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Archive for the ‘domestic animals’ Category

felis lybica

As I have noted many times on this blog, I think that the only way to correctly classify the domestic dog is as form of gray wolf. I am okay with regarding them as a divergent subspecies, but Pierotti and Fogg make a pretty good case that we really cannot define a domestic dog subspecies, because that subspecies would have to include everything from truly feral dogs to pekingese. I think that the wolf genome comparisons also show that creating a special dog or dingo species distorts the monophyly of Canis lupus.

Some will argue with me on this one, but you will have to use a species concept that is totally not based in cladistics or one that allows for a huge amount of gene flow between the two species.  An ecological species concept can work, but then you’re going to be forced to split up Canis lupus into many different species. Arabian wolves are simply aren’t ecologically equivalent to arctic wolves. So I think creating a special dog species is problematic from a systematics perspective.

However, I’ve been asked several times what I think about how to classify the domestic cat. Almost every authority in cats uses the name Felis catus to describe the domestic cat, while Canis familiaris is slowly being replaced by Canis lupus familiaris.

The revised taxonomy of Felidae  that was released in 2017 does change how we classify wildcats. Classically, we recognized a single species of wildcat, Felis silvestris. The domestic cat is derived from a Near Eastern population, which was classified as Felis silvestris lybica.  There was another wildcat that lives Western China that was sometimes recognized as Felis sivestris bieti or Felis bieti. The big taxonomy debate in this genus was where to include this Chinese mountain cat into the greater wildcat species or have it be a species of its own.

The new taxonomy changes quite a bit of this. Felis bieti is now recognized as species, but Felis silvestris now refers to only European and Caucasian wildcats.  Felis lybica is the new scientific name for the wildcats living Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and some parts of Central Asia, where it is sympatric with the Chinese mountain cat.  The fact that lybica and bieti exist in the same area without much gene flow is apparently the reason for elevating bieti to a species.  The reason for splitting up silvestris, though, had do with a deep mitochondrial DNA divergence between European and Caucasian wildcats and the rest of the wildcat species. Apparently, these two forms split from each other 173,000 years ago.

This revised taxonomy is really, well-supported with data, and I generally think it is right in its conclusions. However, I do think it made an error with this genus.

It retained Felis catus as a full species.  The same logic that says dogs are Canis lupus familiaris says that you cannot have a special domestic cat species either.

So the best way to classify domestic cats is as Felis lybica cata. You will probably only see this name written on this space, because unlike the literature on dogs, there is a noted deep adherence to Felis catus in the literature on domestic cats.

I honestly don’t know why there is such an adherence, because domestic cats are not that different from Felis lybica.  They come in more colors and coat types, but most domestic cats can live just as wildcats do. That’s why feral cats are an ecological hazard in so many places. They are quite effective predators, the ultimate mesopredator that found a niche living under the nose of man.

We don’t have as many good nuclear DNA studies on the various small cats as we do on various forms of the gray wolf complex, and this may be why there is a tendency to avoid a cladistic classification for the domestic form.

But if we’re doing this for dogs– and for good reason– we should be doing the same for cats. And the same for pigs and domestic mallards and domestic jungle fowl.

 

 

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feral dog

Most feral domestic animals revert to a form that is roughly similar to their wild ancestor. You can see this quite dramatically in feral pigs. They generally evolve into a form that is about the same size and even coat type of the Eurasian wild boar. City pigeons look very much like the rock dove or “rock pigeon” that is their wild ancestor after just a few generations of breeding without human care.

Because village and pariah dogs tend to be mid-sized, it has been assumed that the wild ancestor of these dogs surely would have been on the smaller side as well. Therefore, the gray wolf simply could not have been an ancestor.

What actually drives the size of freely breeding and feral domestic dogs isn’t that they have some ancient alleles that force them into returning to an ancestral form.  The truth of the matter is that ecological niche and caloric restraints have a lot more to do with this phenomenon.

Dogs are unique among domestic animals in that they are the only domesticated form of large carnivoran. We have never domesticated any other species of large predatory mammal except for those Pleistocene Eurasian wolves that are at the base of domestic dogs.

Most domestic dogs are poorly adapted to living as predators, and they really don’t have to be. When dogs go feral in societies with extensive agriculture, they readily scavenge and hunt small prey. They dabble in various levels of omnivory.  Some dogs might be good at hunting deer, but deer are a lot harder to catch than garbage and groundhogs.

There is an extensive literature on mammal predator size and prey choice. The best known researcher looking at these issues is Chris Carbone, and in a 2007 paper called “The Costs of Carnivory,” which was published in POLS Biology, Carbone and colleagues looked at body mass of mammalian predators and their prey choices. If a predator weighed more than 20 kg, it hunted large vertebrates. If it weighed less than that weight, it hunted invertebrates or small vertebrates.

Larger predators get a much higher net energy gain by targeting large prey, and this large prey allows them to maintain their larger body size.

Feral and freely-breeding domestic dogs are not hunting large vertebrates. It is much easier for them to scavenge as mid-sized creatures. Natural selection would favor a moderate size, because any dogs that retained the large dog or large wolf alleles in the population would have a harder time feeding itself efficiently on these resources alone.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. In Uruguay, there was a population of feral mastiff-type dogs, which are called Cimarrón Uruguayo. These dogs were introduced by Europeans as working dogs, but some of them went feral. They were able to maintain their large size because they hunted livestock and game, and they were such a problem that the government placed bounties on them.  These dogs were living in a feral existence for at least 250 years, but they were able to retain a large mastiff phenotype. The feral mastiff is now being transformed into a standard breed.

However, the general rule is that village and pariah dogs tend to be significantly smaller than wolves, but this smaller size cannot be used to deny that dogs are derived from gray wolves. This smaller size is just more efficient for the ecological niche of feral and village dogs.

And it is poor reasoning to assume that dogs cannot be wolf derivatives simply because they do not evolve back into a wolfish form once they go feral.  Dogs have been domesticated for a long time, and their domestication is quite unique.  As the only large predator we have domesticated, ecological pressures create a different sort of animal than the original wild ancestor.

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They ran Charolais on this rugged green ridgeland.  For forty  years, the big white cattle bellowed across the hollows, and the cows marched with their snowball calves in the greening days of April. The big bulls sat in the last remaining copses of oak trees on the land, chewing their cuds and resting all docile and dowdy through those sweltering days of summer.

But the world moved on. The farm family that ran the cattle was losing its grip on the land. Each generation left fewer and fewer people who were willing to commit to cattle husbandry. Now, there was one son, and he was taking a job on an oil rig in the far Gulf of Mexico. He just couldn’t run the cattle anymore.

The price of the Charolais beef had dropped over the years.They bred them almost entirely as a specialty, as a tradition, and now it was all over. The herd was sold to the feedlots, one in South Dakota and another in Tennessee.  The remaining herd bulls would go to Kansas to be bred as purebred Charolais at a specialist breeding program.

The final days of the cattle were on those green, sweet days of June, when the sun bakes the land and the grass grows perfectly green succulent. This would be the time after the first hay-cutting and before the second, when the rowen started to grow up among the stalks of the fallen first cutting. The rabbits would soon be kindling among the growing stalks, and maybe a litter or two wold be born and raised before the mowing machines came again.

But this year, the rabbits bred unmolested and the hayfield grew thick and green and then went to seed in the sun. No machine would come and cut down the grass, and rabbits would have their green refuge for the season.

And so the cows took their calves into the greenery, and the bulls rested their haunches in the oak lots.

It was sweet and settling, and in any other year, it would be the time when the cattle could be watched and the farm hand could breathe in the air and take a bit of time of ease.

But this year, it was all logistics of cattle trailers and health certificates. Recalcitrant haulers and busy veterinarians were on the phone all through the morning and evening.

It takes a lot of planning to end what had been a way of life. Indeed, the idea of it all being a way of life had already become the cliche of the demise of the family farm. But just because it was a cliche, didn’t mean it wasn’t true, and it was just as painful.

The long days of June were Halcyon days, just as they always were. But the first haulers showed up, and the first batch cows and calves left. 

It was raining when the trailer for the bulls showed up, and they splashed so much mud over their porcelain white hides that one could be forgiven for thinking they belonged to an entirely different breed.

And the haulers kept coming and taking away the cattle. And one day, there just a little scrub band of cows with calves.

And the thunder rolled in that last night before their hauler arrived. The sky lit up brightly withe sheet lightning, and the muggy air seemed to sweat and sweat until the deluge of rain came falling. The lightning cast the silhouettes of cows and calves in a truly ethereal scene. They were like ghosts standing upon the green grass as the sky dropped the buckets of rain. 

And then sky drew silent, and red June sun began its rising. The robins and thrushes and cardinals lifted their voices in song, and the day came roaring in on the land.

The final hauler arrived and the last of the cattle were loaded in the mud, and the cattle trailer headed down the dirt road, casting off to the southwest to Tennessee.

The meadowlarks sang in the pasture grass.  Crows flitted about the scene, and a pair of wild turkey hens came marching through pastures with 21 poults among them. They inspected the cowpies for bits of grain and grubs, and then moseyed on through the pasture in a singing, clucking phalanx of feathers and down.

They could not know that these were the last cowpies to be deposited upon the land. They merely came through pasture land on their wild foraging excursions, and they could not know that what was will never be again.

The sun of July and August would soon beat down upon the old pasture land. The manure would bake in the sun, and the scarabs would carry off what remained.

And the only thing that would remain of the cattle-land would be the deep furrows in the steep hill pastures that marked long years of bovine inertia moving hard upon the rocks and soil with cloven hooves.

And so another cattle farm went away, and just like the bison that once ranged these same ridges, they slipped away into the long draw of history.

And thus ended the final days of the cattle, and the grass grew thick and lush.  The wild multiflora rose run riot through the pasture in the coming years, and the Virginia and white pines would come to take the land. Then would come the aspen colonies and the drumming grouse.

Back to the forest the land would return, no longer a Jeffersonian farmstead of legend, but a bit of land left feral for the bears and the bobcats and the squacking squirrels. 

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The Old Horse

belgian horse

November’s chill winds scored the valley. The last of the October glowing leaves were knocked to the ground, and the finally stalks of summer corn were cut and set up as silage for the long starving season.

Men were thinking of meat now. The coming gun season for deer loomed as heavily as the November frosts, and those who still kept swine were preparing their scalding tubs and sharpening their hide scrapers.  The Angus steers that hadn’t been sold were similarly being prepared for the freezer.

The nights now drew in early and heavy winter dark, and Old Farmer Wilson seemed to know the score. Yes, he had a barrow or two in the back to take care of before the coming great deer hunt, when his meat gambrels would be hanging with musky venison to be skinned.

But his concerns were now in the nearer pasture, whose only inmate was Dan, the stolid old Belgian horse that he had inherited from a long-deceased great uncle. The great uncle was one of last of the horse-drawn men, the kind who cursed the roaring of the internal combustion engines on his fields and cropland and still held onto the old heavy horses. He held onto them as stubbornly as a barnacle, and when he passed, he left 200 acres to Farmer Wilson and a good horse to work it.

Wilson never much used the horse to work the land. He kept the great beast as a sort of novelty, a relic from an ancient time, and he fed him the finest horse grain and pellets and let him pull a wagon at small town parades.  He loved to groom out Dan’s flaxen mane and fetlocks and smooth out his golden hide with a currycomb, and he would pull that little Conestoga facsimile through the little towns of the valley and look so elegant while doing so.

But the years took their toll on the man and the horse. Dan’s condition had worsened over the long summer. He would eat all day on good green forage, but he would still get a little more gaunt each day.

The old horse’s teeth were wearing out, and Wilson knew that the kind thing to do would be relieve the old gelding of his suffering.

But he couldn’t be made to do it all through that summer and even in the waning days of September. The gentle old horse still touched a man who could off a pig with a single shot to the head.  The horse wanted to be good. He wanted to feel a man’s hand upon his neck and shoulders.  There was dignity in this old beast, and no man who ever knew such an animal could deny it.

And the horse reminded Wilson of the old men on the land that he knew so well. Their farms were now mostly left to go fallow then turn to brushy filth before growing up in the gray twig forest that now covered much of the countryside. Horses and men worked the land, as did many women and children.  But their farms were now forest, and their horses and mules were lost to the ages.

But Wilson knew the time was near. In another era, they just would have shot the old horse with a deer rifle, but Wilson believed that such a beast deserved a proper death.

He made an appointment for the vet to come the Friday before Thanksgiving. The big horse would fall out of his mortal coil, and the weekend would be for the pig killing.

The vet came that eerily sunny Friday morning. The sun cast that yellow pall of waning light that comes in November and December, and the trees stood naked as gray skeleton against the azure, cloudless sky.

Wilson whistled for Dan to come for his morning feeding, which had had brought in double helpings– and added half dozen golden delicious apples.

The great horse nibbled and nuzzled at his repast, and Wilson stroked his mane and neck, offering up the tender loving words  of “Good boy” and “What a fine horse you are.”

And the vet came with his big syringes, all filled with the elixirs of gentle death, and then approached the man and horse.

The vet asked, “Are you ready?”

“I guess so,” was the solemn reply, which came only through the deepest of man sobs.

And so the vet came and injected the big horse with the thick needles, and the great animal dropped down to the muddy ground.

And a Farmer Wilson wept and sobbed as he never done before. Here was a man who offed pigs and chickens without thinking twice, but something was very different here.

For in that felling of the great horse, the last tangible piece of those old rheumy memories was extinguished upon the muddy ground.

And a truly noble and sagacious beast was no longer among the living, and anyone with half a soul would weep at such a thing passing.

The crows called in soft wind. A blue jay screeched from the hickory trees beyond hte pasture. A pileated woodpecker chattered madly in the sky.

And the last of the turkey vultures coursed the sky, casting their bills into the breeze to catch the scent of the dead.

The dead horse’s flesh probably grazed their olfactory systems a bit, but they carried on the sky, looking for morsels of meat that weren’t guarded by two men.

That night, Wilson ate a dinner of store-bought sausage.  He didn’t cook it as thoroughly as he normally did, and the blood gushed a bit from the center, oozing out into the plate in a scarlet trickle.

Normally, he would think of nothing of his mistake, but this time, he sat and stared hard at the blood.  Blood would be coming in the morning, when began his annual pig killing, and the blood would run harder and darker than it ever would on his plate.

He considered his odd position as a man who cared for his animals and then killed them, He gave them good food and lots of good care, but the end was the same. The animals died. Their flesh fed him and his friends and family who would take the meat.

It was that problem that he always buried, but this time he had to consider it more.  It was not enough to make him a vegan, but it was enough to take him aback. He had to consider his monstrous self once again, and that consideration is never comfortable.

Some tears eased their way down his cheeks, and he pushed the plate aside for. He sipped his evening coffee and stepped out into the dark sky. The stars were twinkling against the black sheet of night, and he stared up into their infinity.  He breathed in the cold air.

A great horned owl’s hooting rose from the forest in the far end of the property, but then it fell silent.

And the land was all silent all around in the darkness of a November night.  The frosts had killed off all the crickets and katydids of the year, and their stridulations no longer rose in the blackness.

It was just the blackness and the silence and the infinity, and the simple fact that all beings are alone, after all, when the end finally comes.

Be they men or old work horses or katydids or barrow swine, their existence comes to an end, and yet life goes on.

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black angus

The snow swirls wildly.  Whiteout conditions then subsume the land. But just as soon as the snow squalls came, the sun blinks and out, and the snow clouds dissipate. The dusting left on the dormant grass melts away. It is the sallow grass of winter.

But soon it will be greening, for we have entered into that oddball month that runs from late March to late April, when the days switch from balmy sweetness of coming spring to the driving chills of winter. The two forces will war against each other over the next month.

Spoiler alert: the warm and balmy beats the dagger cold in the end.

This is the time of the great calving. Not of glaciers or of wild beasts but of the beef cattle that move their way through the green pastures, munching away at their forage, getting fat as they fart and belch and chew cud in the sunshine.

The agrarian life is in a moribund state here in North-Central West Virginia. The old ways of farmers turning out a few beef cows with calves and keeping a few head of sheep are slowly but surely in decline. Georgia and Tennessee are better lands for beef, and the price of wool is but a pittance.  Big agribusiness works the more fertile lands of the Midwest, Great Plains, and California, and the mixed operation little hill farmer of the Alleghenies is left way behind.

Only a few souls cling to the business of cattle. Virtually none do it full-time. My own grandfather on my mother’s side was one of these part-time cattlemen. He was a school bus-driver. He “drove bus” is the way his occupation was described.  But his heart was in raising beef cattle. He was not a man of great education, but he was every bit as into improving his strains as Robert Bakewell or Thomas Coke. He was always looking for a fine bull to put to his cows, and he never kept any scrub cattle.

But now the old farmers have gone. Their children have gone off to make their fortunes elsewhere, and by now, several generations have been removed from that lifestyle.  Children’s hands, which once milked dairy cattle, now caress smart phones and video game controls. To most of us, this world as a foreign as Outer Mongolia.

But I often drive this stretch of rural road, though, where the farmer still turn out their cattle into roadside pastures. And in between the March snow squalls, I slip along this road.

The cattlemen along this road keep only “black Angus” or the crossbred form known as a black baldy. These Scottish cattle grow thick coats during the winter chill, and although they are hornless, they sort of make me think of bison when I see them. Their shaggy hides just have that sort of primeval look to them.

And March is the time when the calves drop. They fall black and wet onto the yellow grass, and their mothers stand over them, licking them with the deep cleaning, stimulating strokes of their muscular tongues.

And then they rise from the grass and drink the colostrum, while the snow flies all around them.

The cattlemen breed the cows to give birth in March, so the calves can grow and mature on the green grass of spring. That way, they can get top dollar at the autumn livestock markets.

There is a toughness in these cattle, though they are so carefully bred for their fine marbled beef, that they drop their young into this time in which the winter chills square off against the coming spring warmth.

This scene feels ancient, but in long history of the Alleghenies, it is but a brief footnote. Mammoths and mastodons once dropped the calves here, as did the ancient North American bison.  And when the Europeans came, the forests were full of elk and modern-day bison, and they too had their young in the spring sunshine on these glady hills.

And 50 years ago, the Angus weren’t grazing the hillsides. The very stately English Herefords were the beef breed of choice, and a hundred years ago, the most farmers kept shorthorns, which are always called “Durhams” in West Virginia. Cross them with Jersey or Holstein, and you’ve got a nice little dairy cow.  The rest can be killed for beef or sold to market.

As I drive down the road, I come to pasture that is enclosed by an 8-foot fence of woven wire. When I first saw this fence, I thought it odd. Most cattlemen just put in four strands of barbed wire, and if that doesn’t hold the cows back, a solar paneled electric fence certainly will.

But here, the fence is so elaborate, and I never could figure out why it was so.

And then one day, I saw a them standing along the fence nearest the road. They were a herd of about a dozen bison.

They looked out of place behind the woven wire.  In my mind, a bison is a wild animal, one that our greed largely killed off in the past two hundred years.

But on this farm, they have returned, but their reintroduction is ersatz. Two hundred years ago, the bison roamed up from the Ohio River Valley during the early spring to eat the rich mountain grasses, and every winter, they would wander out of the snowfields of the higher mountain into the mild river bottoms.

These bison, though, are confined. Sooner or later, they would go to slaughter. Their wildness has been bottled up, but I can’t help but wonder if they would enjoy running loose as their wild ancestors once did.

I think of these bison and of these cattle, and I think about the question of permanence. In a thousand years, will this bison or the Angus still be grazing these pastures? Will the pastures even exist, or will the temperate forest absorb the grasslands as they have done with all the old hill farms that have been abandoned to nature? Will the snows of March still come flying in that great whirlwind battle between warmth and freezing chill? Or will the warming climate declare final victory over the March snow?

Permanence is illusory.  To adhere to that illusion is to become subject to a delusion.  Sooner or later, the fracking trucks will come, and if the groundwater gets ruined, these little farms will be gone.

Economics and ecology will simply clear it all off, just as these forest bison were cleared off nearly two hundred years ago.

So now behold this land of the black buffalo, but don’t blink.  It might not be around too much longer.

 

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Source.

I came across this rather remarkable little documentary a few weeks ago. It features the work and ideas of John Skeaping, who made his name as a painter of horses.

It has wonderful footage of the bulls and horses of the Camargue in South of France, as well as the “cowboys” who tend them and how they rely upon the wisdom of the horses to manage the wild bulls safely and efficiently.

Skeaping was quite worried about the downgrading of animal art because artists couldn’t stop themselves from projecting their humanness onto them. He calls the “sentimentalizing,” but I would have called it something else. He talks about the domestic animals having a kind being “wild,” and if you think for just a few second, you can figure what he’s talking about.

Essentially, we’re debasing animals by turning them into humanized versions of the beast. This was the great sin of Timothy Treadwell, who sang songs and talked baby talk to Alaskan brown bears and then wound up partially consumed by one.  It’s the same sort of humanization that I see as the underpinnings of the irrational aspects of the animal rights movement.

It is wrong to say that animals are just mindless automatons with no feelings or no insight, but it is just as wrong to assume that those feelings and insights are the same sort that we have.

And although Skeaping’s main concerns were with art, these ideas can be extended into how we view animals in general. Much of what is totally wrong in the domestic dog is really removing them from their “wildness.” This is why I think my aesthetics are more strongly influence by dogs bred solely for their purpose than over dogs bred for show. A dog bred for show has been bred for appearance and movement, which may or may not have any kind of evaluation in the actual world.  It comes across as an overly sentimentalized portrait of a horse does. I see the “wilder” aspects of a dark-colored working golden retriever as infinitely more stunning that any dog winning at Westminster or Crufts. The former still largely exists within the milieu that created it. It might not be exactly like white horses of the Camargue, but it still approaches them more in their dignity than the dog bred solely for conformation.

He was able to point out, nearly 50 years ago, where the human and animal relationship would go awry. It’s as we’ve begun to alienate ourselves from the processes that produced those animals, we’ve allowed our human tendency to project cuteness and emotion to get the better of us. The working English cocker has more feral eyes than the round-eyed, shagged-up American cocker, and although one is certainly more useful than the other, the aesthetics of working dog are just so much more pleasant to my eye than the other.

There is a scene in the documentary where Skeaping allows his two very roughly cut standard poodles run loose in a bit of marshland, and they move with such grace and power. He gets some of the history of poodles and French herding breeds messed up in his commentary, but he very eloquently describes poodle as the raw water dog of yore.

This animal is outside our popular understanding of the poodle. We see it as the canine topiary, even though many of the standards retain this essence of their ancestors. It is hard to explain the uninitiated what a poodle and what it can be.

As I think what this means for the future of the human and animal bond, I shudder a bit. We don’t see the horse’s gait the way we once did.  It was once as important how the horse gaited as how smooth a family sedan rides. Now, it’s only as important as much as one gets pleasure from riding it. The conformation of dogs and horses were not esoteric theories that were debated by only those in the cliques and clubs. It was once essential knowledge.

We have the luxury now to have this knowledge drawn out in the abstraction. Horses are still largely owned by only people who use them, but dogs can go any direction our flights of fancy demand.

Each breed moves on deeper into the realm of caricature of its ancestors. Some, like the bulldog and the pug, may be removed from all hope of ever having even a glimmer that former animalistic glory. They have become the living caricatures of what once was and never shall be.

And the same can be seen in the wedge-head Siamese and the brachycephalic exotic short-hair. It was the same with chickens and pigeons and Rouen ducks with keels that drag the ground. We’re now seeing it with rats and mice, and any other small fluffy things that we’ve managed to domesticate.

We are the sculptors of animal flesh and bone now. We were once limited by the climate and the simple utility of the animal. But as we come to rely less and less upon the work of some many domestic species, they become subject to our whimsy.

And this whimsy moves us further along into the abstract. What we’re leaving behind is the domestic animal as an art-form.

They will exist, but they will be so modified that they will cease to be.

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Simmental cattle deal with a predator!

Source.

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