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German shepherd mating Carpathian wolf

Original crossbreeding between a German shepherd and Carpathian wolf to found the Czechoslovakian Vlcak.

If you have been reading this blog for a long time, I used to post historical and indigenous accounts of wolves, coyotes, and dingoes being used as working animals. I also would post accounts different breeders of domestic dogs crossing their stock with wolves to improve their strains.

I have long been critical of the Raymond Coppinger model of dog domestication, which posits that wolves scavenging from Neolithic dumps created the dog as an obligate scavenger that then became selectively bred for human uses. In this model, the tropical village dog is the ancestral form of all canines, a position that has emboldened the “Dogs are not wolves” theorists to suggest some tropical Asian Canis x is the actual ancestor of the domestic dog.

This model also posits that all dogs are just obligate scavengers, and unfortunately, this obligate scavenger designation means that what could be otherwise good books and research on dogs essentially denies their predatory behavior.

Last year, I kept hearing about a book that took on Coppinger’s model head-on. This book took Coppinger’s task for having distinct Eurocentric biases and that Coppinger essentially ignored vast amounts anthropological data on how different human societies relate to wild and semi-domestic canids.

So I finally ordered a copy of this book, which is called The First Domestication: How Wolves and Humans Coevolved by Raymond Pierotti and Brandy Fogg. I do recommend this book, but I readily admit that I don’t agree with quite a bit of it. I agree with it more than Coppinger, though, because they rather clearly show massive holes in Coppinger’s model.

Pierotti and Fogg have produced a model that relies heavily upon humans and wolves encountering and then benefiting from a hunting mutualism. Humans have a long history as scavengers, and even today, there are people who follow large predators, including lions, to rob them of their kills. Dholes are targeted by certain people as well, and it is very likely that humans entering Eurasia would have done the same with wolves.

The difference between the lions and the dholes and ancient wolves is that the lions and dholes resent having humans come near their kills.  The ancient wolves, however, came to work with people to bring down more prey. These wolves and humans came to be the dominant predators in Eurasia.

Pierotti and Fogg’s model posits the domestication process as beginning with ancient hunter-gather societies. It relies upon the wolf’s predatory nature as an important catalyst in allowing this partnership to thrive.

Further, the authors are rather clear in that our Eurocentric understanding of a clear delineation between wolves and dogs is a rather recent creation. Most cultures who have existed where there are wolves and dogs have a much more plastic understanding of the differences that separate the two or they have no separation of all.

The most compelling analogies in the work are the discussions about the relationships among hunters in Siberia, their laikas, and wild wolves and the relationships between indigenous Australians and dingoes.

In the Siberian laika culture, the dogs have extensively exchanged genes with wild wolves, enough that laikas and wolves do share mitochondrial DNA haplotypes. The laikas (or laiki, as they are known in Russia) do hunt the sable and other small game. They also protect the camps from bears, and in some areas, the laikas are used as not particularly specialized livestock guardian dogs. The authors see these dogs a very good analogy to describe how the earliest people and dogs would have lived. These dogs would have been cultured to humans, but they would still be getting an influx of wild genes as they lived in the wild.

In the dingo example, the authors discuss how these hunter-gather cultures would keep dingo pups and treat them almost exactly as we would our own domestic dogs. They also would use the dingoes to hunt kangaroos, but during mating season, they would allow their companions to leave the camps or stay.  They often would leave, but some would go off for a time in the bush and return. This suggests that early humans might not have forced their socialized wolves to stay in camp and that relationship could have been a lot more libertarian than we might have assumed.

These relationships are very different from the scavenging village dogs that Coppinger contends were like the original dogs. These animals are not obligate scavengers. They are hunters, and what’s more, it is their hunting prowess that makes the relationship work.

Further, the authors make a convincing argument that we can no longer use the scientific name Canis familiaris, because many cultures have relied upon wolf-like dogs and dog-like wolves for survival.  These animals are virtually impossible to distinguish from each other, and therefore, it would make sense that we would have to allow dogs to be part of Canis lupus.

The authors contend, though I think rather weakly, that dogs derive from multiple domestication events from different wolves. I remain fully agnostic to this question, but I will say that full-genome comparisons of wolves and three dogs that represent three distinct dog lineages suggest that dogs represent a clade. They are still very closely related to extant Canis lupus, especially Eurasian ones, and still must be regarded as  part of Canis lupus.  Therefore, one does not need multiple origins for domestic dogs from wolves to make the case that they are a subspecies of Canis lupus.

I am, however, quite glad to see that the authors reject this Canis familiaris classification, even if I think the reasoning is better explained through an analysis that shows how dogs fit within a clade called Canis lupus than one that relies upon multiple origins.

Also, one should be aware that every argument that one can make that says dogs are wolves can be applied to coyotes to suggest that they are wolves. Wolves and dogs do have a significant gene flow across Eurasia, but coyotes and wolves have a similar gene flow across North America. The most recent ancestor between wolves and coyotes lived 50,000 to 70,000 years ago, which is far more recent than the proposed divergence between Old World and North America red foxes and the divergence between Qinling and other giant pandas.

I really have no problem thinking of coyotes as being a form of Canis lupus in that a pug is a form of Canis lupus. All the acceptance of this classification does is allow for a positing that this species Canis lupus has thrived because it possesses both phenotypical and behavioral plasticity.

The authors, however, would have a problem with my classification. They make regular reference to red wolves, which have clearly been shown to be hybrids between coyotes and wolves, which themselves are probably better regarded as divergent forms of a phenotypically plastic species. They also contend that coyotes and people have never formed relationships like people have formed with wolves, because coyotes are too aggressive.

However, I have shown on this space that coyotes have been trained to do many of the things dogs have, including pointing behavior. They also have ignored the enigmatic Hare Indian dog, which may have been a domesticated coyote or coydog.

But that said, I think the authors have clearly shown in their text that dogs and wolves are part of the same species.

The authors also make some controversial arguments about dog paleontology and archaeology.  One argument they rely upon heavily is that wolves could have become behaviorally very much like dogs without developing all the morphological changes that are associated with most domestic dogs. Some merit certainly does exist with these arguments, but it also puts paleontology and archaeology in a position that makes it impossible to tell if a wolf-like canid found near human camps is a truly wild animal or creature on its way to domestication.

This argument does have some merit, but it still will have problems in those fields of study, because it becomes impossible to tell semi-domesticated wolves from wild ones in the fossil and subfossil record.

However, the authors do make a good case, which I have also made, that argues that the original wolf population had no reason to show fear or aggression towards people. The best analogous population of wolves to these original ones are those found on the Queen Elizabeth Islands of Northern Canada. These large arctic wolves have never experienced persecution, so they are quite curious and tolerant of the humans they encounter. Wolves like these could have easily been the basis for a mutualism that would eventually lead to domestication.

The authors also contend that the reason wolves in Europe are reviled is the result of the Western church’s propaganda that was working against traditional totemic animals of the pagans. Wolves were among those totems, and the church taught that wolves were of the devil.

However, I think this argument is a bit faulty, because Europeans are not the only people who hate wolves. Many pastoralist people in Asia are not big fans of wolves, and their hatred of wolves has nothing to do with the church. The traditional religions of the Navajo and Hopi also do not hold the wolf in very high regard, and these two cultures have been in the sheep business for centuries.

Further, we have very well-documented cases of wolves hunting and killing people in Europe. These wolf attacks were a major problem in France, where notorious man-eating wolves were often named, and they were not unknown in other parts of Europe as well.

The authors focus heavily on the benign relationship between wolves and people, including the wolf that hunted bison calves and deer to feed survivors of the Sand Creek Massacre, but they ignore the stories that do not posit the wolf in a good light.

The reason wolves in Eurasia have sometimes taking to hunting people is really quite simple:  Eurasia is a land where people focused much more on domesticating species to create animal agriculture. Agriculture has a tendency to reduce biodiversity in a region, and when people kill off all the deer in an area to make room for sheep, the wolves turn to hunting sheep. If you live in a society in which people do not have ready access to weapons, then the wolves start targeting people. Feudal societies in Europe would have been open target for wolves living in such ecosystems. By contrast, the indigenous people of North America, did not domesticate hoofed animals for agriculture. Instead, they managed the land, often with the use of fire, to create biodiversity of which they could hunt.

The authors do show that dogs and wolves are intricately linked animals. They show that dogs and wolves are the same species. They use many wonderful anecdotes of captive wolves and wolfdogs to make their case, and in making this case, they have made the case clear that dogs are the produce of hunter-gatherer societies and still are conspecific with the wolf.

I do, however, have some quibbles with some of the sources they use in the text. For example, when they discuss Queen Elizabeth Islands wolves, they focus on an account of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas on Baffin Island. She was on Baffin Island for one summer and observed one wolf pack. She is a fine observer of animals, but much of her analysis about dog and wolf behavior is still controversial. The authors also regularly make reference to Cesar Millan as a dog expert, when virtually no credentialed dog behavior expert thinks he is, and to the notorious dogsbite.org website, which is of even more contentious. These authors are making serious and well-reasoned arguments about dog and wolf behavior and relying upon these sources detracted from the work. I would have liked if they had referred to L. David Mech’s wolf observations on Ellesmere or to John Bradshaw as an expert on dog behavior.

I also had some issues with their contention that the Ainu people of Japan are Turkic or Altaic. No one knows exactly who these people are, but they are interesting in their relationship with wolves. Traditional Japanese society, distinct from the Ainu, was actually quite similar to the Siberian cultures that have produced laika dogs that still interbreed with wolves. However, I don’t think anyone still thinks that the Ainu are Turkic or Altaic.

Finally, the authors do make a good case against Coppinger’s model, but they go on to accept Coppinger’s fixed motor pattern dependence model to describe breed specialization. It is certainly true that Coppinger was Eurocentric in his understanding of dog domestication, but both Coppinger and the authors are Anglocentric in their understanding of dog hunting and herding behavior. The authors think this is Coppinger’s strongest argument. I think this is among his weakest.  This model states that pointing, herding, and retrieving are all just arrested development of a full predatory sequence. A dog that can point just stalks. It never learns to use its jaws to kill. A border collie stalks but also engages is a type of chasing behavior. It will also never learn to kill. A retriever will run out and grab, but it lacks the killing bite.

The biggest problem with this model is that everyone knows of border collies that have learned to hunt, kill, and eat sheep. I had a hard-driven golden retriever that would retrieve all day, but she would kill rabbits and even fawns.

The Anglo-American concept of specialized gun dogs affected Coppinger’s understanding of their behavior. He never really looked into continental HPRs. For example, Deutsch-Drathaars, the original German variant of the German wirehair, are bred to retrieve, point, track, and dispatch game. Such an animal makes no sense in this model, for it would suggests that an animal that would point would only ever be stuck in that stalking behavior. It would never be able to retrieve, and it certainly would never use its jaws to kill.

A better model says that dogs are born with a tendency to show behaviors, such as exaggerated stalking behavior that can be turned into pointing through training. There are countless stories of pointing dogs that suddenly lost their pointing behavior after running with hard-driving flushing dog. The dog may have been born with that exaggerated stalking behavior, but the behavior was lost when it entered into social interaction. Indeed, much of these specialized hunting behaviors are developed through training, so that what actually happens is the dog’s motor patterns are refined through training rather than being solely the result of being arrested in full.  This is why all the old retriever books from England tell the sportsman never to allow his dog to go ratting. As soon as that dog learns to use its jaws to kill, it is very likely that this dog will start using its jaws on the game it is sent to retrieve.

Despite my quibbles and reservations, Pierotti and Fogg have made a convincing case for the hunting mutualism between wolves and humans as the basis for the domestication of dogs. I was particularly impressed with their use of ethnography and non-Western histories to make their case. I do recommend this book for a good case that we do need a new model for dog domestication, and the questions they raise about taxonomy should be within our field of discussion.

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kenya black-backed jackal

We think of interactions between predators as always antagonistic.  Meat is hard to come by, and if one comes by meat on the hoof, it is unlikely that the owner-operator of said flesh will give it up willingly.   Meat is a prized food source, and it is little wonder that most predators spend quite a bit of energy driving out competitors from hunting grounds.

Because of this antagonism, the domestication of wolves by ancient hunter-gatherers is difficult to explain. Indeed, the general way of getting wolves associated with people is see them as scavengers that gradually evolved to fear our species less.

This idea is pretty heavily promoted in the dog domestication literature, for it is difficult for experts to see how wolves could have been brought into the human fold any other way.

But there are still writers out there who posit a somewhat different course for dog domestication.  Their main contentions are that scavengers don’t typically endear themselves to those from which they are robbing, and further, the hunter-gatherers of the Pleistocene did not produce enough waste to maintain a scavenging population of wolves.

It is virtually impossible to recreate the conditions in which some wolves hooked up with people. With the exception of those living on the some the Queen Elizabeth Islands, every extant wolf population has been persecuted heavily by man. Wolves generally avoid people, and there has been a selection pressure through our centuries of heavy hunting for wolves to have extreme fear and reactivity. It is unlikely that the wolves that were first encountered on the Mammoth Steppe were shy and retiring creatures. They would have been like the unpersecuted wolves of Ellesmere, often approaching humans with bold curiosity.

As I have noted in an earlier post, those Ellesmere wolves are an important population that have important clues to how dog domestication might have happened, but the truth of the matter is that no analogous population of wolves or other wild canids exists in which cooperation with humans is a major part of the survival strategy. The wolves on Ellesmere are not fed by anyone, but they don’t rely upon people for anything.

But they are still curious about our species, and their behavior is so tantalizing. Yet it is missing that cooperative analogy that might help us understand more.

I’ve searched the literature for this analogy. I’ve come up short every time. The much-celebrated cooperation between American badgers and coyotes is still quite controversial, and most experts now don’t believe the two species cooperate.  Instead, they think the badger goes digging for ground squirrels, and the coyote stand outside the burrow entrance waiting for the prey to bolt out as the badger’s digging approaches its innermost hiding place in the den. The coyote gets the squirrel, and the badger wastes energy on its digging.

But there is a story that is hard to dispute. It has only been recorded once, but it is so tantalizing that I cannot ignore it.

Randall Eaton observed some rather unusual behavior between black-backed jackals and cheetahs in Nairobi National Park in 1966.

Both of these species do engage in cooperative hunting behavior. Black-backed jackals often work together to hunt gazelles and other small antelope, and they are well-known to work together to kill Cape fur seal pups on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast. Male cheetahs form coalitions that work together to defend territory and to hunt cooperatively.

However, the two species generally have a hostile relationship. Cheetahs do occasionally prey upon black-backed jackals, and black-backed jackals will often mob a cheetah after it has made a kill, in hopes of forcing the cat to abandon all that meat.

So these animals usually cannot stand each other, and their interactions are not roseate in the least. Eaton described the “normal interaction” as follows:

The normal interaction between these two predators occurs when the jackals hunt in the late afternoon and come into a group of cheetahs. The jackals, often four or five, are normally spread out over several hundred yards and maintain contact by barking as they move. When cheetahs are encountered by one of the jackals, it barks to the others and they all come to the cheetahs, sniffing the air as they approach apparently looking for a kill. If the cheetahs are not on a kill, the jackals search the immediate area looking for a carcass that might have just been left by the cheetahs. If nothing is found, they remain near the cheetahs for some time, following them as they move ; and when a kill is made the jackals feed on the leftover carcass. If the cheetahs have already fed and are inactive and if a carcass is not found nearby, the jackals move on.

However, Eaton discovered that one particular group of jackals and one female cheetah had developed a different strategy:

At the time I was there in November, 1966, one area of the park was often frequented by a female cheetah with four cubs and was also the territory of a pair of jackals with three pups. The jackal young remained at the den while the adults hunted either singly or together. Upon encountering the cheetah family, the jackals approached to about 20 yards and barked but were ignored except for an occasional chase by the cubs. The jackals ran back and forth barking between the cheetahs and a herd of Grant’s gazelles (Gazella granti) feeding nearby. The two jackals had gone on to hunt and were almost out of sight by the time the adult cheetah attacked two male Grant’s gazelles that had grazed away from the herd. The hunt was not successful. The jackals took notice of the chase and returned to look for a kill ; it appeared that they associated food with the presence of the cheetahs and perhaps with the chase.

One month later, while observing the same cheetah family, I noticed that the entire jackal family was hunting as a group. The cheetah and her cubs were about 300 yards from a herd of mixed species. This same herd had earlier spotted the cheetahs and given alarm calls. The adult cheetah was too far away for an attack,there was little or no stalking cover and the herd was aware of her presence. The cheetahs had been lying in the shade for about one-half an hour since the herd spotted them when the jackals arrived. Upon discovering the cheetahs lying under an Acacia tree, one of the adult jackals barked until the others were congregated around the cheetah family. The jackal that had found the cheetahs crawled to within ten feet of the adult cheetah which did not respond. The jackal then stood up and made a very pneumatic sound by forcing air out of the lungs in short staccato bursts. This same jackal turned towards the game herd, ran to it and, upon reaching it, ran back and forth barking. The individuals of the herd watched the jackal intently. The cheetah sat up and watched the herd as soon as it became preoccupied with the activity of the jackal. Then the cheetah quickly got up and ran at half-speed toward the herd, getting to within 100 yards before being seen by the herd. The prey animals then took flight while the cheetah pursued an impala at full speed.

Upon catching the impala and making the kill, the cheetah called to its cubs to come and eat. After the cheetahs had eaten their fill and moved away from the carcass, the waiting jackals then fed on the remains.

Eaton made several observations of this jackal family working with this female cheetah, and by his calculations, the cheetah was twice as successful when the jackals harassed the herds to aid her stalk.

Eaton made note of this behavior and speculated that this sort of cooperative hunting could have been what facilitated dog domestication:

If cheetah and jackal can learn to hunt mutually then it is to be expected that man’s presence for hundreds, of thousands of years in areas with scavenging canines would have led to cooperative hunting between the two. In fact, it is hard to believe otherwise. It is equally possible that it was man who scavenged the canid and thereby established a symbiosis. Perhaps this symbiosis facilitated the learning of effective social hunting by hominids. Selection may have favored just such an inter-specific cooperation.

Agriculture probably ended the importance of hunting as the binding force between man and dog and sponsored the more intensive artificial selection of breeds for various uses. It is possible that until this period men lived closely with canids that in fossil form are indistinguishable from wild stock (Zeuner, 1954).

Domestication may have occurred through both hunting symbiosis and agricultural life; however, a hunting relationship probably led to the first domestication. Fossil evidence may eventually reconstruct behavioral associations between early man and canids.

Wolves are much more social and much more skilled as cooperative hunters than black-backed jackals are. Humans have a complex language and a culture through which techniques and technology can be passed from generation to generation.

So it is possible that a hunting relationship between man and wolf in the Paleolithic could have been maintained over many generations.

The cheetah had no way of teaching her cubs to let the jackals aid their stalks, and one family of jackals is just not enough to create a population of cheetah assistants.

But humans and these unpersecuted Eurasian wolves of the Pleistocene certainly could create these conditions.

I imagine that the earliest wolf-assisted hunts went much like these jackal-cheetah hunts. Wolves are always testing prey to assess weakness. If a large deer species or wild horse is not weak, it will stand and confront the wolves, and in doing so, it would be exposing itself to a spear being thrown in its direction.

If you’ve ever tried a low-carbohydrate diet, you will know that your body will crave fat. Our brains require quite a bit of caloric intake from fat to keep us going, which is one of those very real costs of having such a large brain. Killing ungulates that stood to fight off wolves meant that would target healthy animals in the herds, and healthy animals have more fat for our big brains.

Thus, working together with wolves would give those humans an advantage, and the wolves would be able to get meat with less effort.

So maybe working together with these Ellesmere-like wolves that lived in Eurasia during the Paleolithic made us both more effective predators, and unlike with the cheetah and the black-backed jackals, human intelligence, language, and cultural transmission allowed this cooperation to go on over generations.

Eaton may have stumbled onto the secret of dog domestication. It takes more than the odd population of scavenging canids to lay the foundations for this unusual domestication. Human agency and foresight joined with the simple cooperative nature of the beasts to make it happen.

 

 

 

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Evening catch

I caught these trout at Cooper’s Rock this evening.

The one on the bottom is a nice fat brook trout.

brook trout

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arctic fox eating an auklet

Arctic foxes were introduced to the Aleutians where they waged war on the seabird population, such as this poor least auklet.

I am a speciesist. Yep. I accept the title. I do believe some individual animals of certain species do have certain privileges that others don’t.

Owned domestic dogs should be treated as individuals, as should anything else kept as an actual companion animal.

Individual animals that must be culled through hunting seasons, like white-tailed deer, get no individual consideration. What matters about those species is carrying capacity as determined by wildlife managers.

Invasive species anywhere should receive even fewer protections than the game species.

That’s because as a conservationist, I value biodiversity over individual animals.

So I really don’t care that conservationists have trapped and killed introduced arctic foxes in the Aleutians, feral cats in the islands of the Sea of Cortés, or red foxes in Australia.

I don’t care about the individual deer that are shot every year in the United States. I care much more about what they are doing to temperate forest ecosystems.  They exist in a world without predators, predators that will never be reintroduced in significant numbers, and it is vital that humans manage their populations.

I don’t think an absolute moral system can be applied to all animals. Indeed, I have issues with the concept of an absolute morality period.

I know, though, that we are but one chain of biodiversity on the planet. And it is out of this chain that we somehow became the dominant species on the planet. As the dominant species, we like to think we’re above all other species, when we’re just the ones at the top right now.

I don’t think every invasive or introduced species is a negative on the ecosystem. Ring-necked pheasants are mostly banal where they have been introduced. In North America, common carp are generally not an invasive species either.

But many things that have been introduced clearly are.

Especially on islands.

New Zealand had rabbits that were introduced, which ate down much of the good sheep grazing. Then stoats, weasel, and polecat-ferret hybrids were released to control the rabbits, and the mustelids wreaked havoc upon the ground-nesting bird population. New Zealand is a place full of unique ground-nesting birds, and it was once fuller of those species before the weasel horde hit its shores.

Therefore, to protect things like the kakapo, a massive ground-nesting parrot, it is necessary to kill these predators.

Animal rights ideology, which posits an absolute set of rights for individual animals, cannot allow for this killing.

So this ideology would rather have all the kakapo and native New Zealand birds go extinct, just because this ideology doesn’t want to see a guild of invasive predators killed off.

And I must say that I have to reject this ideology, because it clashes with my aesthetic, which requires us to maintain biodiversity as much as possible.

That’s because I know fully well that in a hundred years, that biodiversity will be reduced. Habitat loss, poaching, pollution, climate change, and invasive species will take their toll on a whole host of species.

And the diversity of life from which we descend will be reduced because of us.

Therefore we must kill invasive species to protect as much of life as we can.  It is this paradox that many people cannot understand, but failure to understand this concept is ultimately going to add to the many species that will go extinct.

But in the end, animal rights ideology and conservation are not the same thing. Hunters who oppose animal rights ideology should stop conflating the two systems of thought. Animal rights ideology has no room for hunters, but true conservationists, who want to protect wild places from rampant development, believe hunters are part of the solution.

And virtually everyone is a speciesist. I am one, and it is only a small minority who try to hold absolute values when it comes to animals.

We have these inconsistencies, but they are not without reason. And although most mammals are very much like your own pet dog, they don’t act in the ecosystem in the same way. Transferring one’s feelings about a pet dog onto a mongoose in Hawaii is not wise– that is, if you care about nene. If you don’t care about biodiversity, then go ahead.

But don’t pretend that these two concepts are consistent. They are not.

And they are very much in conflict with each other.

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I hate biology by Facebook meme. We’re living in a time of great natural history illiteracy, but we’re also living at a time in which people want to respect and learn about nature.

Virginia opossums are one of the most common species in the United States. They fit nicely in suburbia, and they are quite often encountered.

They are not cute, at least by conventional standards of cuteness, and when you encounter them, they stand with their mouths open in a gape threat display. They usually drool and generally look nasty.

So well-meaning people have tried to make the opossum look good, and in doing so, they have decided to bullshit people.

Bullshitting about any animal is a bad conservation strategy.

One common statement is that “many studies” or “a study” have shown that opossums are smarter than dogs and cats.

I had to hunt to find that citation! You’d think that such a groundbreaking discovery would be all over the clickbait science press, but no, it’s actually rather obscure study.

It was a study that was performed in the 1950s using the Fink arrow maze. It is really just a test to see if an animal can remember where it was fed before.  The researcher who did the research was a W.T. James, and he performed some other studies on the species, which did not show such a marked ability among the opossums. They are capable of learning.

Other researchers looked into the opossum’s intelligence and have generally found it lacking. Indeed, a 1965 study revealed that opossums were much worse than rats at learning how to follow a maze.

The 1950s study is the only one that compared dogs and opossums, and we live in a time in which a new cognitive study on dogs is released every month or so. Dogs are pretty intelligent animals. They have evolved some cognitive shortcuts that have allowed them to live in close concert with humans and to learn from humans.

So you have one study that shows opossums are more intelligent than dogs and you think that is worth posting on a Facebook meme?

It’s bullshitting people.

The truth is opossums don’t have to be smart to be successful. What makes them successful are two simple things: they reproduce rapidly and they will eat virtually anything.

They also can live their whole lives next to people and never really bother anything. Opossums are far less obnoxious to have around than raccoons are.  Raccoons tear things up. They open up garbage bins. They den in chimneys. They kill cats and eat their food.

A raccoon is an intelligent animal. They know how to open up chicken coops and eat all the chickens. They know how to open up gates and get into cornfields.

An opossum will just trundle around and not cause too much trouble.

It works for them.

And yes, they eat ticks and can prevent the spread of Lyme disease.

But they aren’t smarter than super social carnivorans.

So when you see these memes posted on Facebook about how wonderful opossums are, keep in mind that the claim about opossum intelligence being greater than dogs comes from a single study.

It’s bullshitting people. This study is useful, but it’s 60 years old. And no one has attempted to replicate it or tried to draw deeper meaning in the general comparison of cognitive abilities between dogs and opossums.

So yeah, one study. Interesting discovery, but it hasn’t been replicated. Also it doesn’t match what else we know about the two species.

It’s just one of those things you run across in a literature review and wonder about.

A much better understanding of opossums is they are primitive mammals. I don’t mean that they are inferior in this sense. I mean that they very similar to the first mammals that ever existed, and they have retained these primitive, generalized traits for tens of millions years.

That’s pretty amazing.

And it’s not bullshitting people.

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The North America wildlife management strategy is best described in this video:

Just a few days ago, NPR reported that the percentage of people hunting in the United States has dwindled to 5 percent, and this lack of hunter participation is hamstringing wildlife management departments all over America.

The North American model’s main funding mechanism, which isn’t really mentioned in the Rinella piece, comes from two main sources, hunting license and taxes paid on hunting equipment. Right now, if you buy ammunition or a sporting gun, there is an 11 percent sales tax, which comes from the Pittman-Robertson Act.  There is a 10 percent sales tax on pistols and revolvers, and that money goes to the Department of the Interior, where it is then distributed to the states and territories for conservation purposes.

With gun and ammunition sales often driven by speculation and fear-mongering about gun control (which is now in the news again), it is unlikely that this source will dry up in the near future.

The real problem is lower hunter participation. With fewer and fewer hunters taking out after game each year, the coffers of state wildlife agencies become emptier and emptier. The election of so many Republican legislatures nationwide also means that the states are less likely to offer up alternative revenue for wildlife management agencies. So many people who are hunters vote Republican, but in the end, the Republican Party isn’t about increase taxes on anything to keep spending money on what some view as a socialist enterprise in our wildlife management system.

So we live at a time when our public management system is under attack from conservative force but is being starved by an increasingly urban and liberal public. Yes, an increasingly liberal and urban society isn’t going to be spending money on hunting licenses.

It is a perfect storm of bad ideas from the right and the left.  It is easy for hunters to attack urban people. We all have this concept of the New Jersey cat lady, who has 25 cats in her house and does TNR with the alley cats and goes to great length to raise hell when the bear season comes every year.  That is someone who definitely does exist, but it is a caricature of what liberal, urban America actually is.

Most people who live in these areas vote Democrat, but they don’t really have a strong opinion about hunting. And because they really don’t know anyone who hunts, they are very easily manipulated by animal rights organizations. They are manipulated by ignorance.

Ignorance is nothing to be ashamed of. I’m ignorant about many things. We all are. If your day-to-day existence doesn’t include much wildlife, it is easy to think that those animal rights people actually do know what they’re talking about. If you don’t know anyone who hunts, it is easy to accept the premise that all hunters are right wingers who love their Donald Trump and Ted Nugent.

And hunters have responded to this stigmatization by wrapping themselves up in right wing politics, which will likely turn out to be the biggest strategic move that hunters could have made.

Right now, the Republican base is aging, and fewer and fewer young people each year register as Republicans. By wrapping hunting up into the greater ideals of conservatism rather than conservation, hunters are going to suffer greatly as the next generation of voters shuns the Republican Party.

That’s going to be bad for wildlife, too. They will not be buying tags for hunting, and they won’t be buying guns and ammunition either.

So both revenue sources for the North American Model will be drying up.

One could simply add canoes, camping equipment, and cameras to the goods subject to the Pittman-Robertson taxes, because then you’d have non-hunting wildlife enthusiasts paying for conservation.

That solution would require legislation, and I am not certain if people who are engaged in those activities would support those taxes. Businesses that sell those items would likely not be happy with adding a cost to their sales prices.

So the only real solution is to find a way to destigmatize hunting for the younger and more urban generation.

The first thing that hunters who are interested in the future should do is take on the cause of conservation.  It is not helpful for hunters to be deniers of scientific facts, especially when it comes to climate change. People under a certain age will not buy any of that stuff.  Demographically, that battle has been lost, whether you’re right or not. (And you aren’t).

If you can sell hunting as an ethical way to manage forests, say show how killing a some white-tailed deer every year promotes the regeneration of oak forest, then you’re making some headway. Also show how humanely you kill a deer, explain that a single shot to the heart, which is kills in seconds, is far more merciful than a lingering death in the March woods when all the acorns are gone.

The other thing hunters must do is realize that conservatism is a lost cause. Conservatism isn’t going to save your guns, because consevatism is a discredited ideology for the generation that is about to take power. What will save your guns is recognizing the need for meaningful gun legislation and making dead certain that you understand that hunting is primarily about conservation. It is a “green” idea to hunt deer, and being green isn’t a bad thing, because it ensures that wild places will continue to exist.

If you’re going to hold onto these ideas and attack young people, then they will not listen to you, and they WILL listen to the animal rights extremists, who honestly don’t have a very good grounding in conservation principles at all. Animal rights extremists know how to do publicity right. They know how to do politics.

Most hunting organizations know only how to operate in a system in which conservative politics reigns or has the potential to reign. The new world for hunting organizations is figuring out how to exist in a society that doesn’t regard socialism as a dirty word and views climate change as a major issue that must be addressed.

Hunting can survive, but only if hunting organizations realize that real world has changed. And it’s up to us to be much more effective at destigmatizing field sports.

I know this is easy for me. I’ve never been a conservative. I was raised in a family of liberal deer hunters, so it’s not like I really have to change my approach.

But I am only one person.

For those hunters who disagree with me, I have two questions:

Do you really think Ted Nugent has changed the minds of enough young people to keep hunting a part of America’s conservation heritage for decades to come?

Do you think Donald Trump has added to his electoral base since the 2016 election?

You know the answers to both questions.

And that’s why we are going to have this big challenge ahead of us for the future of hunting and conservation in this country.

 

 

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My grandpa’s deck. The great feeding ground for countless songbirds.

The snow hangs around in patches where the sun doesn’t hit it directly. Beneath the bows of the white pine and the steep northern slopes of a hollow, it holds on cold and white.

The cardinals have stopped their flitting forays in somber in winter flocks. The trees rise with cardinal song, and the cockbirds are resplendent red and game for scuffles in the woodlots. The sun comes in casting stronger now, and the days are lengthening. And testosterone levels drive the redbirds into their coming days orgy.

A band of three whitetail does stands upon the dormant grass. The starving time is now, when the acorn crop has long since been exhausted and so have their fat reserves. The land has yet to bring forth the green grass and chewy twigs of spring, and so they live in hunger.

But the cardinals will soon have their nests and screaming broods to feed. The white-tail does will shed out their mousy-gray coats of winter and replace them with fine pelts of tawny. And then they’ll seek the thickets of greenbrier,  multiflora rose, and bracken and drop their spotted fawns into the May balmy.

Today, I was at my grandparents’ house. My parents have rented it out since my grandpa’s death, and now, they are between renters.  All landlords know that time between renters is a time to clean and renovate and do improvements.

I came to pick up some garbage left on the premises. I hadn’t been on this property since the November of 2011, when I was left to watch some Jack Russell pups while my parents and my aunt and uncle went off to attend to some of my grandpa’s final affairs.

It felt eerie to stand on that property today, a place where I spent countless happy childhood hours. I see my grandpa’s beloved Colorado blue spruce, a shelter for so many songbirds in winter, now standing nearly needle-less against the sky.  It too has fallen into death.

I then passed by the grove of spruce where my grandpa sat every evening and every morning. He would sit in his wooden chair and stare out of over the old pasture. His blue eyes glanced on countless numbers of deer that came there to graze. They even fell upon an errant emu, which he initially mistook for a bear.

To left of the spruce grove is a black cherry tree that stands at the edge of another old pasture, and a carefully placed birdhouse was the nesting box for a great many generations of bluebird.

But when I passed the spruce grove today, I saw that his wooden chair had a broken leg, and it stood sideways and unstable as if it were crumbling away into the earth.

The cherry limb that held the bluebird box had fallen to the ground, and the birdhouse was bashed to pieces. Only one of the sides and the board with the opening remained intact.

The former renters put up a cheap above ground swimming pool. It lies beside the outbuilding where I kept my hamster puppy mill. I could still smell the motor oil and sawdust and hamster piss, but that damned pool just took away from it all.

Below the pool is the dog cemetery, where several generations of good dogs now lie.  I think there is something almost sacrilegious about putting an above ground pool so close to a dog cemetery. It is on those grounds that Miley was laid to rest last summer, and just yards from her lies Dixie, my grandpa’s last dog. A beagle cross of some sort, she live out most of her 18 years on this land, spending her mornings and evenings resting beneath my grandpa’s wooden chair and glowering out at any dogs that bother to approach her place near the throne.

The pool will gone soon enough.  New renters will move in. They will bring in new things. I won’t set foot on that property so long as they live there.

They will not know the summer evenings when I’d beg my grandpa to take me fishing at his bluegill pond that lay just across the gravel road. They will not know of my grandmother’s big hugs and special pancakes.

They will not know that the first story I ever wrote and illustrated was in that house. I did the illustration, and the writing was all by dictation. It was a story about the beagle named Willie, the one that used to watch my playpen while my parents worked on their home just down the road.  I gave the words to my grandmother, and she obliged my puny childhood prose.

They won’t know about my early forays into wildlife photography, when I set up the cushions to the deck furniture up against the sliding glass door so that I could have my own photography blind. I was mimicking Dieter Plage, who set up his own blinds to photograph birds in the jungles. My grandpa fed the wild birds on his deck, and you could watch them all day through the sliding glass door. But I thought I had to do it, so I could see the birds.

My photos were all crappy.  They were out of focus, and I often got better photos of the deck furniture than the birds. But it was all in good fun.

The new renters will come with their own lives, their own histories. They will make their memories there.

And I will hold onto to mine. I will keep them buried until something rises them from my psyche. If I stand on that property, they will be evoked again. I will feel sorrow and sadness.

I will miss those beautiful days of youth and my two loving grandparents.

But I must let them live within me.

There may be no permanence to this world.  But they live on in my memories.

My grandpa once told me that grandchildren were the most important generation, for they are the last ones who will remember what their grandparents were like as people and not as characters in stories told to the younger ones.

I think that this is true. In fact, it is beyond true. It is profound.

As long as my memory works, they will live as real as they were, and I must make sure that I create memories for my younger relatives. That way, I can live on in their minds, as my grandparents do with me.

This is the afterlife I know really exists, and though one will not know it in one’s passing, it will be some solace to know that one’s life touched someone else enough that they remember you.

Our existence is a fleeting deer. Blink once and the tawny form will bound away from the sunshine and into the deepest thicket, where your eyes will be able to make out its form again.

So the eyes must be open to sear that deer’s essence on the psyche before it goes out of sight.

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