Archive for August, 2018

Anka likes this one. It’s durable, and it squeaks.


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A tremendous amount of insecurity exists among dog people. Certain reasons for this insecurity exist, but the main reason is that dogs give us some kind of ideological framework and community organization that humans instinctively crave.  Most Western societies are quite isolating, and in the United States, this problem is quite epidemic, as Robert Putnam noted.  We are a species that longs to belong and to know what to believe, so we are lost without this organization and society.

Dogs can give us everything like that. It doesn’t matter which angle one takes into the world of dogs, there will be a community of people and a set of ersatz gurus that will point us down the path that appears to be correct. These gurus may be the most insecure people on the planet, but they are fed by the simple knowledge that they know something, that they have power over someone, and don’t want anyone questioning anything that might lead to the guru seeming foolish or losing power.

I fully confess that I have these tendencies as well. I am a profoundly insecure person. But I also recognize how unhealthy it is, and I will do my best to fight my insecurity. But I don’t think I’ll ever have it fully beaten back.  It is just something I will recognize that I must struggle with.

The other problem that causes great insecurity in the world of dogs is that we ultimately expect too much from the animals. The fact that so many of them meet and even excel at being superior companion animals is a testament to how supremely adapted to life with us.

But the truth of the matter is countless dog trainers and dog people are so insecure in their abilities to get a dog to do something.  A constant fear of judgment or being discovered as wanting looms deeply in their psyche. These people might be superior dog trainers, but their insecurity holds them back.

And part of this problem is that we have elevated certain people to high levels of status in these communities that we feel as failures next to the Apollonian dog heroes. Our popular culture around dog trainers see them as infallible, coolly rational experts, who ask just a few questions and do a few little dramatic training moves. And the dog is suddenly cured. That’s how these experts are portrayed on television. Almost all of it is nothing more twaddle and good editing.

But those bits of artifice that slip through the ether onto our television and computer screens also slip into our psyches and make us truly doubt ourselves.

You can rationally tell yourself that something is fake on television, but you will still believe it. That’s why commercials on television work so well. You will tell yourself that those advertisements have no effect on you, but you will buy those products when you’re at the grocery store.  That’s why companies spend so much money television advertisements. You will tell yourself you’re not being sold something, but in reality, you actually are.

Dog people are very often living with an outward shield. We appear cool and collected on the surface, but deep down, we’re lost and lonely and insecure.

And we don’t want the world to know. I think that this tendency to make sure the world doesn’t know explains some of the horrible behavior that we can sometimes see from dog people, especially online, where one never has to mouth nasty words and feel that bile charge up your neck and leave a foul taste on the tongue.

Maybe the most important thing is to keep an open mind and love your dog, and do the best you can with what you have and what you know. And try to understand that we’re all ultimately in the same boat. We’re struggling to find meaning and community and to feel smart and successful, but we’re adrift in a world that is constantly changing, constantly bickering, and never fully satisfied.

And let’s go easy on the dogs a bit.

And if we can do it with each other, maybe that would be a good thing, too.








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great pyrenees

She was one quarter Maremma and three quarters Great Pyrenees. She was as white a snowdrift by genetics, but life among the sheep and the thick mud meant she always was stained a little grayish brown.

Her abdomen was distended now, and her nipples were now hairless and hanging pink with milk.  She was in the final days of her nine-week pregnancy, and she had spent much of the last month locked up in the shed behind the master’s house. She pined for her charges, the nice flock of Katahdin sheep that grazed the hill pastures that spanned out across the big acreage. All day, she and her companions patrolled the pastures, scenting the air and barking at any sort of danger that might be coming their way.

Her name was Grace, and she worked with two other dogs. The massive Badger, who was full Great Pyrenees and the father of the young in her womb, and her own half-Maremma mother, Isobel, who had since been spayed and left to full-time guard duty,  ambled along the fence edges. And when the heat of the day took its toll on the big hairy dogs, they would lie about in the shade and position themselves so that wind blew toward their nostrils and that the could see any forest edges where the blasted coyotes lurked.

Life had been good with the sheep. The meals were readily coming. The work pace was avuncular and steady, and the dogs lived out fine lives among the sheep. The winter snows and driving rains didn’t faze such ruggedly constructed canines. Only the summer heat and mugginess got them down.

These dogs grow close to their charges. They come to see the sheep as part of their pack, and although a sheep is far less sagacious than a dog, a dog can come to see sheep as something that must be protected from the horrors of the world. Those horrors come mostly in the way of sheep-killing coyotes and wayward dogs that become so stimulated with the lupine predatory behavior when they set themselves among the flocks that they often surplus kill.

Dogs and coyotes, though, respect other dogs, especially those that are much larger than average and bark with deep growling bellows across the farmland. So they usually avoid slinking among pastures where these big guard dogs are residence. It’s easier to kill chickens out of a clueless homesteader’s yard or lift little fawns from the multiflora rose coverts than to risk a fight with a guard dog.

And so the wiser farmers have set about getting these Old World guardian breeds. To the uninitiated, their doe-eyes and heavy coats give them the appearance of being nothing more than a larger version of an English golden retriever or a very pale-colored St. Bernard.  But behind those docile eyes is the instinct of a true guardian, a dog that will stand up and fight if it feels its charges are threatened.

But the droopy ears and shorter muzzle and that sweet, soft expression of the dog just isn’t threatening to the sheep. And that is the point. The goal is to have a dog that the sheep trust, so they will graze out in the pastures with the dogs milling about and patrolling and will not rush about in terror just because a dog is there.

On the dogs’ side, too, they have such a heavy threshold to stimulate predatory behavior. So much so, that if you were throw a ball for one these dogs, it would look at, pant, and then turn its head as it looked for a place to lie down. Such dogs are calm with the sheep and the best of them are never even remotely stimulated to chase or spook their charges.

These dogs work well, and farmers want them, especially those farmers who want to sell “predator friendly” meat to the public or who feel some deep ethical obligation to avoid killing coyotes.

And so this farmer, a simple hobbyist whose main profession was as an attorney in the little shire town down there road, decided to breed a litter of Great Pyrenees every couple of years.  He knew the pups would sell pretty well, and he knew that most of the farmers around him simply could not afford to buy purebred stock of that breed.

So he bred from crosses that worked well and generally scoffed at the hobbyists who told him he was ruining breeds by doing such things.

Grace was now heavily pregnant, and the lawyer knew that his bitch in whelp could not be risked in the pastures. So he moved her to that shed behind his house, and Grace howled like a lonely wolf all the night long. She did so for the first week, but regular leash walking after work gave Grace her exercise and eased her worry enough that she no longer howled from the shed.

In the back of the shed, the lawyer set up an enclosure at the back of the shed, where the big white dog could whelp on clean straw.

And so the lawyer checked on her one last time on that cooling August night. Her heavy panting told the story. Puppies would be coming soon, probably in the collied darkness of the night.

The lights in the house went dark. The air grew soft and still. In the distance, Badger and Isobel barked a few half-hearted warnings at any coyotes that might be lurking about. A sheep or two bleated The katydids filled the air with their hot stridulations, beating out the tensity of a cadence that come from some ethereal maraccas

Grace pushed out the first squealing pup and licked him clean of his afterbirth. She ate the placenta and bit off the umbilical cord, and the first pup of the litter squeaked and mewed and scutter-crawled his way to his mother’s milk. He was badger marked on the head just like his father.

Another pup came 15 minutes. He was solid white like his mother. Another came 20 minutes after that one. It was also badger marked but female.

And the pups came all through the blackness of night, squealing and mewing as they writhed away from that state of fetus to the state of puppy and situated themselves on their mother’s warm milk bar.

The last two pups were born as the soft red light of dawn filtered down upon the countryside. There were 13 in all. 6 were male. 7 were female. And all were ether latched onto the their mother’s dugs, sucking in the gallons of that acrid colostrum, or wriggling about wildly to make sure they got a good helping.

The lawyer heard their squeals from the open bathroom window, when he rose to take his morning urination. He ran out of the house in his wife-beater and boxer shorts and flicked the light to illuminate the shed.

Thirteen puppies born. That would mean lots of work monitoring the puppies and making sure they didn’t starve or become too cold.

But Grace would do most of the work for the first month or so. He would just have to be her assistant.

And so on the early morning glow of an August morning, a new set of guardians entered the world. They were helpless and blind and deaf, and one good cold snap would wipe them off the face of the earth. But they were writhing and wriggling little larval forms of the canine, and soon the miracle of time would knit them into proper puppies, cute little things that most people would want to buy for their children.

But not these dogs. Cute though they would be, they would have that guardian’s savagery deep within their psyches. They would grow to be white and lackadaisical dogs on the surface. But their eyes and ears and noses would always be casting for coming danger.

And if it arrived, they rise as growling, roaring bears of dogs, fellest of fell beasts, and meet the sheep killers on the green battleground.

But for now, they would nurse as the helpless beings of newborn canines. Their mother’s watchful eye and warm milk would be their main sustainers, but so would the lawyer’s constant monitoring of their lives and weights and condition.

One day, though, the majority of them would be among the pastured sheep or goats in the field, casting their noses and eyes for danger and booming out the barks of true guard dogs.

It would just take time for them to grow into their forms and into their nature.

That is the way of all puppies, after all. Even these very special ones that stand to as guards for the bleating hoofed stock mus be puppies before they become dogs.

And for right now, they were just barely puppies, and all they could do is nurse and squeal and mew and stay warm and survive. And begin that solemn process of growth and learning that would turn them into true useful dogs.

The journey had only just begun.












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Sow Feral Pig walking

The sun rose over those umbrella-shaped pine that grow for miles and miles throughout the Southland. Their proper names are lobollies and short-leafs, replacements of the stately long-leaf pine, which, because it lives in symbiosis with fire. Fire might kill the living trees, but it also kills the loblollies and short-leafs. And the long-leaf’s terminal buds are quite immune to fire. So fire wipes out the competitor pines and makes way for the long-leaf pine forest in all its glory.

The other enemy of the long-leaf pine is the feral hog, which yearly swarms more and more across the pine woods. Unlike a white-tailed deer, which will drop–at most– a pair of fawns once year, the sows drop many little piglets maybe three or four times a year.  A bear might swipe the odd pig as it matures into a full-sized rooter, and a coyote or a bobcat might take a little pig if it somehow decided to dare its very existence against the sows slashing cutters.  But in the main, the hogs live without significant predators, and they tear through the countryside. They eat pine seeds and buds and run riot through bobwhite and wild turkey nests.

And in much of the South, there is still a time-honored tradition of feeding the deer up through the summer so that the bucks’ antlers will grow their largest and most most majestic for the fall hunts. But the hogs raid the deer feeders, knock them over, and then foul the expensive feed. And swine aren’t above lifting little fawns from their hiding places, and though the fawns will bleat and bleat, their mothers will not be able to fight the plug-nosed monsters.

And the hogs tear up cropland. Peanut fields and corn and soy bean acreages get rooted over and over.

With all these problems associated with feral pigs in the pine woods of the South, a deep resentment against their depredations seethes throughout the land. But a rugged bunch don’t have quite have that hatred of them. They are the hog-hunters, the ones who keep big packs of bay and catch dogs in their kennels, who dream of hogs and hog hunts and who might even make a few dollars on the side selling hogs to abattoirs and hunting preserves.

And so the sun rose over the pines. The mist of mid-spring hung in their green needs, and the land looked mystical and looming. The Spanish moss hung hard on the live oaks, and the mockingbirds and blue jays flitting around the pine bows. And the air filled with birdsong, each species lifting high its calls into the air, as the sun cast down through the mist.

A red Dodge pickup came hurling down a sandy road. It was dragging a trailer with a utility vehicle resembling a four-wheel drive golf cart, and in the back of that cart was a dog box full of bay dogs. Three were merle curs that one would have called Catahoulas if one were trying to peg them to a specific breed. They were both bitches and rangey with wall eyes and a grim expression.  The other two curs were One was fawn with a black mask, what are registered as a black-mouth curs these days, and the other was a cross between a cur and an English setter, dappled back and white and smooth-coated but with the soft-eyes and keen air-scenting nose of the setter.

The truck’s dog box contained the rest of the hunting pack. In one box was a solid liver Drahthaar, a cull from a versatile gun dog breeding program, and in the adjacent box was a black roan bitch of the same breed. She was doe-eyed and silly and young, and she pointed and retrieved well. She had a future as a duck and quail dog, but her owner wanted to try her out on hogs.

And the other two boxes were the catch dogs, a pair of pit bulls. They were a dog and a bitch, both deep red with flesh-colored noses and lips and amber eyes. They were of a color type sold as an “old country red nose,”  but in truth were just general hog catch dogs that were common throughout this part of the South.

This was a contingent of hog hunters and their dogs. Four men rode in the extended cab. They were all clean-shaven with closely cropped hair. All were employees of the pulp mill in town, where the loblollies and short-leafs were ground down into that stuff that someday would be called paper.

They were hog hunting fanatics, and just the night before, the call had gone out that the big sounder of hogs had wandered into this farmer’s peanut field. They’d ruined a couple of acres of crop, and he’d made a call to the head hog-dogger, who assembled his crew of dogmen to prepare for a good Saturday in the field.

The trailer was unloaded of its vehicle and dogs, and it began coursing along the sand roads of that cut along the big peanut field. The Dodge followed behind the the utility vehicle, stopping when it stopped, as the three men in the cab chatted about the day and the dogs and what could happen or what might happen. The windows were rolled down, and cigarette plumes floated out of the cab and toward the sky.

But the man in the utility vehicle was all business. His eyes were cast on the road ahead. They were trained hard to spy the slightest sight of hog sign, and so he would stop and look and gauge the sign for its freshness.

Soon, the vehicles were out of the vicinity of the peanut field and were following the sand road as it cut through a vast stand of pine.

At one point the tracking man stopped to examine some hog sign in the road, and he knew fully well that the sign was fresh. A smile graced his face and he trotted back to his compatriots in the Dodge to tell them the good news. Fresh sign upon the ground, and hogs not far off.

The tracking man went back to his truck, and opened up the gait to his little dog box. He grabbed the setter cross cur, and pulled her excited, bouncing form to the sand. She sniff the ground intently, then began her setter cast into the wind.  If there were hogs about, she would soon be on scent as it floated through the air, and if there were no hogs nearby, she would be back in about five minutes.

Five minutes passed, and the tracking man let the other curs loose, and they set about tracking the setter cur.

And the tracking man had his buddies turn loose both Drahthaars, for their noses were dead solid and the grittiness of the old liver was beyond reproach.

And so six dogs now ran the pine woods, slipping around in stands of little sweet gums and palmettos, but not barking as the baying coonhounds do when on the track. Instead, they were tracking down on the hogs.

The little setter cur ran hard on the track. The wind was blowing the scent of a big sounder into her nose, and she was half excited and half timorous about the prospects of running into them alone. But the sound of other dogs running behind her increased her courage, and soon all six dogs were running the woods like wolves. Their GPS tracking collars gave their coordinates to the tracking man’s hand-held receiver.

And the four men stood on the road, smoking cigarettes, and telling stories and listening intently for the first wild barking that would show that the dogs had a hog cornered. The pit bulls rested in their boxes. The excitement was about to come.

About a mile away, the curs and Drahthaars came charging in on the big sounder. Half the hogs were black, a quarter were deep chestnut red, and the remainder were were red with circular black spots that gave them a sort of domesticated veneer.

But they were 20 hogs strong and dog wary and dog smart, and as soon as soon as they heard the dog paws rusting in the pine litter, the whole sounder shot off in all directions.  One young black sow, though, was caught a bit unawares of the approaching predators, and before she could run the dogs were on her. She ran with the pack yapping all around her.  She would try to run, but they would swarm her, and if she stood to fight, the big liver Drahthaar stood ready to pounce on her every time she tried to bust. He would bite her, and she would squeal in terror. But he had good sense to know that his job was not to bite and hold.

And so after three attempts of escape, she was backed up in a thicket of palmettos, with yapping dogs all around her. She popped her jaws at them and tried the odd mock charge, but she was stopped from her escape.

The yapping filled the misty air, and the tracking man checked his GPS receiver. The dogs were bayed up.

The excitement of what was about to come filled the cigarette-smoking men. They had quarry penned down, and now was the time for the dispatch. One man grabbed a heavy steel chain lead and attached it to the male pit bull, and another man did the same with the female pit bull. The big-muscled beasts bounced with excitement. Their amber eyes flashed with wildness, and the men struggled to get get the dogs kitted out in their Kevlar catching vests. The first dogs hunted down the hog and made it stand, but these were the dogs that were going to rush in and hold it with their teeth.

And the whole party ran through the pines.  Bows flew back slapped men in the face. Thorns scratched pit bull hides. But they were so single-mined and urgent in their approach that they could not stop and worry.

Adrenalin filled their forms, and they were now in the form of predators about to come upon their prey.

Soon, they were just 30 yards from the yapping cacophony of bay dogs, which occasionally was joint by the jaw popping and squealing of the sow. And at that moment, each man leading a pit bull turned it loose. Not a word was spoken. They did it in concert, as they were one mind, and the red catches shot out towards the palmetto thicket.

The bay dogs moved aside as they heard the catch dog’s approach. None wanted to get in the way of those holding jaws.

The female pit bull was the first to hit the hog. She grabbed it by the ear. The sow screamed in abject terror, and the female pit bull instantly adjusted her stance so that she was holding the sow’s ear and standing behind the quarry. That way, the hog could not bit her or try to cut her with her tusks.

Not even 15 seconds passed and the male pit bull grabbed the other ear, also adjusting his stance so that he was standing behind the screaming hog while he held her ear fast in his fell jaws.

The squealing of the sow reached that insane octave, where all was shut out that horrible sound, and that din only increased the urgency of the men’s approach.  They were in full on human hunter mode.

Each man grabbed a cur or a Drahthaar and attached a lead to it and tied it to a nearby tree. The hog blood was gushing all over the pit bulls now, and then two men came behind the sow and grabbed her hind legs and complete orchestration they flipped her on her side.  Another man came and knelt upon her exposed shoulder and then pulled out a massive dagger of a knife and drove it down into to the hog just above her armpit.

The blood gushed out of that stabbing hole and the squealing began to cease. The sow was dead. A peanut rooter was off the land, and the whole sounder had been driven from the peanut fields for a while.

The men slapped each other on the back. There was pride in the hunt, a camaraderie of sorts that our species has largely lost when the vast majority of us gave upon hunting.

The dogs were celebrated for their skills. The bragging filled the air along with the smoke from the newly lit cigarettes.

Blood was on the ground. The dogs were hot and panting.

And thus ended a scene that could have been transplanted from the Stone Age where men hunted the wild and fell beasts with their newly tamed dogs. No guns were fired at the hogs.

This kill had come from the skill of dogs and the sharpness of knives. The GPS collars, the gasoline-fueled vehicles, and the specialized breeding of hog dogs are certainly modern advances.

But in the main it was still Stone Age and savage and wondrous, as best could be expected for the twenty-first century.







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She looks like a female version of him.


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A very interesting interview, said with no sarcasm. Opossums are the new cats. LOL. This man really knows his Virginia opossums.

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I have come around to a simple conclusion:  I am not really a “dog expert,” as people normally define that term. I have never corrected a severe behavior problem in a dog, and I have never earned a single title on a dog.

I am a good academic. My background is in social science and historical research. I also can read peer-reviewed articles that use statistical methodology.

I also can communicate well. These things give me the veneer of being a “dog expert.” If you can communicate well enough to convey complex concepts that are documented in those obtuse article or in old tomes of dog lore, it leads the reader to believe that I might have some knowledge or expertise, but the truth is I am quite clueless about things.

The thing is I can use all those skills to write about any other animal on the planet, but with dogs, we’ve created this special condition for one to be considered a “dog expert.”  You must have skills to make dogs do stuff, and dogs must want to be with you over anyone else in the household.

I don’t know if any of those concepts applies to me. I have my own personal dog, and I can get her to obey a few commands. She’s of a breed that is generally supposed to be easy to train, but I do recognize my limitations as a pretty crappy dog trainer. I can’t always get a retrieve to hand, and because this dog has been passed around so much in her life, I have very little interest in doing traditional dog training methods with her.  I am not going to pinch her ears to get a solid retrieve. She listens well enough not be a nuisance, and I can walk her virtually anywhere off-lead. But that’s I’m a magically wonderful dog trainer. It’s that German shepherds generally don’t like to be out of view of the person they’ve decided to attach themselves to.

But now that you’ve read this, a certain percentage of you will discount anything else I have to say about dogs. I am not Ian Dunbar or Karen Pryor or one of those traditional dog trainers of yore. I am not a qualified animal behaviorist, and I am certainly no “dog whisperer.”

I grew up in a place where dog training was this:

If your coonhound runs opossums or deer, you put a shock collar on him.

And then you’ve got a coonhound.

I did not have access to real dog people anywhere, unless I wanted to do scenthound stuff. Most farms had English shepherds at them, but the dogs were almost never used to herd cattle or sheep. They were just there to guard the farm and maybe do some squirrel hunting.

I am only now able to have a dog that I feel is of the caliber that I could ever hope to train to do anything. I am way, way behind in my dog training skills, and this problem is made worse because the only dog training I’ve ever done is with food. Anka gets bored of food very quickly, so I have to reinvent everything I know to make a tossed ball an acceptable reward. So I do have an awfully trainable dog, but it’s like getting a Mac when I have only ever used PCs. It’s a nice machine, but it’s really a challenge for me to work with it.

Yes. I am a certified nerd. The things I am good at would probably bore almost anyone. I do not denigrate my skill, but I do want you to understand that these skills you’re appreciating by reading these posts are not substitutes for any real skill-based practical expertise.

I suppose I have to make this stuff clearer, because when it comes to dogs, we assume that people who have my particular skill-set must surely have the other one. And if that person lacks the other one, then one should never trust anything that comes from reading historical documents or peer-reviewed papers.

Of all the animals I write about, dogs are the one where this issue is quite problematic. If someone disagrees with my interpretation of a paper, all they have to do to ignore what I have to say is to talk about how much experience they have over me.

It’s why have tried to chance the main focus of my blog from being a “dog blog” to a nature blog that sometimes mentions dogs.

So I am not really a dog expert by the classic definition. I’m actually quite an idiot when it comes to putting titles on a dog or making them do stuff.

I’m sorry that we live in a culture of expertise that requires people have those skill-sets to be able to talk about things which have been gleaned from academic research.

And it has been difficult, if not impossible, for me to make peace with this conflict.

I suppose I will always feel inferior around actual dog people with skills, the same way I feel inferior around carpenters and plumbers and tradesmen who are good with their hands. I was born with little tiny hands and ten thumbs, and the hand-eye coordination of Mr. Magoo.  So I have had it has always been a mystery to me how people can build things.

And I am that way with people who can train dogs to high levels. I like to think that I can learn how to train a dog like that, but deep down, I lack the confidence to be of that level.

I guess I will always be the person from the backwoods, who never really had the best chance to learn “dogs.”

And no matter what happens, I think I will always be that person. It’s that much of a problem for me.

And all you have to do to shut me up is just start down this road of experience and skills. It is my Achilles’ heel.




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Every hare, every day, evades predators. Hares have evolved in different directions than humans– one of the most pernicious fallacies of animal rights is that animals feel and in some ways think that they are just deformed humans….Hares are splendid at being hares, and likely don’t dwell for a moment on the horrors of the chase. If a human were chased every day, he would become neurotic, fearful, crazy. Hares, if chased every day, still enjoy life. How could they not, and still be around, be hares?

–Stephen Bodio, The Hounds of Heaven: Living and Hunting with an Ancient Breed.

Night fell upon the newly mowed hay field.  It was the last cutting of the year and final tall stalks of grass were now lying out flat upon the ground. The dry September sun would dry out the stalks for a few days. Then the baling machines would arrive, and the grass would be bound as stored forage for the hoofed stock on the coming days little sunlight and hard freezes and driving snow squalls.

On hot summer evenings, cottontail rabbits like to see along the tram roads that lead in and out of the hay field. The roads make for easy running and the clover grows thick in the tracks, and clover is the best thing for the lactating rabbit does to munch down. The tall grass obscures their body forms from the piercing eyes of hawks and owls, and so the tram roads become their little restaurants, where the clover nourishes their bodies but the killers from the sky cannot spy them.

But the mowing has changed this dynamic. The tall grass is down, and the refuge it provided was gone.  The hawks and the owls would surely see the rabbits on the road now, but the rabbits are creatures of habit and territory. So they came to the tram road to graze uneasily among the clover.

The predator that came did not come from the sky that evening. The mowing machine cuts up quite a few mice and voles and bog lemmings as tears through the grass, and their blood and offal and decaying forms cast scents into the air. The local turkey vultures spent much of the late afternoon sifting through the downed grass stalks for a bit of sweet, juicy carnage. A pair of ravens joined them in their sifting, for ravens don’t have the keen sense of smell of the turkey vulture. But they have keener brains and can easily figure out that where the turkey vultures are congregating, there will be carrion to scavenge.

But now that night was falling, the birds of the day had taken to the roost. The sifting for rodent bodies would have to wait until the sun rose again, so the hay field was empty of all beings but rabbits and stridulating katydids and crickets.

The scent of dead rodents brought in the meat-eaters of the night, and the first to arrive was a big male gray fox. He lived out his entire life in the brier thickets in the hollow below the hay field. No one knew of his existence or really seemed to care, for he lived a life of a sort of cat dog in the brush, stalking songbirds in the forest and occasionally raiding a cottontail’s nest the early spring grass. He also plucked fresh raspberries from their bushes, but he was skilled at his hiding from humans of his very presence. He was a poacher in the night who slipped in and slipped out, and no one was the wiser.

But now he sensed a chance to get a little easy food among the fallen grass stalks, and he began a slinking approach into the hay field. The wind was in his face so that he could smell if any hunters or nasty dogs were about, and the wind kept telling him that carrion was around for him to pick through and devour at his foxy leisure.

It was as eased upon the tram road that another scent caught his nose. It was a big cottontail doe, in fine fettle and all spry for a good run. His years working this tram road after mowing days told him that he probably shouldn’t waste any energy running such a big healthy doe, but the cool September night air had given him a bit of a sporty itch.

And so the big gray fox crouched into stalking position and eased his way closer to the big doe. She grazed the clover, and he stalked in a little closer. She would hear the faint sound of fox steps upon the grass, and she would rise up and hold still. The fox would hold his stalk, and no sound would cross her ears. And she would eat at the clover again.

And so the stalk went on for about five minutes, and by that time, the fox was 15 feet from the rabbit. At that point, though, the fox’s impetuous side got to him. The scent of rabbit was that close to him. His black nostrils just quivered each inhaling breath. Rabbit scent, so sweet, and so close.

And when the rabbit sat still with her ears up again, the fox charged, and the chase began. Cottontail rabbits run in great, wide circles, and in those circles,there are several brush piles, groundhog holes, hidden culverts, and misplaced pipe. The rabbits know that when they run they can run out long and hard in those circles, and if they are healthy, they can hit one of those hiding places before the predator is upon them. And if the predator still comes, they will have more than few minutes to catch their breaths and let their heart rates return to normal in case they would have to run again.

So the big cottontail doe fled the charging fox. Early in the chase the fox’s flying gallop, a mixture of a sighthound’s run and the feline’s bound, gave him some edge. For thirty yards, the fox’s jaws were within near striking distance of the fleeing rabbit.

But her leporid running anatomy is built for a good flight, and very soon, she was well ahead of the gray fox when she saw her chance to dive into a bit of cast-off gas-line pipe that had been stored at the edge of the hayfield for so long that the multiflora rose grew thick and thorny all around it.

The fox saw her dive into the pipe, and he sailed upon the pipe’s entrance. It was too small to afford him even the hope of entry, and for five minutes he pawed at the pipe and stuck his nose down the entrance, trying in vain to see the rabbit had foolishly languished near enough to the opening for him to grab her.

But then, his fox-like caution set in. He cast his nose into the wind and twitched his ears around to catch the sign of any fox killer, and when he found that none was about, he slipped along the edge of the hayfield, casting his way around to where he could approach the tram road again with the wind in his face.

He would have a good night’s repast of vole, mouse, and bog lemming meat and offal, but in the cooling September night, he’d had a bit of fun, a bit of sport, and now he could get back to the real business of survival.

The big doe rabbit emerged from the pipe about an hour after the fox left. She stayed in the multifora rose thicket a for a little while. The rose had some nice little hips for her to browse upon, and then, as the morning sun began to cast red into the sky, she eased her way out of the thicket and wandered into a grove of newly apple trees that had just been planted the March before. She gnawed on the apple trees a bit, until a car passed the apple grove and made her take flight into a distant brush pile.

And so the rabbit was not traumatized in the least from having a good course by a fox. She would have to run every day of her fleeting of life, just as all her ancestors have had to since the beginning of the rabbit and hare clade some 40 million years ago.

We can think of the rabbit as the terrorized victim of vicious foxes, or we can consider them as they actually are. They are prey. They evolved as prey. Their brains and their bodies are all evolved perfectly as prey species. Their essence to be vary and make good run and a hard dive from predator’s jaws.

They live lives in terrific bliss. Many things want to eat them, but they simply live as long as they can without obliging this desire.

Their psyches do not become traumatized as they live with such terror every day. Their psyches, such that they are, are perfectly wired for this existence. This is their existence and not ours.

And if we truly love animals, we must respect their different existence and avoid simplistic appeals to anthropomorphism that only makes sense in a society devoid any real contact with nature.

But these simplistic appeals are harder and harder to avoid, and so the fox might not be deemed the enemy in this story, but the beagler or rabbit courser certainly would be.

And this is the reality that true animal lovers, who see animals in all their naturalistic animalness, must work hard to combat.

And hope to all powers that be that we will not lose. But the odds just aren’t in our favor.

Ignorant anthropomorphism is the scourge of carefully considered human-animal relations, and the danger is that it is an ignorance that revels in its own self-righteousness.

So the fox chases the rabbit on a September night, and the rabbit lives on in that terrific bliss of having evolved as quarry.

And we can only hope that we humans respect that bliss. For only then can we understand what a rabbit truly is and appreciate its essential majesty.


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dire wolf skeleton

I am not big on popular culture these days. I have not watched one second of Game of Thrones, but I do know that dire wolves have something to do with that series.  I am not into that genre of television. Give me an actual documentary about dire wolves, and I’ll be happy.

But I know that dire wolves are thing from that series only because I do sometimes get asked about them. I don’t know how they are portrayed in that series, but most people think of them as just super large gray wolves that went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene.

The funny thing is that there actually was a super large gray wolf that specialized in hunting large game that also went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene. This animal has been called the Beringian wolf, and although no one has dared to give it a subspecies status, it was essentially a form of gray wolf that hunted megafauna in much the same way that the dire wolf did. The two species were contemporaries, but the Beringian gray wolf did not live in the same parts of North America as the dire wolf, which was found through most of the Lower 48 of the United States and ranged down into northern South America.  This Beringian wolf apparently ranged from Alaska to Wyoming, while the dire wolf was found in mid-latitude North America and ranged south from there.

No one really pays that much attention the Beringian wolf, but it is very likely that everything we know about modern wolves would have applied to that animal. The only difference would be that this wolf was much more specialized in hunting large prey such as bison than modern big-game hunting wolves are.

The same cannot be said for dire wolves.  Dire wolves evolved solely in North America. The general consensus is that it evolved from Armbruster’s wolf, but the exact origin of Armbruster’s wolf is a bit of debate. One well-known hypothesis is that the common ancestor of the modern gray wolf and the Armbruster’s wolf-dire wolf lineage is Canis chihliensis, a Pliocene wolf-like canid. This is the hypothesis suggested by Tedford and Wang, who are leading authorities on North American canid evolution.

However, there is a whole host literature in Eurasian wolves that posits Canis mosbachsensis as the ancestor the modern wolf. This literature, I think, is a bit more robust, for the large numbers of samples of both archaic Canis lupus and Canis mosbachensis show how the wolves of Eurasia went from being small and gracile to larger and more robust over time.

It is possible that this Armbruster’s wolf/dire wolf lineage evolved from an entirely different grouping of the wolf-like canids. It also would place the common ancestor of the dire wolf and modern Canis lupus back millions of years, even to the point where dire wolves were at least as genetically divergent from modern wolves as modern wolves are from African wild dogs.

If that is true, then we cannot make many wild assumptions about dire wolf behavior by comparing them to modern wolves at.  We don’t have any preserved dire wolves in permafrost. They never lived where there are currently big stands of permafrost, so we will never have dire wolf pelts.

Attempts have been made to get DNA from the many Rancho La Brea tarpit dire wolf remains, but they have not been successful. It was found that it was just too difficult to separate the bone from the tar.

So we really don’t know exactly how closely related dire wolves are to modern wolves, but I would be surprised if they turned out to be as closely related to modern wolves as modern wolves are to coyotes.

Indeed, the real problem with all of this is much of Canis taxonomy and systematics is not entirely resolved. The real issue I have now is we have good genome comparison literature that shows a much closer relationship between wolves and coyotes than we previously believed. Much of our understanding of Canis evolution is that we have tended to think of a linear evolution from jackal-like forms to wolf-like form, when the truth of the matter is we have had jackal and wolf-like forms evolve independently of each other within different lineages of the wolf-like canids.

So we are taken aback with the findings that the two endemic African jackals, the black-backed and side-striped jackal, are the two most basal and divergent forms of the wolf-like canid clade, and we are even more taken aback that the dhole and African wild dog are not as distinct from the rest of the clade as these two African jackals. This finding has led to the rise of the genus Lupullela for these two jackals.

In addition, the creatures formerly known as African golden jackals were revealed to be much closer to wolves and coyotes than to the Eurasian golden jackal, which has led to a bit of a taxonomy war on what exactly to call these creatures, though the popular press likes to use the term “African golden wolf,” which was the name suggested in one of the papers documenting their discovery.

None of these discoveries would have been indicated through morphological analysis alone. One would think that black-backed jackals and coyotes were particularly close relatives, for they look and behave pretty similarly to each other. At one time, we would have classified both as primitive or basal Canis.  Today, I think the best description is that the black-backed jackal is a basal Canis, but that the coyote is actually a very derived but diminutive one.

So we have these problems with extant Canis species, and it is very likely that we’re missing the full picture on how dire wolves relate and compare to modern ones.

One thing that should be noted is that dire wolves had very odd bacula.  The baculum is the penis bone that exists in all but a few mammals, and you, if you are a male human being, are among these few mammals without one.

Dire wolves had longer bacula than gray wolves of the same size and they were kinked upward at an odd angle. This bone is probably indicative of a larger penis in a dire wolf than the modern one, and it also might give us some interesting clues about how dire wolves might have behaved.

I have suggested that having this male anatomy might have meant that dire wolves had more competition with sperm penetration than actual male on male conflict during the mating season. We know that within primates, those species that are better endowed tend to be less aggressive with other males of the same species. Those with smaller genitals tend to be more aggressive, and the reason posited for this difference is those with larger genitalia have given up on intermale aggression and the real competition is how far and how much sperm the male can produce.

Maybe something like this was going on with dire wolves. Maybe mating season with dire wolves was just a big ol’ wolf orgy, and the male that could penetrate the female deepest and with the most sperm wound up siring the offspring.

Even calling Canis dirus a “wolf” may not be accurate at all. If it truly is a more distant relative to the gray wolf than we currently assume, then we really need to be careful what we assumptions we are making.

A few years ago, there was a bit of fun speculation on the internet that the dire wolf was actually of South American wild dog clade. A few scholars had toyed with the idea, because there was these two odd species wolfish like canids that were known from the fossil record in South America, called Canis nehringi and Canis gezi. The former was always thought of as being very similar to the dire wolf, and the latter appeared to be somewhat similar to both.

This speculation led to this wonderful image, a depiction of the dire wolf as being an overgrown bush dog.  (The one on the right speculates a South American origin, while the one on the left just turns it into a wolf).

dire wolf bush dog

Of course, serious scholarship performed a phylogenetic analysis of these canids and revealed that Canis nehringi was actually a dire wolf offshoot. Canis gezi was found to be a South American clade wild dog.

So yes, this was a fun bit of speculation, but it’s not much more absurd than assuming that the dire wolf was that fundamentally similar to the modern gray wolf.

We just don’t know. I’m sure that we’ll get a good ancient DNA sample from a dire wolf soon, and we’ll be able to answer some of these questions.

But right now, we need to be very careful in assuming that the dire wolf was just an odd Pleistocene gray wolf.

We’re missing a lot of information, and a lot of the research on dire wolves was performed before we had all these “molecular surprises” with extant Canis species.

There is just so much we don’t know, and it might be a good idea to be careful about making assumptions about dire wolves by comparing them to their supposed modern equivalents.

Those equivalents might not be any more equivalent than those equivalents are to modern African wild dogs and dholes. Yes, there are some similarities, but African wild dogs and dholes are very different from wolves in terms of the exact dynamics of their pack behavior and hunting styles.

So we’re assuming a lot now about dire wolves, but it’s best to wait for me evidence before we play around with speculation. Hollywood will never take this cue, but maybe we should hold back a bit.

We just don’t know.







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The Boulder Fiefdom of the Chipmunk


I used to hike along a forest trail that cut through the property of an absentee landowner. It was a steep ATV track that was used only during that week-long madness that is the modern firearms season for white-tailed deer in West Virginia. The other 51 weeks of the year it was wilderness reclaiming itself.

The ATV track switch-backed down a steep hill that led a nicely bass pond, where you could see the largemouths swimming in the crystal clearness of the spring that fed the impoundment. I never fished there, but I knew of people near me who came down to that pond to poach and loaf and be in nature for a couple of hours.

When I went, I usually had a dog in tow, usually poor old Miley, the golden retriever that didn’t much like to swim and preferred to use ponds for her mud baths on sultry summer days. I could clear out my head and breathe in the sweet air and dream a bit and compose essays in my head, which I am constantly doing, even when I probably shouldn’t.

Sometimes, my approach would lift a band of deer from their sleeping beds in the heavy cover. Many times, I’d accidentally jump a wily grouse from its covert, it’s loud wings drumming wildly as it soared up from the thorny bush and then casting about in the air around the trees and out of my clear view.

And I always came across the sign of bobcat, gray and red fox, and Eastern coyote. Their tracks and scat would litter the ATV trail, calling cards of species that knew damned well to keep as far of the trail as possible when the sound of human footsteps plooded the muddy tracks and rustled the invasive Japanese stiltgrass that festooned the whole tram road.

A whole world of creatures existed that never revealed themselves when I graced the scene, and I felt a certain amount of sadness that I never got to see them, only their scat and paw prints in the mud.

But one creature always turned up on my walks.  The only exception to this rule was when I was out in the dead of winter, and these creatures were deep in their hibernation dens.

I am, of course, talking about the Eastern chipmunks, those “striped squirrels” that run around on the ground, often darting out without consideration about where they were going, just running first and then dealing with the consequences later.

When they dart out, they usually would let loose a trilling alarm call, then dive among the furrows of some ancient sandstone boulders. The boulders were the castle forts, and this was their little fiefdom. If I approached, they would dart out, trill, and take for the boulder furrows.

I came to see them as the most banal of creatures, but they are at the same time exquisitely marked little things. They are chestnut brown, with a dark stripe running down their backs, and a white stripe running down each side, bracketed at the top and bottom with dark stripes running parallel to the white one. Their doe-eyes are brown and softly sweet, almost like a nice Cavalier King King Charles spaniel, and that softness is further accentuated with the white stripes running just above and below each eye.  A black stripe runs behind the eye, making it look as if the little squirrel were wearing some kind of mascara.

In my childhood, I had known dogs that would give a chipmunk a good chase. The old golden retriever Strawberry was a lazy sort of dog, but in her youth, the one thing that her charging like a predatory beast was the trilling alarm call of the chipmunk. And she would dive after them running them to their lairs and then bark in her hoarse, raspy bark that was her calling card that she had found the quarry’s lair and the world needed to know.

But most dogs give up chipmunk hunts when they hit maturity. The chipmunks run too stupidly to give much of a chase, and they take refuge in places that most dogs don’t want enter. They usually run for boulders or take refuge in some mislaid pipe. And if a dog catches one, it is so easily dispatched, and there is not much meat on the animal at all.

So most chipmunk dogs discover that gray squirrels and cottontail rabbits are better things to chase.

I’m sure the bobcats and gray foxes did take a few chipmunks every year. A gray fox in particular is well-suited to hunting this kind of quarry, and they are small enough to get a decent amount of their daily caloric intake from catching such a minuscule bit of prey.

But the real enemy of the chipmunks in the boulders was a species of snake that everyone in West Virginia just called a “black snake,” and that I usually just called a “black rat snake.” The exact species I encountered is currently a taxonomic boondoggle, and in some quarters, it would be better called a “gray rat snake,” even though its body is mostly obsidian shiny black.

These are the great predatory snakes of most of the Eastern US. They grow quite long– five or six feet is not unusual. And the boulders full of chipmunks drew in more than a few of these slinking customers. Many times, I’d be walking along and hear the leaf litter crinkle so softly. And I would turn my head and see the form of a great serpent slipping out of my view.

Sometimes, I’d catch them sunning themselves along the ATV trail, and then they would coil up and flash the white scales of their necks and underjaws at me. And they would buzz their tail tips in the leaf litter to make it seem as though I’d come across a very large timber rattlesnake, which also often comes in that same obsidian black color.

And I would always notice the lumps in their coils. The snakes had been able to make their way through the furrows on the boulders and thus scale the castle fortress of the chipmunk fiefdom.

And so they were the dragons in our tale, true monsters of death for the striped squirrel lords of the manor.

My wanderings along this road, though, were cut short. One of the sons of the landowner came back to his family’s little wilderness farm, and set about putting up posted signs. He bought a bunch of chickens and filled an oak lot with swine. And turned out a white German shepherd to guard it all.

One day, a few big sows took down the fence, and several dozen hogs and weaner pigs took off for the country.

Most of them were rounded up within a week, but a few of the wily ones lived up in the woods, wandering over the big acreages of oak and hickory until the madness of deer season started.

And the deer hunters, smarting from a lack of deer to shoot, found that forest grown hams on the finest of Allegheny Plateau pannage was quite a nice treat.

I am sure the chipmunks still hold court among the boulders. I bet I could step out there on a chilly crisp day in October, and I could hear their little popping calls as they flitted from oak to hickory back to oak.  I bet they still use the boulders as their little castle forts.

And I bet the black snakes slip among the boulders and take the odd chipmunk from its sandstone refuge.

And life goes on in the microcosm where I used to tread daily.

And will go on so long as there are oaks and hickories to drop mast, and boulders with deep furrows for sprightly ground squirrels to take as their castles.

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