different mindset, and if you can let yourself do this, it becomes a lot of fun to look at things from a different angle.

Unlike many of these organizations, the Centre for Fortean Zoology does follow scientific principles in their research.  They are not “believers.” They are investigators.

The Centre has its own youtube channel. It includes videos of various presentations and interviews of people interested in these sorts of phenomena. It also includes a monthly nature program (“On the Track”) hosted by the Centre’s director, Jon Downes.

Every once in a while, the blog asks its readers to identify a species. This past week, I identified this chick of a waterbird species. It is a young common merganser.

I love finding out which new species have been discovered or which ones that have been declared extinct have suddenly been found again. That’s why I regularly visit the site.

I am very grateful to the Centre for linking to my post on the Lazarus lizard, and I hope that you will visit their site and find as many interesting things there as I have.

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Farley Mowat is a Canadian author and conservationist. He perhaps best known for his book Never Cry Wolf, which was made into a lovely Disney film. However, this book has been greatly pilloried by wolf biologists, for Mowat suggested that wolves were living largely on small prey and not killing caribou during the denning season. Of course, some of those scientists created a bit of a straw man and said that Mowat was saying that wolves were living exclusively on mice. However, it is true that Mowat never observed the wolves as intensely as the book suggests. Most of what he knew about wolves comes from the Ihalmiut people, an Inuit people who lived on carbiou meat. These people had a deep respect for the wolf, and one of their religious stories is told in the book. In fact, Never Cry Wolf came right after Mowat’s People of the Deer was published. This book was actually about the plight of Ihalmiut people, who were being driven off their native hunting grounds and “civilized” by the Canadian government.

Mowat wrote a great many children’s books, like Lost in the Barrens, Owls in the Family, and The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be.  The last two are based upon his childhood pets growing up in Saskatoon. (If you’d like to read the real life stories of both check out Mowat’s memoir Born Naked.)

However, my favorite books of his are both of partial historical research. One of these is the Sea of Slaughter. This book is a compendium of Western man’s destruction of “animate creation” in the northeastern part of North America. It includes some interesting speculations. One of these is that bison once ranged to the Atlantic Coast of Canada but were decimated by the Portuguese seeking “buffle hides.” Another is that polar bears were once found as far south as Boston, and one was killed in Delaware Bay in the eighteenth century. He also claims that the St. John’s water dog (it looks something like a Labrador) is actually a dog belonging to the Beothuck people of Newfoundland, but most mainstream histories and archaeological evidence suggests otherwise. However, it is possible that the Newfoundlanders who had the black water dogs were not Beothuck.

And that brings me to my other favorite Mowat book.

In 2000, Mowat published a book of speculative history on the first Europeans to settle the New World. He had previously argued that these were Norse. He even wrote a book on the Norse in North America called Westviking that predated the scientific acceptance of the Norse in Newfoundland at the L’Anse aux Meadows site.

In this book, however, Mowat argues that the first settlers from Europe were the descendants of the ancient Pre- Indo-European peoples of Scotland– the ones who built the brochs. He argues that these people were always referred to by the prefix Alb or Alp. They escaped to the mountains when the Indo-European arrived. Thus, the mountains in the middle of Europe were called the Alps. The hills around Rome were called Alban Hills, where a city called Alba Longa was located. As you may know, Scotland was once referred to as Alba, which, Mowat speculates, is the Gaelic renaming of the land that they conquered. The Picts had previously conquered the broch builders, and the Gaelic-speaking Dalriada Scotti from Ireland had conquered them.

The Broch-builders are called Albans in Mowat’s work. Their main task is to collect walrus tusks, which they sell to European markets. As they move west in search of walrus rookeries and to escape the Picts, the Gaels, and then the Vikings, they come in contact with Iceland, which Mowat says they call “Tili,” and then Greenland and then Newfoundland. They eventually are driven from Greenland and Tili and then are cut off from Europe.

He uses lots of saga, lore, and speculation in this book. I don’t know whether it is true, but it is very interesting. He argues that the Albans call Newfoundland Albania, and that the vikings often referred to this land as such. One viking actually goes to this Albania, where he meets people riding horses and worshipping in Christian Churches. (The other Albania is mostly Muslim and was during viking times).

But where did these people go? Mowat argues that a group of natives who have been pejoratively called “Jackatars” are actually descendants of these broch builders. They are generally thought of a people of mixed French and Mi’kmaq heritage. He thinks they are also part Alban. He implies the black dogs actually came from Scotland originally. (Of course, we actually do know that golden retrievers come from Scotland and descend from St. John’s water dogs.)

I don’t know whether any of Mowat’s theories in that book are true. The theories are almost impossible to prove. However, it is so beautifully written and beguiling that one almost wants to believe. This book is called Farfarers: Before the Norse.

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