Archive for August, 2012

Closing time


Now for some bad news:

I am putting the blog on blocks for a while.

It may last only this weekend.

It might be several months.

But I’m worn out.

Chat rooms will continue as normal.

But I need to rest.

And think.

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Melissa Bachman just got a TV show on National Geographic. The show will be about hunting. The animal rights elitists have, of course, lost their collective minds over this development.

In the US, we have plenty of hunting and fishing channels on TV.

They are usually located deep within the recesses of the sporting channels that I normally don’t watch.

However, there are fishing shows on major networks.

Animal Planet has two fishing shows:  River Monsters (one of my faves), Hillbilly Handfishin’, and the upcoming Top Hooker.

Now fishing is one thing.

Most people don’t care about how fish feel.

I really don’t. There is some debate about whether fish can feel pain from the hooks.

I’m quite skeptical, because it’s so common for people to catch the same fish multiple times. You’d think they’d learn if they actually consciously felt pain.

But I digress.

There is a big ideological difference between fishing and hunting.

And that’s when you start shooting animals that are cute or are closely related to dogs and cats.

And that’s when otherwise rational people lose their minds.

Now, Nation Geographic Channel, wanting to cash in on the outdoor sports TV genre that Animal Planet has been so successful with, has decided to sign Melissa Bachman for a TV series.

Melissa Bachman is a young female hunter.

You know, a strong woman.

The type feminists are supposed to admire.

But not in this case, because she kills bears and alligators and deer.

And that’s so evil and wrong to have on TV.

Because we said so.

Since it was announced that Nat Geo was doing the show, Facebook, the place where all sorts of hysterical, pseudo-activists like to hang out, now has an anti-Melissa Bachman page, and there are at least three online petitions going around.

If I ever lose subscribers, I am glad to lose them because of animal rights issues.

I don’t believe in animal rights.

At all.

And I think hunting shows should be on television more often.

If you look at Animal Planet’s line-up, there are good programs about conservation.

And then they have those shows who are for the hysterical loons.

Like Whale Wars.

A show that has nothing to do with conservation.

It’s really just an animal rights-centered propaganda show.

It teaches you nothing, other than there are people who actually believe all this animal rights garbage and are trying to use industrial sabotage to get their way. (Which is quite scary!)

But most of the nature programming leaves out a really important part of the conservation story.

The truth is that most of the big game species we have in North America actually wouldn’t be here but for the efforts of hunters.

Hunters contribute lots of money to conservation– and lots of labor and political campaigning. I don’t think people realize how much duck hunters actually have contributed to ensuring the wetlands have been preserved.

Wetlands aren’t just good for ducks. They are good for all sorts of wildlife.

And they do it for selfish reasons.

They want ducks to shoot.

But in order to have ducks to shoot, they have to preserve duck habitat.

And duck habitat is good for lots of different species, including songbirds, beavers, otters, mink, and muskrats.

A well-produced show about hunting with a charismatic and well-informed presenter could do a lot of good in changing the way many people feel about hunting.

That’s what I hope Melissa Bachman’s show will offer.

I find the reaction from some quarters rather disgusting– and a little bit disturbing.

So much do these people hate what others do that they demand that it be taken off television.

There are a lot of shows I don’t like.

I have a little secret way of dealing with them:

It’s really tricky.

I don’t watch these shows.

That’s all there is to it.

But what I also find disturbing is the cultural elitism that comes across from the anti-hunter crowd.

They look down their noses at rural people and what they do for fun.

I can’t tell you how old I was when I was first taken hunting.

I couldn’t have been very old, but I do know that my grandpa took me.

My grandpa knew all about the wild animals in our area. He was very concerned about them.

He enjoyed hunting them, but he also knew that hunting was under attack.

When I was about 7 or 8 years old, we were out squirrel hunting, and I remember he told me that there were people out there who wanted to ban all hunting.

I thought he was crazy.

But then, I had only known West Virginia. In West Virginia, hunting and fishing are truly ways of life.

I had no idea exactly how alienated from the natural world most of America actually is.

And it’s because of that alienation  that people have no clue what sound conservation  practices actually are.

Hunting and fishing are major parts of a sound wildlife management scheme.

If people don’t want to learn this simple fact, then there really isn’t much hope for wildlife in this country.

It is this same mentality that argues we shouldn’t control feral goats or pigs or cats– they have individual rights, don’t you know?

If we allow the animal rights community to set the entire debate about how animals are treated in this country, wildlife will lose.

There is no discussion about it.

I hope Melissa Bachman’s show helps change how we discuss hunting and wildlife issues in this country.

We really need to educate people.

If we don’t, wildlife and our free society will lose.


Update:  No more comments from intolerant animal rights cultists will be tolerated on this post. Post them. I’ll remove them, and I’ll ban you. This is not a public forum. This is my blog.

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How to oxygenate a pug

One way to fully oxygenate a pug is to mate it to a beagle.

And make a puggle.

And tick some people off.

Like a former president of the Pug Dog Club of America.

Of course, this person is a proponent of the toilet science that is behind the “pure blood cult” that unfortunately underpins the entire established dog fancy.

Now, let’s keep in mind that pugs are one of those breeds that has been utterly FUBAR by Western fanciers.  A flatter and flatter muzzle means breathing and cooling problems, also known as brachycephalic airway syndrome. The desire to produce a double curl in the tail has also predisposed the dog to spinal issues.

And I could go on.

But those facts don’t stop this former president from making a whole series of really stupid comments about what happens when you breed a pug to a beagle.

The first of these is the nearl tautology in the title “Pugs and Beagles: Two Distinct and Separate Breeds.”

My answer to that statement is  “So?”

A breed is something humans contrive. It is not a biological entity, and the notion that a breed should always be pure is something that has generally been rejected in animal husbandry. And it’s only been the gold standard of dogs for about a 150 years– and even then, it was not universally accepted in all breeds.

Now, a puggle is just a dog with 50% pug genes that happens to have a normal muzzle and a single curl to the tail.

It’s not unlike the pug that you’d find in England in the eighteenth century, like this fine specimen:

Yep. That’s William Hogarth with his own pug (“Trump.”)

Pugs were not always extremely brachycephalic.

And they also did not exist in their current form for thousands of years.

And they didn’t exist in a closed registry system for all that time.

The former president makes this a major part of her complaint against puggles:

The Pug is an ancient breed dating back to the Major Han dynasty (206 b.c. to a.d.200) in China. They were bred for the emperors and other high officials.

Well, not exactly.

Pugs were largely developed in their current form in the Dutch Republic and then in Great Britain. Indeed, there was a belief that most pugs were from the Netherlands, and only the black ones were Chinese. The black pugs were derived from Chinese stock that was brought to Britain in the late nineteenth century, but the bulk of pugdom was developed from stock that came to Europe in the seventeenth century. And they were crossed with lots of different European breeds, including pinschers and terriers.

No one threw little fits about people breeding Chinese dogs to European ones in those days.

But, oh, do they now.

Now, this former pug club president goes off into the morass of toilet science and easily disproved claims about what happens if you cross two breeds:

The breed [the pug] has several health issues including the more common of elongated soft palates, to Pug Dog Encephalitis, which is always fatal, Hemi-vertebrae, which causes rear leg paralysis and Epilepsy. They are also prone to all sorts of eye problems and obesity.

Their biggest problem is they are such wonderful pets they have become popular and as is often the case this new found popularity is not good for the breed…

Upon checking the Beagle web site we find this breed is a hunting breed of note. He often works in packs. Is very active and not necessarily a lap dog.

The Beagle web site lists 97 health problems with about 20 listed as those with a higher incidence within the breed. These also include common problems such as elongated soft palates to epilepsy to severe eye problems.

Therefore, why take these two wonderful breeds and combine them to make a “breed of the month”? There are very good medical reasons not to mix such health issues and one wonder if the purchasers of these “Puggles” are willing to not only pay the price of medical problems but also undergo the heartache when their fashionable breed experiences life threatening issues.


There is a common claim among the high priests of the blood purity cult that if you cross two breeds you get the health problems of both breeds.

Actually, no.

Most of the health problems purebred are the result of recessive alleles. Most of these diseases are exposed through a reduction in genetic diversity within a breed, which are usually the result of the closed registry system and popular sire syndrome. As the dogs within a breed become more related to each other over time, the greater the chance of them producing dogs with these health defects.

When one crosses two breeds, that issue is usually mitigated through simple probability.

Not all diseases are recessives, of course.

And if beagles and pugs had the same disorder that is caused by the same mutation or series of mutations, then one could make the case that crossing them might cause health problems.

We already know pugs do have a lot of issues with genetic diversity. (All 10,000 pugs in the UK are derived from just 50 ancestors. It’s not as extreme as Cavaliers, Sussex spaniels or Norwegian lundehunds, but they do derive from a very limited gene pool.)

But the real issues pugs have are the result of their bizarre conformation.

And when you cross a pug with a normal dog, these effects are mitigated a bit.

The truth is there is a religious belief in the dog fancy that two breeds should never be crossed, unless we’re talking about extreme circumstances.

And then, even when extreme circumstances are revealed, as is clearly the case with the very inbred Norwegian lundehund, crossbreeding is attacked as some sort of unmitigated evil.

It must be denounced.

But the truth is this is all a smokescreen.

The pug fanciers might want to denounce puggles all they want.

But puggle breeders didn’t produce the defective dogs we call the pug today.

It was “reputable” and “responsible” breeders, who “show.”

And the show ring, instead of “improving” the pug, distorted and contorted its conformation until it no longer resembles a dog.

It is now a flat-faced freak that can’t really breathe or cool itself.

Although there are procedures that can alleviate some of these problems, one way to oxygenate a pug is to let one mate with a beagle.

And then you get something that maybe Mr. Hogarth would recognize as a being a pug dog.

And it’s “pug dog,” not “pug species” or “pug space alien.”

Pugs are still dogs.

And they have canine anatomy and physiology.

We ought to respect these simple facts when we’re producing dogs.

We can breed dogs that have quite impaired bodies.

And it’s simply not ethical.

And in my book, breeding a pug to a beagle is a more ethical endeavor than continuing down this bizarre path of flat-faces, deformed brains, and distorted spines.

But then again, I’m operating under the presupposition that logic and evidence mean anything.

And you really can’t do this with members of a cult.

They already know the “facts,” and the louder they talk, the more true they are!

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Boxer hog dog

Warning: Video not for animal rights activists!


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I know I’m about to break one of my own rules.

I know I said I wasn’t going to write about pit bulls.

But I think I need to make an exception.

I’m not talking about BSL  or anything that controversial.

Instead, I’m going to talk about a particular type of conformation show that pit bulls are now being bred for.

To illustrate my issue, here is G. G belongs to my cousin, Laura Atkinson:

G is a brindle pit.  I don’t think anyone would argue about what he is.

He’s typical of the unregistered pit bull-type that exists throughout the country. (I know that technically there are American pit bull terriers, which are a UKC recognized breed, and there are “pit bulls,” which are not.)

The UKC standard calls for a dog that isn’t vastly dissimilar to G.

Something like this:

It’s not a particularly exaggerated dog in terms of its conformation.

The AKC recognizes another type of North American bull and terrier type, which is called the American Staffordshire terrier. (Not to be confused with the Staffordshire bull terrier, which is an English bull and terrier breed that was derived from bull and terrier types that were not bred from the Hinks strain).

These terms are all highly contentious, but let’s just say that the bull and terrier types that don’t have egg shaped heads aren’t particularly exaggerated dogs.  The official breed standards call for very moderate dogs.

But there are other conformation standards.

In recent years, there have been new “Atomic dog” shows. These Atomic shows actually do reward exaggeration in type.

This is the sort of dog they want:

These shows reward dogs with very wide chests and massive bone.

They aren’t being judged according to any breed club standards, so they’ve written their own.

Now, there’s nothing really wrong with people writing their own breed standards, but when these standards are rewarding exaggeration, then we do have to have some discussion about it.

I have not seen any studies on the health of these Atomic-type dogs, but my guess is they are being predisposed to certain growth-related health problems, like OCD .

It’s also very likely that these dogs are being given growth supplements to build these Schwarzenegger bodies, and in Atomic Dog magazine, these hormones are advertised. If you have to give a dog growth hormones to produce the type you want, then there are definite ethical questions that must be answered.

There is nothing in the bull and terrier’s history that would require the breeding of such beefy dogs.

It’s simple vanity.

And I don’t think we’ve looked closely at the welfare issues associated with breeding for this particular phenotype in this particular breed.

After all, the enthusiasts who breed this sort of dog aren’t operating even within the framework of established kennel clubs.

And it’s relatively new.

But it does need to be examined.

It’s not just the conformation shows within the major clubs that are causing canine distortions.

They are also happening in other places.

The main registry for this sort of “wide stance” pit bull is the American Bully Kennel Club.

They also register a “Shorty Bull,” a wide stance dog with even shorter legs!

They even have a totally bogus breed called an “Old Roman bulldog.” This is what it claims one of these dogs is:

Before all the modern Bulldog crosses of today, there lived a true giant Bull-Dog, the Bull-Dogs of old Rome. We have done the research and have acquired the right genetic makeup to produce what we feel is a good representation of a True “Original Bull-Dog”. A bull-dog that has a great temperment (sic) and can do work or just hang out with the family. The total package!

Um. No.

Bulldogs aren’t from Ancient Rome.

The best history on bulldogs traces them to the dogs of the Alani, but even that information is a subject to debate.

The truth is this sort of dog appeared in northern Europe and the British Isles during the Middle Ages, and over time diversified into a wide variety of breeds.

But if dog breeds didn’t originate in Ancient Egypt, then they obviously came from Ancient Rome!

Breeding for super exaggeration and making up certifiably nutty crap about bulldogs and bull-and-terrier types is not something confined to the Bedlams that are established breed clubs and registries.

The start-ups are often just as bad!


Some people claim that the American bully is a different breed, but I’m not playing into this game. Even if the dogs do have other blood in them, so do most unregistered pit bulls.

This is a silly argument– on the level of trying to split apart all the different dogs we call Jack Russell.

Keep in mind that Labrador retrievers were the last retriever breed to have a fully closed registry. Some lines of Labrador have the influence of other retriever breeds that others lack. For example, “English Labs” have a influence from flat-coated and golden retrievers, and “American trial Labs” often have an influence from Chesapeakes.

No one splits hairs over them.

So I’m not going to here.

There’s already too much stupid splitting among dog strains that I refuse to indulge it any more.

That’s a very weaselly way of operating– and it’s intellectually dishonest.

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Chow chows and shar-pei are from China.

Both have black tongues.

Both carry their tails over their backs.

Both are normally solid-colored.

And both can come in smooth and long coats– although long-coats (“bear coats”) are fault in shar-pei.

The truth is these dogs likely derive from a single landrace that is found throughout China. With this landrace, as with the landrace that includes the tazis, taigan, saluki, and Afghan hound types, there always was a bit natural variance and muddled fuzziness between types.

In the West, we like the concept of breed over landrace.

But that’s not how the dogs have existed in their native country.

The image above is a smooth-coated chow chow from 1904. I don’t know its source, but both Nara Uusihanni and Pai have this dog displayed in their historical dog photo collections.

The dog almost looks like a transitional form between chow chow and a “bonemouth” shar-pei.

Most Western show shar-pei don’t look very spitzy, but the truth is they really should always be classified as a type of East Asian spitz.

In the West, we’ve got ga-ga over wrinkles. These excessive wrinkles cause the dogs lots of health problems. The eyelids of puppies are often surgically tacked up to prevent severe entropion. In adult dogs, the skin of the eyelids may have to be removed to correct the condition.

And the wrinkles themselves are caused by the same gene that causes periodic fevers. The more wrinkles the dog has, the higher the risk for the fevers. The fevers are almost as much a trait of the breed as the wrinkles.

And although the fevers aren’t necessarily life-threatening, there is an ethical question about whether we should be breeding dogs that are so predisposed to them.

If we know that excessive wrinkling increases the chances of the fevers, should we be breeding for the wrinkling in the first place?

Shar-pei have been modified from the chow-type in order to have a better fighting dog. They do have looser skin than the typical chow, and this looser skin allows the dog to move around when another dog holds onto its hide, allowing it greater range of motion in  a fight.

But it is not ethical to breed dogs for fighting.

The shar-pei phenotype is a great historical legacy.

But it never existed independently of the greater chow chow-type landrace.

It’s very likely that there always were outcrosses to chow chows, even during the days of the dog fights.

A bear-coated shar-pei. Another transitional form.  

Our concept of “breed” in the West is one of the most blinding notions we’ve ever divined.

We put breeds into boxes. We declare them an “ancient” heritage, as if they always existed in a pure form.

The story of dogs– especially those from non-Western landraces– is much more complex.

There is a fuzziness and a blurriness that the modern dog fancy cannot handle.

It cannot comprehend it.

It conflicts with the blood purity dogma.

And it conflicts with the historical framework in which the breed clubs like to cast themselves.

Breed clubs really don’t do anything but capture a type that they happen to like and cull away what they don’t.

They never fully appreciate how a particular breed developed or how it really relates to others.

Much of the thought that goes on in dog breed clubs is a sort of “species-ization” of a particular breed.

The worship it as a phylogenetically distinct entity, when the truth is no dog breed is that distinct.

They’ve all developed with close cousins. “Foreign blood” has always trickled in.

It does not matter if the breed is Western or non-Western.

This concept of breed is very new, and even when it was first contrived, it was always fuzzy and muddled.

Too many dog people don’t want to understand these simple facts.

Much to the dogs’ detriment.


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Several years ago, I wrote a post called  “The Tale of Two Foxes in West Virginia.

In it, I used information from the best research at the time to tell what was the supposed story of red (Vulpes vulpes) and gray (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) foxes in in West Virginia. In the post, I claimed that the only reason why there were red foxes in West Virginia is because they were derived from English red foxes that were introduced to the Chesapeake Bay region in the seventeenth century. The reds were able to spread because the forests were cleared into agricultural land, and in parts of Europe, red foxes prefer to live in agricultural land. Gray foxes were always native, but because they are tree-climbers, they don’t feel as secure in more open places.  So their population declined.

Now, I have long believed this story to be the full story of the two species. It was certainly true that red foxes were here during the Pleistocene, but they were gone by the time Europeans arrived.

But the claim that red foxes were all derived from English imports has certainly been drawn into question with the recent publication of a study of red fox mitochondrial DNA.  This study found that red foxes in the East and South had mtDNA haplotypes that were most closely related to those of Eastern Canada. There were no Eurasian haplotypes found in eastern North American red foxes.

This means that, at least in terms of its maternal inheritance, the red fox of the East was derived from an indigenous population.  The researchers posit that the red fox was able to colonize the Eastern US following the development of agriculture, which allowed red foxes to come pouring down from Canada and northern New England.

Now, we certainly need more analysis from more of the red fox genome than mtDNA, but it does indicate that red foxes may not be derived from imports at all.  It’s unlikely that the Tuckahoes of Virginia and Maryland would have ever been able to import that many red foxes. It took a weeks to cross the Atlantic, and any foxes that survived the journey may not have been hardy enough to survive in the Chesapeake Bay region. English foxes would also have very little immunity to subtropical parasites and diseases, which would have been common in the region. There is also more than a century of time between when red foxes became common in the East and when the the introductions of foxes by the tobacco aristocracy.

The only real problem I have with some of these studies is the assumption that European-style agriculture alone was the main factor in establishing the red fox in the Eastern United States.

I think there is a factor that very few scholars have examined.

And it’s one that comes to me from a story from my grandfather.

As regular readers of this blog know, my dad’s family was deeply involved in fox trapping when fur prices were high in the late 60’s and early 70’s.

One of the ways to set a fox trap is to bury a bit of meat from a typical prey species as bait for the trap. The meat would be buried just above where the trap was set. And the old trick was to sift the dirt from a pissant mound over the trap. Pissants produce a natural antifreeze when they build their mounds, and because it is natural, the foxes don’t think anything about its smell. Frozen traps simply won’t work.

To attract the fox, a few drops of red fox urine would be dripped on the dirt where the bait was buried. When foxes bury a bit of prey, they often urine mark above it.

In this way, the set resembles where a fox has set up its own cache, and when a fox of either species comes across another’s cache, they aren’t above stealing it. And the way they raid a cache is to dig it up, but when they dig up one of these mock-cache sets, they get caught in the trap.

Now, one could buy urine from from a trapping supply catalog, or you could collect your own.

My grandpa decided to collect his own.

He trapped about a half dozen red foxes and put them in a cage with wire flooring.  Beneath the flooring was a tarp that was spread out and elevated so that the urine ran down. In the center of the tarp, a hole was cut. Into that hold was a metal funnel that channeled all that urine into a container.

In order to keep the urine natural, my grandpa fed them groundhogs and rabbits that he shot for them. Had he fed them dog food or table scraps, the urine would have lost its natural smell.

So he kept these red foxes for their urine, but one day, he caught a gray fox and decided to add it to his “piss fox” collection.

He put the gray into the fox cage, and all hell broke loose.

The gray attacked all the reds, and it was in the process of killing one of them, when he managed to jerk the gray fox out of the cage with his catch pole.

He had read in trapping manuals that gray foxes tend to dominate reds, and one normally doesn’t find the two species in the same place.

He had also noticed that when he called foxes in to the gun at night, he could never get a red fox to respond to a gray call. Gray foxes would come in on a red call, and of course, reds would approach the calls of their owns species.

So when he called foxes, he used only recordings from red foxes.

Now, the notion that gray foxes dominate reds has only recently worked its way into the literature. Throughout their range, red foxes dominate all other foxes, which they usually have outclassed in terms of size. In the Eastern US, red and gray foxes are actually about the same size. In this area, the reds tend to be a bit smaller than normal, and the grays are a bit larger.

What does this have to do with the “real story” of foxes in the East?

Well, check out this map. It shows the likely range of red foxes at the time of Columbus:

This comes from study I already referenced that showed that red foxes in the East had no Eurasian mtDNA haplotypes.

This study, like many others, thinks the main reason why red foxes came to dominate in the East is that the forests were cleared to main European-style agricultural regions, which the foxes were more adapted to.

However, here’s a map of the ecoregions of North America:

If you look at the key of what each of these regions are, the red fox in eastern Canada was found in forested regions before the time of Columbus.

So there has to be another factor.

And I think that factor is the gray fox.

Now, you may be thinking that this is a bit of a bold claim on my part.

And it certainly is.

But there is another recent mtDNA study that leads me in this direction.

This study was a comparative analysis of mtDNA haplotypes of gray foxes in the East.

It found that gray foxes have only recently colonized New England and most of New York State.

Their populations expanded into the Northeast and Canada during the Medieval Climatic Anomaly, but their range contracted during the Little Ice Age.

The first English settlements in what became the Eastern United States were during the Little Ice Age.

In the East, gray foxes are very much connected to the deciduous forest. They could expand their ranges to northern forests, but as a species, they simply aren’t as adapted to living in very cold climates as red foxes are.

Just for a reference, here is the current range map for gray foxes:

If you look at the map of the red fox’s range in the East, there appears to be a very inverse correlation between red fox and gray fox ranges, and if one realizes that the gray fox’s range has only recently expanded into northern New England and Quebec because of global warming, the gray fox seems more and more like a likely culprit in holding back the red fox in the East.

If we think about it, the gray fox as the limiting factor for the red in the East would fit with what we already know. During the Pleistocene, red foxes were found in the East as far south as Virginia.

And gray foxes had a much more restricted range during that same time.

But at the end of the last glacial maximum, gray foxes expanded north, pushing red foxes up into northern New England, Quebec, and the Maritimes.

When Europeans arrived, the felled the vast deciduous forests, destroying gray fox habitat.

And gray fox numbers were reduced.

And this is the factor that allowed forest-dwelling red foxes from Northern New England, Quebec, and the Maritimes to come south.

It was not the felling of the forests alone. It was what the destruction of the forests did to gray foxes that became the main factor in the red fox’s success in the East.

Now, the forests in much of the East are coming back, especially in New England and Appalachia.

This has proved to be good news for gray foxes– and it is probably bad news for reds.

Of course, it might be a bit touchy to say that red fox numbers, which have been declining in recent years, are the result of gray foxes coming back. Coyotes are also moving in, and they do limit red foxes where their ranges overlap. Grays are also much better adapted to living where there are coyotes. Grays can climb trees to escape coyotes. Reds cannot.

But it seems to me that much of the scholarship on red foxes in the East has largely ignored the factor of gray fox domination.

Almost all trappers and fox callers know that the gray dominates the red, and the red’s fear of the gray is a major factor in its behavior.

But fox researchers really haven’t considered it.

The research on the gray fox is generally poor anyway. It’s hard to observe, and it’s not endangered.

And because red foxes normally dominate and kill foxes of other species, it is a bit of a turn of events to see the red fox dominated by the Urocyon.

It’s just one of the weird things about gray foxes.

They climb trees.

And they beat up red foxes.

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Domestication was long-thought to have universally dulled the intelligence of animals.

Wolves were thought to be significantly more intelligent than domestic dogs.

Usually, someone will start talking about an experiment where a researcher found that wolves easily learned to open a gate and malamutes never figured it out. This experiment is essential cannon in the wolf literature.

It’s actually not an experiment.

It actually comes from a claim by the wolf research Harry Frank, who had a malamute that never figured out how to open a particular door. However, a wolfdog he was working with did figure out how to do it, and that a wolf that was being raised with the hybrid figured it out after watching the hybrid do it once.

I’ve always doubted that this claim is indicative of the superiority of lupine intelligence for a very simple reason. When I first read of that account, I had two golden retrievers that were adept at opening door. They had learned how to do this through observation, just as the wolf had. Further, Miley also figured out how to do this behavior and had to be trained not to.

So are golden retrievers smarter than malamutes?

Anecdote really doesn’t help us in this endeavor.

Some researchers have tried to use brain size as evidence that domestic animals are less intelligent than their wild ancestors. Playing around with brain size in this matter is little more than glorified phrenology, and as I have written about on this blog, the claims about brain size and domestic dogs are actually somewhat misleading.

One of the problems with trying to examine these issues is that there is an implied romanticism in a lot of ethology. This implied romanticism sees domestication as distorted and debasing the wild stock from which domestic animals are derived. Bits of this sort of thinking can be found in Konrad Lorenz’s work. Lorenz was a Nazi scientist, and the Nazis– and, really, a large number of other German nationalist groups– saw modern civilization as something quite destructive to the German people. They longed for a time in which  their people could return to nature and thus return to their prior greatness.

Even though Nazi science has been discarded and researchers from a lot of national background have examined these issues, the tincture of the Nazi and Germanic nationalist origins in the foundations of a lot of this research has prevented an open examination of what domestication actually has meant.

We can think of domestication as outright enslavement.

But this is a childish view.

The truth is when the ancestors of modern dogs hooked up with humans, they became infinitely more successful than wolves would ever be.

And it’s only been in the past ten years or so that we’ve actually started to make comparisons of domestic and wild animal cognitive abilities.

What we’ve found is the notion that domestication means universal dulling is quite simplistic.  At Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, there have been many studies that have compared the cognitive skills of wolves that have been raised by people and domestic dogs.  They have found that domestic dogs have certain cognitive abilities that even hand-reared wolves lack. They respond to human gestures in ways that wolves simply do not. Further, more research out of the Max Planck Institute Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig found that dogs were better at responding to gestures than even great apes.

These same findings have been discovered in the Belyaev tame foxes.

And similar cognitive skills been discovered in cats, domestic goats, and horses.

But none have done as well as dogs.

Until now.

Some researchers at Eotvos Lorand University compared the abilities of domestic ferrets, domestic dogs, and hybrids between wild mustelids and ferrets.  Domestic ferrets can hybridize with European polecats (their likely wild ancestor), the steppe polecat (another possible ancestors), the European mink (which is not a close relative of the American mink), and the Siberian weasel (which is actually found over a broad swathe of Asia, not just Siberia).   The researchers used specimens from all of these hybrids to represent a group of wild mustelids in the same way that wolves were used in the dog experiment. Like the wolves, these wild hybrids were socialized to people and were “tame.”

The researchers found that ferrets sought out and tolerated human contact in much the same way dogs did, and they were able to correctly go to the bowl of food containing the food through following human gestures.

And they could do as well as domestic dogs.

Now, this might make some sense.

Ferrets are the only other animal that has been domesticated to help humans hunt.

Ferreting is very similar to hunting with a flushing dog or a terrier.

The ferret goes where the quarry is and then it drives it out into a net or toward the gun.

And although people have tried to ferret with other species of mustelid, none has been as successful as the domestic ferret.

However, unlike dogs, ferrets were derived from solitary ancestors, not cooperative hunters.

But as they were domesticated to control rabbit and rat numbers, ferrets evolved some cognitive abilities that were similar to those of domestic dogs.  These abilities may have arisen solely from selection for tameness, as is implied through the abilities of the Belyaev foxes.

Or they could have origins in selection for a greater cooperative nature through domestication for those purposes.

We really don’t understand how dogs or other animals have evolved these cognitive skills.

Some people like to rush for the neoteny explanation at this point, but virtually everything written about neoteny and social cognition of domestic animals, great apes, and humans is unusually speculative and may actually be incapable of being falsified.

But the discovery that ferrets might be able to respond to human gestures as well as domestic dogs is really remarkable find.

It also shows us that ferrets are fully domesticated animals.

They shouldn’t be treated as exotics or invasive species.

The North American mainland has exactly zero (0) populations of feral domestic ferrets running about, even though ferrets have been here since colonial times.

We can’t say the same about feral cats, which are definitely destructive to native species.

So our understanding of domestication and its effect upon intelligence is much more complex than it once was.

And it’s not just dogs who have these abilities.

Ferrets may have them, too.



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Golden retriever playing with a Newfoundland pup:


Of course, the Newfoundland pup will be at least twice the size of the golden when it matures.

But both are descendants of that old water dog from Newfoundland.

The two breeds also have a common history in that both have become the family dog to have.

The golden retriever’s popularity has come in the second half of the twentieth century.

The Newfoundland was popular from the late eighteenth century through the late nineteenth century.

The old water dog of Newfoundland has been an enduring classic among modern dog lovers.

We just have fallen in love with different permuations at different times.


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The Newfoundland looks like it could eat the Chihuahua.

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