Archive for the ‘domestic animals’ Category


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!


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Feral donkeys on Bonaire.

Feral donkeys on Bonaire. 

The Nubian wild ass hasn’t been seen in the wild since the 1950s. The subspecies has been presumed to be extinct. It lived in the Red Sea Hills and the Atbara region of Sudan.

Based upon ancient mitochondrial DNA analysis, it was revealed that there were at least two wild populations that are the source for domestic donkeys. The Nubian wild ass was the source one of the clades of donkeys, and the other came froma mystery population. Somali wild asses, the other extant subspecies of African wild ass that actally still can be found in the wild, is not a source for mitochondrial DNA diversity in domestic donkey.

I say all of this right up front, because what I am about to discuss are the limits of using mtDNA analysis to determine the relationship between populations, especially when one is trying to figure out whether feral population has some taxonomic distinctness.

The Dutch Empire still holds steadfastly to some islands in Caribbean. Among these is Bonaire, which is located just north of Venezuela. On that island is a population of feral donkeys, and the current excitement is the possibility that these animals might be pure Nubian wild asses.

If they are, they could be the very last of their subspecies, which is pretty amazing.  Keep in mind that there is no real historical context I can think of that connects an island off the coast of Venezuela with Sudan. Now, it’s certainly true that the Dutch colonists were connected to an empire that was all over the Indian Ocean, and the same can be said about the British and Spanish, who also occupied the island at various points in its history.

But even if they were connected across these maritime empires, why would anyone bring wild donkeys to an island and turn them loose?

And that brings us to the evidence for the Bonaire donkeys being Nubian wild asses. This is where mtDNA alone analysis can cause problems.

Researchers at Texas A & M performed an mtDNA analysis with samples from some Bonaire donkeys, samples from Nubian wild asses that were part of museum collections, sequences from four Somali wild asses, and one sequence from a domestic donkey that was available from the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

The results showed that the Bonaire donkeys were very close to historical Nubian wild asses and very different from the Somali wild asses and the domestic one.

I looked at the cladogram set up from the mtDNA analysis, and my curiosity was piqued. The domestic donkey’s mtDNA didn’t fit with the Nubians, but we do know that a lot of domestic donkeys actually do descend from Nubian wild asses. Nubian wild asses are a source for their mtDNA diversity, as I mentioned earlier.

But this NCBI sample wasn’t from the Nubian population.  Remember that the study I linked to earlier showed that some domestic donkey mtDNA sequences came from an undocumented population that was neither Somali nor Nubian. This particular sample could have come from that mtDNA lineage in domestic donkeys, but if they had included those that had Nubian ancestry, my guess is things would get complicated fairly quickly. The domestic donkey was used as a control, when in reality the best research method would have been to include a lot of samples from domestic donkeys in the study.

For some reason, this just wasn’t done.

Occam’s razor suggests to me that these donkeys aren’t Nubian wild asses after all. If more samples of domestic donkey are included in the analysis, I bet there will be several of them that come up very close to Nubian.

This is why we have to be careful of mtDNA-only studies, and the researchers at Texas A&M may not be aware for the new data on donkey domestication. Some donkeys have Nubian wild ass mtDNA, and others have mtDNA from a mystery wild ass population, which is not of the Somali subspecies.

We need more evidence to see if what the Bonaire donkeys are, but I think it is a very giant leap to call them the last Nubian wild asses.

Of course, what prompted this study is that late last year, the government of Bonaire was going to institute a donkey cull, which, of course, upset animal rights groups. With this analysis by Texas A&M in hand, the government was forced to halt the donkey cull.

However, the evidence that these donkeys are “pure Nubian wild asses” is nowhere near as convincing as it sounds.

I would like them to be. Don’t get me wrong.

But I’m not betting on it.


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The wild type

When I was eleven years old, I went hamster crazy.

At that age, I was a connoisseur of books on pets and wildlife, and I owned countless Barron’s books on pets. I had ones on all the common breeds of dog, including one on golden retrievers.  I discovered that the dog book were all written by Americans or by people living in America or writing for an American audience, and often, the books would just have enough filler about that particular breed, which would be followed by chapters that were essentially the same in every single book. Breed did not matter.

However, there were a few exceptions to this rule. Some books were really detailed and had fascinating narratives about the dogs they kept.  They were really good. The book on dachshunds by Leni Fiedelmeier was unbelievably good. The author actually told stories about her dogs as a way illustrating the best way to care for them.

I noticed very quickly that the book was a translation from German. The dogs all had German names, and most of the dachshunds in the photographs in the book were wire-haired, which is the least common variety in North America.

So it was a good book.

I noticed that the only books from that series that were any good were those that were originally written in German. German-speaking pet owners were much more willing to get personal in their books. They were much more willing to help you understand the animal and appreciate it for what it was.

And that’s what brought me to hamsters.

The book on hamsters was by Otto von Frisch. I had no idea who that was, but years later, I learned that Otto was the son of the famous ethologist Karl von Frisch. He was a respected director at the Brunswick Natural History Museum, but he was a master naturalist. His descriptions of hamster behavior and natural history captured my imagination as nothing had before.

I knew that I had to have a golden hamster.

And not just any golden hamster.

Throughout the translation, every time the author mentioned the hamsters that possessed the original coat coloration, they were always referred to as “the wild type.”

That term captured my imagination, and I knew that I wanted to have a male golden hamster of the wild type.

When I went to the pet store to buy my first hamster, all that was available was a female black-eyed cream. She was  a nasty biter, and though I gave her the name of Linda, we always called her the Black-eyed Bitch.

I was given an ancient Teddy bear hamster soon after I got my first one, and then I bought a cinnamon and banded one. The banded one was wild-type, but only on her front and back.

It turned out that the cinnamon hamster was pregnant, and she gave birth a litter of ten. Nine of the babies were banded wild-types, which told me that the wild type was dominant, as were the bands. But one of the little ones was a true wild type without any banding at all.

I kept him, and he was my first male hamster. I came to prefer the males to the females. The males, although smaller, were pluckier and more confident. They matured more muscled up and svelte. I came to notice their scent glands on their hips, which they would rake along the sides of their enclosures. On a wild type male, these glands would stain their fur a bright yellow, almost like epaulets on their tawny sable forms.

They were tame in that they tolerated my presence and handling. As solitary animals, I doubt they ever gave me a passing glance. They were other beings, prisoners in our civilization that somehow adapted to our plastic “labyrinth” enclosures, water bottles, and exercise wheels.

My eleven-year-old mind could not comprehend that these animals were derived from a single litter captured in Syria in 1930.  I could not grasp the concept of how inbred these animals were. They were all derived from single litter– indeed a single male and single female from that litter– and that they had somehow survived that bottleneck and were available at virtually every pet shop for $5.00.

I did not anthropomorphize them. No, I did worse than that.  The animals I knew all around me were dogs, and I began to project upon them the essence of canines. I even tried to train them a few tricks, which they never learned.

If I owned a hamster now, I think I would have greater appreciation for them as hamsters. I would think of them hanging out in some of the most ancient fields of wheat, occasionally stealing a bit of the grain store for themselves or perhaps falling prey to those first domestic cats.

When I reread Frisch’s book on hamsters, I am able to appreciate this creature. It lived unknown to science until 1839, when a British zoologist first described a specimen of mid-sized hamster from what is now Syria. But they are creatures of the cultivated field, and they knew about our kind for thousands of years before we came to know them.

And yet they remain so distant.

As prisoners in a foreign land should be.


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This fell-looking beast is a Romanian hamster (Mesocricetus newtoni).  It’s a close relative of the golden hamster (Mesocricetus auratus) that we know so well from the pet trade. They are in the same genus, and they have been hybridized in captivity.

This species is found in southern Romania and Bulgaria and is found in uncultivated grassland. The golden or Syrian hamster is found almost exclusively in wheatfields in northern Syria and southern Turkey. It has even been suggested that the golden hamster has evolved to live in cultivated fields in much the same way domestic animals have evolved to live with us.

Of course, we really don’t know.  Golden hamsters are quite uncommon in the wild, and they were when they were first described to science in the 1930’s.

It may be that there is something with modern agricultural practices that makes these hamsters incompatible with agriculture.

So here we have two species evolving to live very different lives. One is a creature of the cultivated field, while the other is that of the wild grassland.

Strangely, we know next to nothing about the golden hamster in the wild, and it happens to be located in area that I would not recommend anyone visiting right now– for any reason. You might get carried away and lose your head!

But the Romanian species can be studied now. There were attempts to make it a model laboratory animal like its Syrian cousin, but it proved harder to breed. We might be able to get some insights about wild hamster behavior from this species, even though it’s not at all the same animal as the familiar pet.

The golden hamster, by contrast, was very easy to breed in captivity, even though it’s an unusually inbred population. With the exception of some strains that were founded by wild-caught individuals in the 1990’s, all of the golden hamsters available at pet shops are derived from three survivors of a litter captured at Aleppo in 1930.

These animals appear to be super-domesticated, but as someone who used to breed hamsters, I can tell you they aren’t that far removed from wild animals. They readily escape their enclosures, and I never had one that didn’t bite me at least once.

Because of the geopolitical issues in the golden hamster’s range, it is very unlikely that we’re going to get new hamster blood or garner more knowledge about their behavior in the wild– at least in the near future.

There are so many questions, but maybe through the study of the European cousin, we might get some answers.

And some more questions to ask.



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I spent a few weekends last month traveling remote country roads. These are potholed ribbons of blacktop that meander along densely forested ridges and through little pastures that look as though they had just been hewn out of the forest primeval. The truth is the forest is the newcomer. Fifty years before, the land was virtually nothing but a vast expanse of rocky pastureland.

The depopulation of West Virginia is a story that is little known, but as the agrarian economy fell apart in the early decades of the twentieth century,  the children of the mountains ran off to find industry in places like Cleveland and Detroit. Later generations would race off to life in the Carolina and Georgia Sunbelts.

But few stayed to farm.

For those of you a bit confused by the term, no one in West Virginia “ranches.”  A person who raises cattle is a farmer. The word “ranch” connotes the vast openness of the West, whereas the land here is snug and tight and more than a bit obscured.

I came across several of these little beef operations. Beef prices are high now, so the farmers are taking what advantage of the market they can.

Most beef producers in West Virginia keep “black Angus,” the vaunted black cow from Scotland with its very well marketed marbled beef. In most of the rest of the world, the breed is called an Aberdeen-Angus, and it includes both a black and a liver-colored variety. The liver-colored ones are called “red Angus” and are marketed as something other than true “black Angus.”

I’ve always thought these black cattle were rather homely. They are lardy little brutes, but when the mud and feces cling to their shedding winter coats, they don’t really have that much appeal.

But within the past few years, there has been a bit of renaissance among the Hereford cattle. These are the stately English beef cattle that once made up the backbone of the American beef industry. They are named for the English of Hereford, which is pronounced “Hair-a-ferd,” but in America, for some unknown reason, we call them “Hurfurds.”   (I think the British pronunciation sounds more fitting for one of these animals.)

They always look very English to me. They remind me very much of bovine equivalent of an eighteenth century English gentleman, decked out in a red coat and wearing a powdered wig.

In May, the West Virginia’s little hill pastures take on a semblance of a George Stubbs painting:  well-bred livestock and horses standing out in the greenest pastures.

And Hereford cattle certainly add to the delusion.

When I was a child, I learned the big herds of bison that the first European settlers encountered when they crossed into the Trans-Allegheny West. They were but a foretaste of the great throng of bison that they would encounter as they crossed in the Midwest and deep into the Great Plains.

The bison tore up fences, and their hides were valuable. So they fell to the gun.

They were replaced by rougher bred British cattle, the kind bred for milk and beef and oxen for the yoke.

The first “improved” breeds to come to this part of West Virginia were “Durhams,” more normally called “shorthorns.”  These animals came late in the nineteenth century. They, too, were bred to be generalist cattle, but later on, it became customary for people to keep Jerseys and Jersey crosses for milk, then Holsteins. And when the beef market began to take off, Hereford cattle became common, too.

My grandfather often told the story of “whitewashing” his neighbor’s black Jersey cross dairy cow. He took white paint, and just painted her all over.  People started talking about the new white cow that the neighbor had in his pasture.

“I don’t have a white one; she’s black!”

Boy, was he in for a shocker when he got home!

We used to live very intimately with cattle and horses.  Cattle produced milk and meat, and horses were as essential as motor vehicles are now.

We’ve lost that knowledge.  Too few Americans have even touched a cow or horse. They are remote creatures. They might as well be mythical or exotic.

But in every Hamburger or steak we eat,  we consume the flesh of the bovine.

What we don’t often think about is that we’re actually eating the flesh of an animal that is now extinct in the wild.

Just as the Eastern bison are now gone from West Virginia’s hills, the wild ancestor of domestic cattle is now lost to the ages.

It was called the aurochs, and the last of these giant wild cattle was killed in Poland in the seventeenth century. The genes of the great wild cow now exist solely the 1.3 billion domestic cattle that are spread across the continent. There were two domestications:  one in the  Middle East that produced things like the Hereford and the Holstein and another in the Indus Valley, which produced the zebu or “Indicus” cattle, which are famous for their sacred status in Hinduism and for their dewlaps and shoulder humps. The Indian aurochs went extinct shortly after the domestication.

The species now exists solely in a domestic form.

If the whole world were to go vegan and then demanded that no draft animals be used,  it really would be the end for the aurochs.

The children of the aurochs have become the most successful large ungulate species on the planet. They graze through the Americas and deep in Siberia. Their hoof-beats can be heard on “stations” in the Australian Outback, and the Maasai people still kill lions that menace their herds in Kenya and Tanzania.

The gentle Herefords grazing along these country lanes are not the aurochs of old.  Just as the eighteenth century English gentleman was nothing like the wild Anglo-Saxons or Anglo-Normans or Brythonic Celts in his pedigree, the Hereford is utterly domesticated. Almost all Herefords in West Virginia are polled– born without horns– and when cows calve in remote pastures, they often have a hard time defending their young against the depredations of coyotes and dogs.

But though thoroughly domesticated, they still exist remotely. There will never be huge demand for pet cattle.

They will still be aurochsen, though modified and refined for our pleasure.








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old spot

The following text comes from William Youatt’s The Pig: a Treatise on the Breeds, Management, Feeding, and Medical Treatment of Swine; with Directions for salting Pork and curing Bacon and Hams (1847 and 1860):

Every cottager with a family should purchase in the spring or summer a bacon pig, to cost about a sovereign (as old a pig as he can get for the money, of good breed), to be fed up to about four-and-twenty score at Christmas. The hams he can sell to buy another pig, and the rest will remain for his own consumption, without seeming to have cost anything. There is no savings bank for the labourer like a pig. Every week a shilling should be spent on meal, and this with a pig of a good sort, will make him grow and keep fresh, and require very little to finish off with at last. I heartily agree with the Dorsetshire squire Sturt’s speech, at an agricultural dinner, in 1857: “The grunting of a hog in a cottager’s sty, sounds sweeter than the song of a nightingale, and sides of bacon are the very best ornaments of the cottage walls.” If landlords and farmers would take the trouble to secure to the labourer in every rural parish, a comfortable, convenient cottage, with pigsty and garden, and a well-bred boar for parish use, they would have less reason to complain of the want of labour. There is too much talk about putting down beer-houses without putting up something in their stead, for the comfort and amusement of a class who have neither the mental nor the physical resources of their employers.

There can scarcely be conceived a greater contrast than between the system of prizes given for cottagers’ pigs and gardens in Yorkshire, and the system of giving a pound and coat for thirty years’ long service, practised in the south. It seems that it is quite as good a thing to win a fourth prize for a fat hog in Yorkshire as to live thirty years in one service without parish relief in Bucks and Berkshire; and I am not at all sure that the fat hog is not a better evidence of industry, sobriety, intelligence, and the main qualities that go to make a respectable man, than the certificates on which the pound and the coat are often awarded to the worn-out smock-frock man.

It is true that, in 1842, Mr. Edwin Chadwick, C.B., in his first sanitary report, said that “pig-keeping and cowkeeping were injurious to the condition of the labourer; that the labouring man pays more dearly for his bacon than he would if he purchased it ready made; that the possession of a pig created a temptation to steal; that a labourer had best depend on his wages alone,”—that is to say, have neither the amusement of a garden, nor the benefit of a live savings bank. But fortunately, since 1842 a reaction, almost an insurrection, has put an end to Mr. Ohadwick’s authority as paid commissioner and professional philanthropist, and stopped the circulation of social and sham-scientific fallacies at public expense. Most landowners and farmers, and every country parson who knows his duty, stirred up by S. G-. O., stimulated by the Rev. Charles Kingsley, and by the speeches of Tory squires, like Mr. Sturt, like to see a hog growing into money in a labourer’s sty, even although it does not exactly exhale a spice-island perfume, and may invite a little “mendicancy,” to use a hard word for slops and wash, amongst the junior chaw-bacons. But the Trapbois* class of philanthropists, anxious “for a consideration” to arrange the boarding, lodging, clothing, lighting, watering, and educating of the whole community on parallelogram plans, under the inspection of Boards, have very little sympathy with the rude and simple pleasures of the poor.

What a pleasant picture for Squire Sturt, or Parson Kingsley, or S. G. O.**, the Argus-eyed sharp-penned friend of the oppressed, wherever found, is the hard-working labourer, who, by denying himself many a pint of beer and many a pipe, by extra hours, and close economy on the part of the missus, has saved and bought a porker (one of the squire’s or the parson’s own sort, on the side of the boar), who has built a sty with his own hands, and set the whole family to work to feed the grunting stranger, from the eldest lad who wheels the barrow laden with a tub of wash, down to the petticoated infants who toddle forth hand in hand to collect sow-thistles or acorns. Artists of renown might do worse than take for a subject the Sunday evening round the sty,—when, surrounded by his hard-fed young ones, daddy in his shirt-sleeves, smoking the “Sunday pipe,” discusses with missus in her best gown and cap—the last baby in her arms—the manifold good qualities, the form, the skin, the ears, the hair, the pork-making propensities of his one specimen of farm live-stock; calculates the weight of the sides of fat bacon, to be eaten with home-grown cabbage, into which piggy is sure to grow; and while pleasantly scratching his head, makes the children’s mouths water with the promise of a feast of black pudding, fry, or even roast pork, with brown potatoes in the pan—to be enjoyed about Christmas time.

Then, again, in a pig-feeding village, there are all the delights and extravagances of the lending system, by which, practically, every pig-owner has a share in his neighbour’s pig, each lending the other lights, or chitterlings, or even a spare-rib, repaid as each kills his own pig. These make up to the villager the bank, the stock exchange, and the theatre, the concert-rooms of Canterbury Hall and the Britannia, which town-folk monopolize. As for the tragedy of the pig-killing, that is one of the great events, a perfect Victoria drama to the boys of our village (pg 89-91).

These words may not sound like it, but for their time, they are pretty progressive.

In post-Enclosure movement England, there were large numbers of tenant farmers who were forced to live in cottages, where they worked lands they would never own. These cottiers or cottagers were at the bottom rung of the rural working class in England, and their lives were far from roseate. They could be expelled at virtually any time, and they had to pay rents in the form of either a percentage of their crops or in money.

These were conditions in which many nineteenth century reformers railed against the landowners.

In the text, Youatt is actually offering to landowners a solution that he thinks will improve the lot of these rural cottager.

Cottagers were allotted only a small bit of land, which meant they didn’t have a lot of resources to raise animals. Youatt thinks that allowing them to keep pigs, which are (of course) improved through the use of a highly-bred boar belonging to the landowner, will give them a source of income and civic pride, as well as a past time that will keep them away from the beer halls.

Pigs can be fattened on refuse, and they don’t need large areas to roam.

They are a cheaply maintained source of protein and fat, which are often harder for working class people to obtain.

So in this rather weird way, Youatt is encouraging landowners to encourage their cottagers to keep hogs.

Pork has always been the meat of the poor. Without access to pasture lands to graze cattle, hogs have been a relatively cheap source for meat.

It is somewhat strange to see that pig-keeping would be suggested as way of making lives better in Victorian rural cottages, but at the time, it actually did make some sense.


* A reference to a fictional usurer.

**Sidney Godolphin Osborne, a noted social reformer and clergyman, who was most famous for his accounts of the Irish famine.

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