On Bipeds & Brutes

National Museum of Animals & Society Blog

Monthly Archives: August 2011

The Dog in Black

Statue of Shep at Fort Benton, Montana. Image via Wikipedia.

Statue of Shep at Fort Benton, Montana. Image via Wikipedia.

The country’s heart was wrenched earlier this week when photos released from the funeral of Navy SEAL Jon Tomlinson showed his faithful black Labrador Retriever Hawkeye lying on his side, head down, in front of the soldier’s coffin. Tomlinson, 35, a native of Rockford, Iowa, was amongst 30 U.S. troops killed August 6th when a Taliban insurgent shot down their Chinook helicopter over Afghanistan. Hawkeye, who led Tomlinson’s family down the aisle as they entered the funeral service, followed eulogist Scott Nichols up to the podium and then reportedly “dropped down with a heaving sigh” in front of his guardian’s coffin, an action most have interpreted to be one of sadness, longing, and, above all, awe-inspiring loyalty.

It’s hard not to get a little teary-eyed when viewing the image of Hawkeye’s final touching gesture to his human companion – but is labeling the dog’s act as “mourning” mere anthropomorphism, or does it have any behavioral basis? That is a question science cannot yet answer, but there is definitely historical precedence of other dogs whose commitment to their human companions has seemingly lasted until literally their very last breath.

Many are familiar with the story of Hachikō, a Japanese Akita who was adopted as a puppy in 1924 by University of Tokyo professor Hidesaburō Ueno. Returning every day from work by train, Professor Ueno would meet Hachikō each evening at the same time at Shibuya Station. This routine continued until May of 1925, when Professor Ueno did not get off the train; he had died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the University. But Hachikō refused to give up waiting for his guardian’s return. Each and every day, for the next nine years, Hachikō would arrive at Shibuya Station at exactly the same time Professor Ueno’s train used to arrive. In 1932 Hachikō’s story was published in a Tokyo newspaper, making him an instant celebrity and national symbol. In 1934, a year before his own death, a statue of Hachikō was erected at Shibuya, to commemorate for future generations the Akita’s faithfulness and loyalty to his human companion.

In Fort Benton, Montana, there arose the report of Shep, a herding dog that appeared one day in 1936 at the Great Northern Railway station when a coffin was being loaded onto a train headed east. When the train left, Shep too left the station, only to return to meet the next incoming train, and every incoming train after that. Station employees soon surmised that it must have been Shep’s guardian in the casket, and that the dog was returning to greet every train in the hopes that his companion would be amongst the passengers. Shep kept his vigil for the next six years, until he was tragically killed by an oncoming train in 1942.

There is also the legend of Greyfriars Bobby, a Skye Terrier who is said to have belonged to Edinburgh policeman John Gray. When Gray passed away of tuberculosis in 1858, he was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard; Bobby proceeded to guard the grave for the next 14 years. After five years of in-depth historical research, the story of Greyfriars Bobby was allegedly “debunked” earlier this year, but it was too late: the tale of Bobby’s loyalty will live on in both Scottish and canine folklore, likely for centuries.


Lap-dog Poetry

Mexican lapdog

Image via Wikipedia

Our last two posts on the NMAS blog focused on the ever eccentric and inspiring poet Margaret Cavendish (1623 – 1673) and canines in historical portraits. Both fluttering away in my thoughts, they eventually brought to mind the genre of lap-dog poetry that erupted in the 1600’s and 1700’s across Europe and in America too.

As a way to express one’s emotions about, devotion to, or love for their companion canine, Europeans took to the pen (or quill and ink!) with vigor and generated incredibly sincere prose. This was largely due to a societal shift in thinking about animals. The Enlightenment spurred people to consider non-humans and their pain, happiness, individuality, and personalities.

Here are a few poems – some happy, some not so much – for your enjoyment.

Epitaph On A Favourite Lapdog

I never barked when out of season;
I never bit without a reason;
I ne’er insulted weaker brother;
Nor wrong’d by force nor fraud another.
Though brutes are plac’d a rank below,
Happy for man could he say so!

— Thomas Blacklock (Scottish, 1721-1791)

On the Death of a Lady’s Dog

Thou, happy creature, art secure
From all the troubles we endure.

— Unknown (Virginia Gazette, 1775)

An Elegy on a Lap-dog

Shock’s fate I mourn; poor Shock is now no more,
Ye Muses mourn, ye chamber-maids deplore.
Unhappy Shock! yet more unhappy fair,
Doom’d to survive thy joy and only care!
Thy wretched fingers now no more shall deck,
And tie the fav’rite ribbon round his neck;
No more thy hand shall smooth his glossy hair,
And comb the wavings of his pendent ear.
Yet cease thy flowing grief, forsaken maid;
All mortal pleasures in a moment fade:
Our surest hope is in an hour destroy’d,
And love, best gift of heav’n, not long enjoy’d.

Methinks I see her frantic with despair,
Her streaming eyes, wrung hands, and flowing hair
Her Mechlen pinners rent the floor bestrow,
And her torn fan gives real signs of woe.
Hence Superstition, that tormenting guest,
That haunts with fancied fears the coward breast;
No dread events upon his fate attend,
Stream eyes no more, no more thy tresses rend.
Tho’ certain omens oft forewarn a state,
And dying lions show the monarch’s fate;
Why should such fears bid Celia’s sorrow rise?
For when a lap-dog falls no lover dies.

Cease, Celia, cease; restrain thy flowing tears,
Some warmer passion will dispel thy cares.
In man you’ll find a more substantial bliss,
More grateful toying, and a sweeter kiss.

He’s dead. Oh lay him gently in the ground!
And may his tomb be by this verse renown’d.
Here Shock, the pride of all his kind, is laid;
Who fawn’d like man, but ne’er like man betray’d.

— John Gay (English, 1685 – 1732)

Breaking the Mold: The Eugenics of Dog Breeding

The children of Charles I of England with their dogs, 1637.

The children of Charles I of England with their dogs, 1637.

There is something fascinating about looking at portraits from centuries ago of people with their prized pets and seeing what sort of animal suited a particular person. Oftentimes you see royalty posing with their hunting hounds or lapdogs, their animals every bit the status symbols as the modern starlet’s. However, there is distinctly less variety in the animals seen in such portraits than is seen today. Usually there is a spaniel or two, perhaps a greyhound or wolfhound. Why, when there are thousands of dog breeds to choose from today, was there such a lack of variety then?

The answer is both unexpected and startling. According to the National Geographic documentary The Science of Dogs, just 100 short years ago, 88% of the current breeds of dog available today did not exist. Today, there are over 500 breeds of dog in existence, with new hybrids and designer pooches available every few years. Why the boom? Certainly dogs did not suddenly expand their mating horizons on their own.

During the Victorian era, humanity became obsessed with creating the perfectly functioning society, hence the industrial revolution and the sharply realized class system during that time. In this quest for perfection, man began exploring an idea called eugenics, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the science of improving [a population] by breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable characteristics.” Eugenics was a question of whether, in creating the most efficient society, man could also create the most efficient man by breeding out “undesirable” traits. While the study of eugenics on humans after the horrific ethnic cleansings of the last century (most notably the Holocaust) has fallen out of public favor, it is an idea that has remained alive and well for dogs.

While cats and other domesticated pets have also seen a boom in breed variety, there is a greater variety in dogs than in any other mammal. This is because dogs possess uniquely malleable DNA that allows specific genetic traits such as size, temperament, snout shape, tail length, etc. to be easily altered by selective breeding. In just a few short generations and breeding cycles, humans are now able to breed the perfect dog to suit their needs. But what is the effect on dogs as a whole?

A documentary produced by the BBC entitled Pedigree Dogs Exposed explores some of the downsides of human meddling in animal affairs in this arena. The film illustrates that, while humans are selectively mating dogs for specific traits, this has the unintended side effect of also breeding dogs for any negative traits that may come along with those genes. And as the breeding for the desired trait continues and becomes more focused, the harmful trait also becomes more focused. In creating the custom-made pooch, humans may also be creating genetically unhealthy animals.

This creates an interesting dilemma: humans have created an infinitely customizable pet, and yet, in our increasingly self-centered modern world of personalized technology and instant gratification, where will the customization all end? When does the welfare of the animal become more important than the aesthetic desires of his master?

Margaret Cavendish’s “The Hunting of the Hare”

Here at the Museum, we’re interested both in how animals have changed our human society, as well as the effect humans have had on animal society. Today, our newest education intern Karly Abreu offers us a look at Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673), a poet and early advocate for animal welfare.

Margaret Cavendish. Image via Wikipedia.

Margaret Cavendish. Image via Wikipedia.

In her day, Margaret Cavendish was an unusual woman. She was a member of the English aristocracy, known popularly as the Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. She was an accomplished writer in a variety of genres, being a pioneer of science fiction but also well known for prolific philosophy and poetry. Highly logical, she was also a scientist. She was, most notably, one of the earliest supporters of animal welfare.

During Cavendish’s lifetime, the late 1600s and early 1700s, animal welfare was considered a trivial subject. English society generally agreed upon the idea that man had dominion over beast, and left it at that. Cavendish, as a scientific mind, believed that animals had intelligence and wisdom that was beyond the human ability. She rejected the idea that God’s gift of the soul was only given to man.

While her ideas on animal nobility are prevalent in her 1666 novel The Blazing World, which features a world of human-animal hybrids, her ideas are most on display in her compelling poem “The Hunting of the Hare.”

Published in 1653, this poem is told from the point of view of a hare named Wat, and describes in detail the horror and helplessness Wat feels while being hunted. The poem both humanizes the hare by giving him palpable emotions and an identifiable name, and dehumanizes those hunting him by making them seem foreign and dangerous. In this way the poem builds much sympathy for the hare, and ends with an admonishment to consider God’s gift of animal life and the needless waste in sport hunting. It ends with a damning line that accuses men of a God complex and the sin of Pride:

[Man is] so Proud, that he only thinks to Live, / That God a God-like Nature him did give, / And that all Creatures for his Sake alone / Were made, for him to Tyrannize upon.

The poem was shocking at the time both for villainizing a common aristocratic sport and for calling attention to the livelihood of animals. This is a trend which Cavendish would carry through most of her writing, as in her similar poems “The Hunting of the Stag” and “Dialogue with an Oake,” as she continually criticized the faults of man against the nobility of nature. Perhaps too aristocratic to be considered merely an eccentric, Cavendish made waves in her social circles. Her connections and unique opinions even allowed her an audience with the Royal Society, a social circle known for their scientific experiments, many of which were done on animals.

While Cavendish did not change the laws, she was noble and respected enough to garner attention in her society and gain an audience with those most responsible for influencing said laws. In a time and place where neither women nor animals were taken very seriously, Margaret Cavendish accomplished much.

Ethics and Your Plate

The source allows use of image with credit to ...

Sows in Gestation Crates. Image via Wikipedia

Companion animals aside, the majority of Americans interact with animals on a daily basis primarily through their dietary choices. And in breaking down the numbers, where 10 billion land animals are slaughtered each year for consumption, food ethics and farm animal welfare become a very important discussion to be had in our society – one that affects many more animals than say those found in the nation’s shelters, parks, etc.

The Pew Charitable Trusts is “driven by the power of knowledge to solve today’s most challenging problems. Pew applies a rigorous, analytical approach to improve public policy, inform the public and stimulate civic life.” Realizing the vastly important role animal agriculture plays in society, a Commission was formed on Industrial Farm Animal Production (PCIFAP) to “conduct a comprehensive, fact-based and balanced examination of key aspects of the farm animal industry. Commissioners represent diverse backgrounds and perspectives and come from the fields of veterinary medicine, agriculture, public health, business, government, rural advocacy and animal welfare.”

By now, most Americans should be aware and concerned by industrial agriculture, an industry that keeps animals concentrated in factory-like warehouses and confined to a point where movement is severely restricted, and the issues it brings to the table. Public health, the environment, animal welfare and rural communities are all effected by the move towards raising animals in these concentrated systems rather than the traditional, extensive, decentralized family farm system.

In their latest report, Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America, The Trust recommends the following solutions to the problems, which you can read more about in their accessible Executive Summary:

  1. Phase out and then ban the non-therapeutic use of antimicrobials.
  2. Improve disease monitoring and tracking.
  3. Improve Industrial Farm Animal Production regulation.
  4. Phase out intensive confinement.
  5. Increase competition in the livestock market.
  6. Improve research in animal agriculture.

Do you think these six objectives, if met, will fix our broken food system?

NMAS recognizes the power of our food choices and the votes we cast (for better companies, values, nutrition…) with our dollars each time we make a purchase. With this in mind, we’re proud to announce the details on our Fall Lecture Series’ Symposium, Ethics and Your Plate: A Conversation on Animals and Food, taking place on Saturday, November 12th at the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum. We hope you can join us for this stimulating day that will explore contemporary issues surrounding animal agribusiness through presentations by speakers representing a variety of perspectives from vegan to the “ethical omnivore.”

When It Comes To Future-Planning, Are Humans Really Top Banana?

Meet the tayra. Image via Wikipedia.

Meet the tayra. Image via Wikipedia.

Anyone who has studied the basics of dog training knows that you shouldn’t discipline a dog for something it did an hour ago. Dogs live in the moment – they simply don’t know how to associate a reprimand now with something they did in the past. It’s a connection between cause and effect – past and present – an advanced understanding of linear time that, according to current scientific thought, humans have and most other animals don’t. In fact, this kind of cognition is one of the defining characteristics that make humans, human.

How, then, to explain a non-primate mammal which, much like a kid on the eve of the first day of school, packs its lunch the night before? In the current issue of the German life science journal Naturwissenschaften, zoologists Fernando G. Soley and Isaías Alvarado-Díaz describe the goal-directed behavior of the tayra, a large South American weasel which has been observed picking unripened, inedible plantains from trees and hiding them for later, returning for the fruit when it is ready to eat. This implies an understanding of cause and effect rarely observed in non-human animal cognition. Essentially what the tayras are doing is storing something which isn’t food (in that it is inedible) with the understanding that, in the near future, it will become food.

It is true that humans aren’t the only other species observed so far to be capable of future-planning. It’s an ability primates and some birds also possess. ScienceNOW, in its description of the tayra report, points to another researcher’s study of a captive chimpanzee who was observed casually caching rocks and chunks of concrete to throw at zoo visitors at a later time. It’s generally accepted that so-called “highly-advanced” non-humans – our fellow primates, super-intelligent birds like crows and ravens, and presumably cetaceans like whales and dolphins – have the ability to plan ahead. But if the tayra can also do it, what does this mean about our species’ confidence in our so-called “superior” cause-effect cognition, a defining characteristic of what sets humans apart from more “primitive” animals?

Tayra in Peru. Image via Smithsonian Wild.

Tayra in Peru. Image via Smithsonian Wild.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “How is the tayra storing plantains any different from a squirrel storing nuts?” The difference between the tayra’s behavior and that of other animals which hide food for later, according to Soley and Alvarado-Diaz, is that those other caches are just leftovers. A squirrel could just as easily eat those nuts now as he could later, but he doesn’t because he’s full. Whether the squirrel is anticipating a future dearth of food or that he’s going to want a little snack around 4AM isn’t yet known. What is known is that the tayra cannot eat the food he is storing at the time he is storing it; only at a future date does it become edible.

This interpretation of the tayra’s behavior is, for obvious reasons, fairly controversial. The biggest argument against the hypothesis of the tayra’s future-planning, at least amongst ScienceNOW’s well-informed commenters, is that what we are witnessing is simply natural selection at work. Tayras that were born with the instinct – not cognitive ability, instinct – to hide unripe plantains were successful and therefore selected for, and tayras that didn’t participate in this behavior were less successful and selected against. Chocking it up to mere Darwinian evolution removes the culpability (and capability) of individual tayras making conscious, planned, and informed decisions about what they do with their food.

But let me put it to you this way – who says that our own ability to plan for the future isn’t a naturally-selected instinct in itself? Darwinian evolution applies to all species, not just non-humans, who are still viewed by the vast majority of our species as non-thinking, instinct-driven automatons with no will or cognitive control over their own actions. But all species are products of the same process, the same “survival of the fittest” laws of natural selection and evolutionary success. Why not credit the tayra with the naturally-evolved, instinctual ability to plan ahead? What makes humans so afraid to acknowledge the effects of instincts on ourselves – and to acknowledge the possible presence of cognitive ability, similar to our own, in other animals?

An Eagle Hero

Old Abe the Screaming War Eagle of the Wiscons...

Image via Wikipedia

I treasure animal biographies that represent a little snippet of our nation’s history. Recently I was given a copy of the children’s book Old Abe, Eagle Hero which profiles the life of an incredible bald eagle named after President Abraham Lincoln.

The following re-telling is taken from the website of an old-time portrait company named after the famous bird –

Old Abe, the American War Eagle, was the mascot of the 8th Wisconsin Regiment in the Civil War. He had been captured in the spring of 1861 from a nest in a tall pine tree in northern Wisconsin.  A Native American named Oge-ma-wa-ge-jig took him from the nest, and the eagle was later sold to a local farmer, Dan McCann, in exchange for a bushel of corn.

Dan McCann later presented the eagle to Captain John E. Perkins of the Eau Claire Badgers,Company C of the 8th Regiment. In honor of President Lincoln, they named him
“Old Abe”.

As the newly formed company made its way to Madison,Wisconsin in the fall of 1861, word spread that they were carrying a live eagle at their head. Thousands gathered in La Crosse to see the eagle, and the scene repeated itself in Madison when they arrived at Camp Randall in September 1861.

From this time on, the Wisconsin Eagle Regiment became known all through the army, and to the Confederates as well. Old Abe was not just a mascot, but became a patriotic symbol for the entire nation. Confederate General Price ordered his men to try to capture or kill Old Abe, adding that he would rather get that bird than a whole regiment.

Old Abe was in thirty-nine battles during the Civil War including Fredericktown, and the Siege of Vicksburg. One of the Wisconsin soldiers at the Siege of Vicksburg was a young soldier named Henry Hamilton Bennett.

After the Civil War, Old Abe was given a permanent home in the Wisconsin State Capitol building in Madison. He was a popular attraction and was viewed by thousands. He was also taken to various parts of the United States, being in great demand all over. He attended national conventions, was taken to the great Centennial Exposition in 1876 at Philadelphia and other noted gatherings, where he was the center of attraction.

In 1879, H. H. Bennett visited the capital to take stereo photos of Old Abe, one of which is shown on this page.  It was one of his most popular images.

Just two years later, a small fire in the capitol building near Old Abe’s cage created so much smoke, that Old Abe was nearly suffocated. While he survived the fire, he never fully recovered.  A few days later, on March 26, 1881, he expired in the arms of his keeper, George Gillies.

That’s a wrap!

NOAA agent counting confiscated shark fins.

Image via Wikipedia

Countless global citizens have been made more aware of shark behavior, anatomy and their plummeting populations as Shark Week 2011 wraps up. But what do we do with this information?

Animal advocates across the oceans are calling on people to voice their concerns on one significant issue that has decimated shark numbers: shark fin soup. According to our neighbors, Shark Savers, a few towns over in Simi Valley, Calif.,

Research indicates that each year, the fins of up to 73 million sharks are harvested and sold, mostly for shark fin soup. Together with other forms of shark fishing, including unintentional ‘bycatch’, over 100 million sharks are being killed each year.

Shark fin soup, which can run $80 a serving, is considered a gourmet delicacy in high societies of China and here in North America too among Chinese-American communities. It’s also considered a cultural legacy with health-benefiting properties and is popularly offered at weddings and banquets.

The “harvesting” of shark fins isn’t a pretty process. After having their fins removed, these  sharks are typically still alive and unable to swim. They are tossed back into the ocean where they slowly sink toward the bottom and are eaten alive by other fish. Other sea animals are also effected by the methods used for capturing sharks. We’ll let you explore that on your own.

But the question to be asked is: Is it a fundamental cultural right to use animals – despite their endangered status – for consumption? Leeway has been made for native tribes that have depended upon whale meat for centuries, despite the endangered status of certain whales. On the other hand, some traditions that have long existed and were thoroughly weaved into society’s fabric, such as eating dogs and even veal, have been not only challenged, but expunged and are now looked upon universally (with a few exceptions) with distaste. Will that be the case with sharks?

Do we have the right to dictate what another culture is allowed or forbidden to consume? In this global society and marketplace, how much of your response depends on where the animals used for food come from? Are the oceans and its inhabitants up for grabs? Does locavorism need to come into the discussion?

If you’re in California, you may be interested in Bill AB 376, which would ban the possession, sale, and trade of shark fins in the state. Find out how you can get a hold of your senator on this issue and express your concerns.

It’s Shark Week!

Great white shark. Photo by Terry Goss, copyri...

Image via Wikipedia

Don’t you just love products and legacies of the 1980’s? Bad hair, neon colors, and New Kids on the Block; the list goes on… and on. Come 1987 and we have the first ever Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. This week-long series of action-packed TV programming has now become the longest running thematic event on cable and is aired in 72+ countries.

And there’s little wonder why; sharks have notoriously held a mysterious and threatening mystique in coastal and landlocked cultures alike for eons. Jaws of steel, piercing eyes, and powerful bodies add up to a worthy predator, one of the few that could – in theory and, to a small degree, actuality – prey on people. Through several decades of recent research and study, scientists are discovering that we (humans and sharks) are more alike on the genetic and cellular levels than we thought:

  • A 2006 University of FL (Go Gators!) report outlined that humans and sharks shared a common ancestor some 450 million years ago. During their hunts, sharks capitalize on their cells which are programmed to detect electrical signals emitted from their prey. These cells apparently also fashioned human cranial and facial features. Do you think we look shark-like?
  • Our immune systems are similar. Like mammals, sharks have all four types of blood cells.
  • Researchers at the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Singapore have found that genetic sequences in humans and elephant sharks are very similar as are sets of genes on chromosomes. We also share certain physiological and biochemical processes, including internal fertilization and live births.

Research is also explaining away or at least providing insight into the number of unprovoked shark attacks which still feed our shark-as-predator hysteria. The warming of waters through climate change may be driving sharks to new hunting grounds, food may be more readily available inland than in open waters , and some scientists argue that sharks are developing an affinity for human flesh. A leading proponent of the latter is Mexico’s Jose Leonardo Castillo who says that crime lords that dump human bodies into the ocean are fostering a shark’s palate for people.

Regardless, the facts still point out that shark attacks are rare and when they do occur it’s usually a case of mistaken identity, e.g. – a surfer lying flat atop his or her board looks an awful lot like a seal, from a shark’s point of view.

Happy Shark Week! I hope you’ll enjoy our shark-themed blog entries this week and will spend a little time exploring our interactions with sharks either on your own or through the Discovery Channel’s website or cable channel. So much to learn about these fascinating animals, and how we can live harmoniously.