Field & Street | Field & Street | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Field & Street

Field & Street


Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe


In these times of crime and the fear of crime it is important to remember that a dog can prevent the theft of your furniture but your furniture cannot prevent the theft of your dog.

This thought came to me while I was reading The Hidden Life of Dogs by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. The book is the story of a whole group of dogs that shared her house--actually a succession of houses--over a period of 15 years or so. She was not much into severe discipline for these dogs. She allowed the older generations to train their own pups, which they did quite satisfactorily, at least as far as house-training and other points of dog etiquette were concerned.

Dogs have no deeply ingrained taboos against climbing on the furniture, but they do have a culture. So if you trained one generation to stay off the couch, they might instruct their offspring to do the same. Marshall Thomas did not do this, so her dogs climbed all over the furniture. One even gave birth in her bed.

One of the reasons I was so charmed by this book was that I recognized a kindred spirit. In my own household the hierarchy places humans above animals, but the animals are definitely on top of the furniture--both figuratively and literally.

I keep a loose rein on the animals in part because I am disposed to prefer loose reins in most situations. But I also think that if I let the animals do more things, many of the things they do will give me pleasure. A lot of the fun of being around animals is that you get to see what they are thinking, and if you've got your dog trained like it's in the Prussian army, it is not going to reveal much.

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas's long-term study of the dogs of her household began when she agreed to take care of a two-year-old male Siberian husky named Misha while its owners were in Europe. Misha was a wanderer. On his first night in the Thomas household he jumped the back fence and took off. He returned in the morning, but the next night he was gone again.

Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the Thomases then lived, had a leash law, and they began to get complaints from around town about their wandering dog. The complaints showed that Misha was wandering quite a distance. Rather than build a taller fence, Marshall Thomas began to follow him, at first on foot and later on a bicycle. She discovered that he had a home range that covered about 130 square miles and that he wandered freely through it without getting himself killed in traffic, without eating poisoned bait that some people put out for raccoons, without getting mauled by other dogs, and, perhaps most remarkable, without getting lost. Some nights he trotted all the way to Concord, about 20 miles away, and successfully found his way back.

How he navigated over these long distances is a mystery. Other dogs in Marshall Thomas's household tried wandering and got lost with great regularity. They all wore tags with her name and phone number, and they learned that when they were lost they could sit on somebody's front porch until the porch's owner found them, read the tags, and called Marshall Thomas, who then came and picked them up.

Half a century ago, when men like Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen were founding the modern science of ethology, the study of animal behavior, they adopted a rigorous behaviorist stance. They would observe animals closely and record exactly what the animals did, but they would make no assumptions about the subjective experience of animals or about their consciousness. They would, in fact, assume that animals had no consciousness, that they responded automatically to whatever stimuli presented themselves.

This rigor was an essential corrective to older styles of observation that tried to fit animals into the categories of bourgeois society, but it could not survive the field experience of all the ethologists who were inspired by Lorenz and Tinbergen to spend years of their lives watching animals. Watch any group of animals--dogs, wolves, chimpanzees, even song sparrows--for any period of time, and you are bound to see individual differences. Smart ones, dumb ones, calm ones, excitable ones. Their responses to the world are not automatic. They represent, instead, reactions filtered through a specific, individual consciousness.

This is not to say that their consciousness is as complex as ours, but it does say that consciousness is not a unique attribute of people. It would be extraordinary if it were. As Marshall Thomas points out, "thoughts and emotions have evolutionary value.... Thought is an efficient, effective mechanism that we, and many other animals, would be hard put to do without."

Misha inspired Marshall Thomas to undertake a long-term study of him, his mate--another husky named Maria--their puppies, a dingo, a dingo-spaniel cross, a couple of pugs, and a sled dog from a village in Alaska. All of these animals shared the Marshall household, a fact that made studying them very convenient. The profound wish of any student of animal behavior is to be invisible. Working with a group of animals that are not afraid of you and that take your presence for granted is about as close as we regular humans can get to that goal.

During the course of her study the Thomases moved to rural Virginia, where the dogs were set up in a very large, fenced-in pen. There they lived in a sort of canine paradise. They formed their own society with the same sort of hierarchical arrangement that wolves create. The hierarchy produces social peace, according to Marshall Thomas, leaving each dog with a precise sense of its own position. Of course all of these animals were well fed and warmly housed. If your position in the hierarchy determines your chances of getting a square meal, social peace might be a little harder to come by.

Dogs have their own consciousness, Marshall concludes, and they also have their own culture. Culture is another of those traits that were long considered uniquely human but are now looking more like something we share with many other animals. I once interviewed Richard Thiel, a biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources whose job was to monitor the three remaining wolf packs in the state. One of his techniques was to trap the animals and equip them with radio collars so that he could follow their movements. But the animals in one of the packs learned to remove the collars. It took cooperation to do this. One wolf would have to chew through the collar on another wolf's neck. This cultural discovery was apparently passed from generation to generation in one pack, but was never discovered by the other two packs.

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas wrote about culture in lion prides in the Kalahari Desert in an article that ran in the New Yorker a few years ago. She spent part of her childhood there. Her parents were anthropologists who studied the Kung Bushmen. The Bushmen had no weapons capable of defending them from lions, but attacks were almost unheard of. Then in the 70s the area became a national park. Biologists moved in with a management scheme that required the "removal" of a large number of lions. After the removal attacks by lions on humans became alarmingly common. Marshall Thomas surmises that the removal of so many animals broke the cultural continuity that had enforced the long truce between lions and Bushmen.

I was reminded of her work by another excellent book, The Ninemile Wolves by Rick Bass. The Ninemile is a valley in western Montana. Wolves were wiped out throughout the west in a long campaign of persecution that paralleled the slaughter of the buffalo and the killing of most of the native human population. But populations remained in Canada, and animals from those northern packs have begun to move south. There are now established packs in Glacier National Park and increasing numbers of sightings in the mountains of western Montana and northeastern Idaho.

Bass's story is about a few animals that lived for a time in the Ninemile Valley. They didn't last long. Many local people were pleased to see them. Others were at least willing to tolerate them. But the state government-- listening to the most reactionary of the organized cattle ranchers-- wanted them out.

The biggest hazard these wolves face is human hostility. Most of the mortality we know of is caused by gunshots or poisons, although some animals get killed crossing highways.

The Montana wolves are even greater wanderers than Misha. They travel hundreds of miles, sometimes to move to a new place, sometimes, as far as we can tell, just for the sake of looking around. One of the Ninemile wolves was relocated all the way to Glacier National Park and managed to find her way back.

The book tells of the efforts of a few U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists to protect these wandering wolves and to encourage them, if such a thing is possible, to concentrate their hunting on deer, elk, moose, and other wild prey, and away from cows and sheep.

Encouraging that cultural development may require the shooting of maverick wolves and the relocation of others, but if it can be done it could point toward a way for wolves and ranchers to live side by side. As we learn more about how animals like wolves think, we have more reason to hope for such an outcome.

Add a comment