Thursday, March 2, 2006

63. Our treatment must evolve

My best friend, Easton, whose age now wears a distinguished graying about his face, engages in a ritualistic howling at the siren sound of ambulances and police cars. Nose postured to the heavens, he belts out an uninhibited, long-winded yell- whose distinct tone is capable of being heard several houses down the road. Despite the fact that in a nice sweater and glasses he looks like a well-aged college professor, his animalistic digression reminds me that his genetic history still leans to his seemingly ancient evolution from the wolf. For, as the experts explain it, howling is a type of communication in response to what the dog believes is a call from another dog that is far away. Wolves apparently use it when they become separated from their pack as a way of reuniting.

My wife and I find the endeavor amusing, to say the least- first attempting to contain our laughter and then, embarrassingly and mockingly, joining in. Unfazed by our playful shenanigans, Easton fully commits to this practice until the siren reaches an inaudible distance. As we emerge from this evolutionary parade, Easton seems to awake from the sleepwalking state with a matter-of-fact type pose that says, "An evolved-wolf's gotta do what an evolved wolf's gotta do!"

Sometimes it is easy to forget that even our most civilized canines are still animals- encoded with over 40 million years of genetic traits and tendencies. In fact, the DNA of wolves and dogs are still nearly identical. Their selection and success as a species, in respect to humans, is offered by several theories. The most popular suppose that wolf pups from thousands of years ago were adopted, with the least aggressive serving as the best companions, or, alternatively, that they evolved as a niche species living from human refuse. Either way, we are stuck with each other now, for dogs left to the wild today would have a pretty tough go at it- especially many of the specialty breeds that no longer have the talents necessary for survival. It seems man's best friend needs us now, as biologist James Serpell notes, "The domestic dog exists precariously in the no-man's-land between the human and nonhuman . . . neither person nor beast."

Unfortunately, this relationship can turn out to be confusing for both humans and the dog. Where exactly does the dog fit in the family unit? When is the dog supposed to act like a human and when is it permitted to act like an evolved wolf? One moment the dog is out hunting and fishing through mountains and streams with his "best friend," the next some little four-year old is smacking the dog upside its head for barking at the casual passerby. Likewise, some dogs make the family vacation to Florida, while others sit in the corner as an item of property utilized and cared for only when called upon.

The relationship, of course, is dependent upon one's attitude and understanding toward dogs specifically, and animals in general. As annoying as it can be when Easton and company are chasing other animals, knocking things over playing with each other, or barking at other dogs, I see them as engaged. As much as I do not want them to beg at the dinner table, I know they are acting on their most imprinted instincts. And, in a unique manner, I actually feel bad that they have to beg- for it seems demeaning for them to have such dependence on us, especially since I know that if left to them, they would be happy to go out and catch their own food. At the same time, in my hypocrisy, I am embarrassed and attempt to control them when their excitement for guests resembles a Barbarian attack on Rome.

In the treatment of our dogs, and other animals if we must keep them, I prefer the golden rule. Ask yourself, if you were a dog, how would you want to be treated. It is amazing that these animals, which provide unconditional love, companionship and loyalty, are so often neglected or mistreated. Our flawed perspective is that on one hand we both acknowledge and view them as "animals," then on the other, punish them when they act like one. Their unconditional love should be reciprocated; flaws and all, as both humans and canines work through this anomalous evolutionary relationship.

When the clouds darken and the rains threaten, the slightest thunder sends Easton, that favorite wolf descendant of mine, scampering to the smallest and darkest place in the house. Occasionally faced with exit impediments, such as a closed bathroom or basement door, his next option is at my feet, tightly curled and intensely shivering in fear. If he did not seem so embarrassed at the behavior, I might ask him about that wolf lineage. For how is it that far-off thunderstorms make evolved wolves such an emotional wreck.

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