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Posts Tagged ‘domestic animals’

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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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The foal, who is currently a horse with no name, mugs for the camera.

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Most foals are not comfortable approaching strange people.

And they don’t get much stranger than me.

He’s touching me with his muzzle when his muzzle when most of his face goes off frame, and I didn’t want to make a sudden movement and spook him.

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I found this wonderful documentary about the domestication of animals. However, this particular documentary focuses very closely on how the wolf became domesticated. Like good films of this type, this particular documentary tells the story of a bitch wolf that joins up with a band of European hunter-gatherers. When she is killed defending her pups, the hunter-gatherers raise them.

This documentary sides with the “captured cub” theory, which contends that hunter-gatherers were very interested in taming all sorts of wild animals, even nursing them with human milk. Of course, it is usually said that wolves cannot be raised on human milk. This is true, but our diets are very different from hunter-gatherers. Perhaps they produced a different kind of milk that was more palatable to young carnivores.

Also, note how the bitch wolf joins the human clan very easily. This would almost never happen among modern wolves, which have been selected through our persecution to be quite nervous and reactive animals. It is very likely that ancient wolves were very curious about people. After all, virtually all other wild dogs that exist without humans hunting them are interested in us.

As I’ve said before, domesticating the wolf had to have been so easy that a cave man could do it.

My only complaints about this film is that I would be very careful about setting a date for when wolves began to live with people. Currently, the date and place of that domestication is quite contentious, especially with the finding of the Goyet “dog” skull, which dated to over 30,000 years ago. I would also point out that even in the later form of domestication, dogs were useful hunters– and they still are. There are people who rely upon their dogs to feed them, although the numbers of these people in the modern era are quite low.

Also, if you go through this video, I have some commentary about whether more than one wolf bitch in a pack will have a litter and which animal was the most likely ancestor of the domestic horse (it wasn’t the takhi or Przewalski’s horse.)

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The domestic turkey is a much larger bird than its wild counterpart.

The domestic turkey is a much larger bird than its wild counterpart.

Remember how I said that a certain image comes to my mind when the words “golden retriever” are mentioned? I think of a lightly build reddish colored beast that is not very exaggerated in appearance.

Well, the same thing happens when someone mentions the word “turkey.” No, not the country.

When I think of turkey, I think of where I grew up in rural West Virginia, where wild turkeys were common. I don’t think of a 30 or 40 pound white bird that cannot fly. I don’t think of them as incredibly stupid animals, which is what the domestic turkey is. 

To me, it’s a wild animal that is hunting for game. It’s a bird that almost went extinct because of market hunted and the destruction of its woodland habitat. Like white-tailed deer, the wild turkey does well when the land is a mixture of tall timber, transition areas, and open ground. During the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, most of the tall timber was felled and the land cultivated in corn and hay. This type of environment was perfect for the bobwhite, which often thought of as a quail even though it is not related to the Old World Coturnix species.

However, much of Appalachian and Northeastern farms were abandoned following the economic boom that followed just a few years after the Second World War. A wave of industrialization moved farmers into the cities, as many people from my native West Virginia moved to the steel towns of Northeast Ohio. Others moved to automotive plants, where their standard fo living increased.

But they abandoned the farms. By the 1970’s, the bobwhites were experiencing a sudden change in their environment. The old fields they once used began to return to the forest from which they came. Bobwhites soon lost their habitat. Bad winters in this part of the country wound up finishing off the large stocks of bobwhite. Their numbers are very low in most of West Virginia today.

Not so with the wild turkey. The wild turkey was gradually reintroduced to the state using what remained of the wild stock. Some landowners stocked them using hybrid birds, but these birds failed to thrive. It was only when birds with lots of wild turkey genes in them were reintroduced that the bird took hold in West Virginia.

The local flock in the area where my ancestral farm lies numbers 15 to 20 birds. These flocks separate during the summer months, when the hens go off to raise their young. It’s not uncommon in June or July to see two or three hens working along a fenceline with about a dozen or so poults following them.

The wild turkey, in this case the subspecies called the Eastern Wild turkey, differs from his domestic counterpart in several ways. He is a svelt and trim animal, capable of running great distances to escape predators. He also can fly over several hundred yards. I have seen flocks of them fly across the Little Kanawha River, usually one at a time.

A big male Eastern wild turkey, known locally as a “tom,” can weigh over 20 pounds. It is roughly half the size of its domestic counterpart. The hens are usually smaller, usually no more than 10 pounds.

The wild turkey differs as much from the domestic turkey as the coyote differs from the St. Bernard.

The wild turkey differs as much from the domestic turkey as the coyote differs from the St. Bernard.

These birds differ as much from the domestic birds as coyotes differ from St. Bernards.  The wild birds are cautious birds that will run or take flight from even the slightest disturbance.  The domestic birds are bred for such large breasts now that those that are factory farmed can no longer breed naturally. AI is the only way to produce many of the turkeys you buy in the supermarket.

The wild bird has a better flavor to its meat. It is less dry than the domestic. However, in my state, hunters are strictly limited to the number than can be killed during the fall season (only in selected counties) and the spring season (which is most of the state). No one wants to see the wild turkey disappear again.

The two birds will interbreed. I do know of some people who had free range white turkeys that suddenly hatched out black colored poults. However, most farmers do not let their domestic turkeys roam free as they once did, simply because they are too tempting for the coyotes. One breed, the Narragansett Turkey is an intentional hybrid between the two species.

Currently, domestic turkeys lack genetic diversity. Although several breeds have been developed over the years, the factory farmed birds are required to be white. No one wants a black feather on a turkey breast.

So the number top breed in production now is the broad breasted white. It is been heavily inbred to produce much more meat on its breast. Because of this breeding, the genetic diversity of the domestic turkey is low.  Yes, we’ve screwed up yet another domesticated animal. Some small farmers are trying to stop this by breeding heritage turkeys.

I should note here that domestic turkeys descend from the southern Mexican subspecies, where they were domesticated by one of the farming cultures native to that region before Europeans got here. They are not derived from the Eastern subspecies at all.

And not all domestic turkeys are big breasted and giant. The rare Norfolk black and Cambridge bronze turkeys are very similar to wild turkeys in their conformation. (In Britain, the males are called “stags.”)  The standard bronze turkey of the United States is also closer to this conformation.

Perhaps it is through these rare domestic strains that the domestic turkey can be saved.

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Peru Guinea Pig Festival

A new annual festival is held every June in the city of Huacho, Peru. The animals, known as “cuy,” were actually first domesticated in Peru and Ecuador perhaps as early as 5000 BCE. We actually do not know exactly what the wild ancestor of the guinea pig was, because there are several interferetile species of cavy that live throughout South America. The current consensus is that it is a mixture of several species. These animals can be found in many Andean cities and villages, often running feral. (We probably should be calling guinea pigs cavies, simply because they aren’t from Guinea and they are not pigs.)

In Huacho, the citizens have been holding a guinea pig for several years. This celebration of the cute little animals is not an ancient festival. The pigs are dressed up and paraded around. They are also shown and judged the way we judge livestock, It is a grand old time.

Oh, and don’t get too attached the guinea pigs. The people of South America did not domesticate the guinea pig to be a cute pet. No, that’s not practical. In the Andes, the guinea pig is eaten as a food source. And you can eat them at the Huacho festival!

Guinea pigs are eaten at the Huacho Guinea Pig Festival

Guinea pigs are eaten at the Huacho Guinea Pig Festival

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Not all animals can be domesticated.

Here is an article on why some animals were domesticated and others were not.

Because of this, we probably won’t have domesticated polar bears or warthogs. We’ll never have a domesticated cheetah, even though it was attempted in several parts of the cheetah’s range. Cheetahs are faster than any sight hound over a short distance. Cheetahs are even tractable if imprinted on humans. However, cheetahs are nearly impossible to breed in captivity. Male cheetahs have a very low sperm count, in part because all cheetahs are so inbred.

BTW, because I’m on cheetahs for a minute, Cheetahs once lived in Asia. Today, the last Asiatic Cheetahs are found in Iran.

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