The Red Hourglass: Lives of the Predators - Gordon Grice (1999)
The trailer houses were packed close. Some of them hadn’t been leveled; most lacked numbers. The residents got their mail at boxes nailed to a hastily cobbled lumber frame down by the paved road. The weed-ridden strips of yard bore accumulations of junk. Everything about the place seemed to say, “We’re just doing this until we can get a permanent place.”
A cratered dirt drive ran before the trailers. By day, children played there. At night, the dogs took over. They brawled and barked, keeping the human residents awake. They raided the garbage. A few children had been bitten. The ranchers who owned nearby pastures said the dogs were running their cattle lean, and it was only a matter of time until they brought one down. A minor political squabble developed around the dogs, the ranchers blaming the owners of the trailer park. That battle was remote from my concern as I sat in one of the trailers one evening, playing cards with some friends who lived there.
A dogfight erupted just under the kitchen window. Dennis picked up his bow and his only remaining arrow and raced to the door.
I caught up to him standing on the front porch staring at the dogs. Their fight had subsided. There were ten or fifteen milling about. A big black mutt lay in the yard gnawing the children’s toy lawn mower with the side of his jaw. Dennis shouted a threat. The mutt growled back.
Dennis nocked, drew, and released. The dog ran off screaming. I saw the shaft protruding on both sides of his abdomen.
“Buffalo hunting,” a friend said when I told him about the incident. He knew two men who hunted trailer park strays as a hobby. They, too, used bow and arrow, since firing a gun in town was illegal. They used the code “buffalo hunting” to conceal their activities from others who wouldn’t understand.
“They have a point,” my friend said. “When you say ‘dog,’ most people think of a pet. Those packs of strays aren’t pets. They’d take you by the throat if you got too close.”
My grandmother had told me the same thing years before as we looked out the window of her trailer at two male dogs battling loudly around the hulk of a rusted-out Mustang. It must have been a fight for leadership. Their pack skirled around them, barking and kicking up dust devils. The combatants, a thin, pied mongrel and a scarred, blunt beast that might have been half boxer, yelped and tried to shield their genitals with their tails, each pushing in for a castrating bite.
A man who was training for Special Forces would tell me what he learned. Once it was about sneaking into a guarded building. The human obstacles, he said, were to be handled as one would expect: seized from behind, the throat slit. The canine guards could not be taken by surprise.
“Your big dogs go for the throat. I’m talking Doberman, German shepherd, most of the ones used as attack dogs. You put your arm up to protect your throat. You let him bite your arm, but you fall back with his momentum. As you fall, you put your other forearm just behind his head. As your back hits the ground, you’re bringing your knees and feet up to push him up over your head. Basically you’re giving him a monkey flip, and you’re holding your arms rigid. His mouth is hooked onto one arm, the other’s behind his neck, and as he flips his momentum snaps his spine. One dead dog. Not hard to do, but you have to sacrifice your arm. You’re okay if you’re wearing a thick jacket. If not, your arm gets pretty torn up. You could bleed to death.”
Killing a pet dog is an act in the realm of the holy. It is so uncomfortable that most people assign it to professionals who will do it out of sight and never make them see the carcass. We tell our children about it in guilty euphemisms. We say the dead dog has been “put to sleep,” as though he might wake and release us from the burden of that irrevocable act.
At the other end of this spectrum of dog-love, some believe a man owes his dying pet a death by its master’s hand. I know a man who was obliged to kill a dog he loved because it had hurt a child. He took the dog into the country—he wouldn’t hear of anyone else doing it. He took a gun and a shovel along, and when he returned he spent a week in a dark and silent mood. His wife says he kept the casing of the bullet.
Farmers and ranchers have codes for dealing with other people’s dogs. One man whose bitch had been courted by the neighboring males took offense when a certain male turned up wounded and he was mentioned as the shooter. He might very well have shot an intruding dog, he said; but he wouldn’t have unless he were certain of a killing shot. His point was this: A man’s property rights outweigh the life of a dog, but no one has the right to make a dog suffer.
A neighbor’s border collie once took some of my family’s chickens. I would go outside to find a white leghorn lying in the drive, the feathers of its neck frosted with fine drying droplets of blood, and the hen, moments from death, would raise its head to look at me. “I don’t have any chickens I can learn him off of,” the dog’s owner said. “I won’t fuss if you have to kill him.”
The city dweller’s desire to distance himself from the killing of his own dog and the farmer’s ethical code for it: both are signs of a deep reverence.
When we hate the dog, we do so not only because it’s dangerous but also because it has stepped outside the role we want it in, that of loyal friend to humans. The dog’s loyalty is a commonplace, a homily, a fact too obvious for notice. It is also the signpost of an odd quirk of evolution.
Gray cinder block walls; oil stains on the cement floor, some of them peppered with absorbent gravel; toolboxes; a greasy workbench mounted with a heavy vise. My father’s shop. From a rafter hung a cord that ended in a droplight, which was in my father’s hand. My uncle was there too, and they worked together in the pool of harsh light surrounded by darkness, the black hair of their thick forearms gleaming with sweat. Their tools were a length of elm branch and a pair of pliers.
The men occasionally gave each other suggestions. The only other sounds were the snarling and whimpering of the dogs. My father would seize a dog and hold it down, levering its mouth open with the branch. My uncle would move in with the light and the pliers. Jutting from the black-and-pink flesh of the dogs’ mouths were the quills of a porcupine—long, flexible needles terminating in splintered fishhooks.
The miniature bloodhound was first. He struggled and growled against my father’s grip while my uncle sank the pliers into his mouth. It seemed a tableau of dentistry in hell. The other two dogs moved to the edge of the circle of light and stood with their tails alternately between their legs and wagging in appeasement. I thought, why do they stand there waiting for it to happen to them? I knew it was supposed to be for their own good, but how could they know?
In the morning my mother showed my sister and me a little plastic pumpkin—it was nearly Halloween. In the pumpkin were a dozen brown-and-white quills. When we went outside the dogs were happy to see us, as though everything were the same.
One thing the dogs did for us was to reveal the other life around us: the nocturnal animals we rarely saw, the burrowing animals only they could hear and smell, the distant things making sounds imperceptible to us. We rarely saw raccoons, until the dogs showed them to us. Raccoons weren’t especially common in our part of the state, where trees were scarce; we only saw them occasionally on a long drive home at night—the sudden fire of fractured amber that must be the eyes, a thick grayish body bounding across the dirt road, fast enough to blur, though the headlights somehow made it seem suspended in the dusty air.
The dogs would scent them at evening, and a chase would begin—the raccoon somewhere ahead, beyond my sight; the old dwarf bloodhound leading the pursuit, his crumpled lip and throaty growl announcing his intention to kill; the lean, lupine border collie at his hip, faster than the leader but lagging to show respect, barking to keep the slower animals apprised of the quarry’s location; the indefatigable short-legged mongrel with the skunk tail a few steps behind, also barking; my older sister a few yards behind, covering ground with her long-legged strides, sometimes followed by a few cousins or friends; and me, the slowest of the pack. We humans, even at our age, thought the dogs were serving us. I wonder how we held this conclusion as we labored to keep up with them on a hunt the bloodhound had devised.
Such hunts happened dozens of times in my childhood, and the archetypal example that has crystallized from the mix of details in my memory involves irrigation pipes. These aluminum tubes, stacked like cord-wood, each big enough to hold a human head, always seemed to be lying around somewhere waiting to be installed; I don’t know how the crops ever got irrigated. The quarry—it might be a jackrabbit or a cottontail, a raccoon or a possum or a porcupine—dashed into a pipe. The dogs rushed along the open ends of the pipes—not looking, but smelling—until they had found the one that sheltered the animal. If they couldn’t find it quickly, they would pause in their sniffing. The mutt and the bloodhound had floppy ears; I could see the cartilage of those ears moving slightly. The border collie’s ears would abandon their usual submissive backslant and stand up, rotating to triangulate.
That did the trick: all three dogs suddenly knew exactly where the prey was. They split up to cover both ends of the pipe. Then they barked into it, their manic cries echoing from the sheet metal buildings nearby. They pushed their snouts into the pipe (the bloodhound always first) and their cries were trapped in the pipe; we could touch the pipe and feel it vibrating with the sound. I imagined the raccoon curled in the middle of the pipe, as distant as possible from both ends, his gut shaking in time to the threats against his life.
The raccoons were always smart enough to stay in the pipe and wait, even through hours of barking. We poked at them with sticks and hurled rocks into the echoing pipe. Once, early in the morning, I found a sparkle of blood on the lip of an irrigation pipe among the beads of dew. The raccoon we had harassed for ninety futile minutes the night before had finally walked away during the night, after we had all, canine and human, lost interest. He had taken some sort of wound during the harassment, but had sat still for his only chance of surviving.
The possums also knew they’d better not stop to fight the dogs. They would curl up and cling tight to something inside the pipe. We couldn’t move them an inch even by tilting the pipe. Once it was an albino possum. As he reached the pipe ahead of the bloodhound, he looked back at us with his mad crimson eyes, baring his milky teeth and hissing. He looked like a demon with leprosy. Possums will sometimes back up such threats with action, but this one must not have liked the odds. He disappeared into the pipe.
Rabbits could sometimes be spooked out of the irrigation pipes; they were faster than possums and raccoons, but, judging from the number the dogs caught, I think their tendency to abandon cover was really a sign of lower intelligence. The rabbits would run in zigzags, a strategy for evading single predators that rarely saved them from the three dogs giving chase as a team. The old bloodhound would put on a burst of speed, prompting the rabbit to spring sideways. The other dogs would be running behind and to the sides; the rabbit would often jump directly into the jaws of one or the other. This dog would seize the rabbit by the neck. Then the bloodhound would rush in snarling, take a mouthful of rabbit, and pull away from his colleague. As a child, I thought the older dog was trying to take the rabbit away from the younger. Years later, when I saw other groups of dogs hunting in the same way, I realized that this pattern is actually a killing tactic.
The second dog to score a bite, usually on the rump, tail, or hind leg, pulls away from the first to stretch and bend the prey’s spine. Both dogs shake their heads, which makes them appear to be wrestling each other for the prey; maybe they really are. But they’re also cooperating to break the spine. If the first biter has a grip on the throat, the dogs’ pulling away from each other strangles the prey.
Another advantage of the dogs’ tug-of-war is defensive. When stretched, a prey animal has less chance of clawing or biting the dogs. As the dogs continue to pull, their tug-of-war makes their teeth tear the flesh. Other pack members try to get in a good bite. Sometimes you can see the struggling dogs working their jaws around on the prey, finding a grip that will drive deep into soft flesh. The prey bleeds until it falls into shock. It is defenseless and ready for death.
In India, the dog of the streets belongs to no particular breed. It is a tan, short-haired, generic-looking creature, and is generally held in contempt. Where the human population thins a bit, the dogs (they are called dholes) run in wild packs. They snip the sides of fleeing deer until the guts are exposed, then latch onto a bite of intestine and change direction. The bowels come raveling out; like the human body, the deer’s contains a startling yardage of gut in a small space.
It is a painful way to die, as Elizabethan annals of crime and punishment testify. Traitors were hanged for a few minutes of kicking strangulation, then cut down, still alive, to watch themselves castrated. Finally, the torturer (it was a profession of sorts) sliced into the traitor’s belly to reveal the intestines, which he grasped with tongs and drew out. This invariably proved fatal, though usually not quickly. The purpose of this regimen was maximum pain.
It is often the way of death for victims of the dhole— not just the drawing, but also the castration, which the dhole’s jaws may accomplish during the chase or after. If events fall mercifully, the jaws may strangle the prey to death early on. Or the animal may be brought down by the drawing, to watch as the pack eats him alive.
The dog of the Middle East also is a pariah, a wild scavenger usually not attached to particular humans. It is regarded with revulsion at least as ancient as the Old Testament, which declares the dog an unclean animal, not fit for eating. (If you’re surprised the question even came up, consider the Aztecs, who fattened dogs as livestock before eating them.) It serves humans in a detested, but useful, role, as a roving garbage disposal. Meat unfit for human consumption is tossed to the dogs, as are table scraps.
The Bible persistently uses the dog as a metaphor for contempt. The starving beggar Lazarus is so low even the dogs lick him. Goliath thinks David shows him the disrespect owed a dog by coming armed only with a sling and stones. Even when doing some useful job, like guarding a flock, the dog is held in contempt, its name consistently linked with dung or vomit. It is also feared as a pack-hunter not averse to taking human prey.
The dog’s poor reputation in the Middle East stems from the same source as the pig’s: both animals scavenged human corpses. The Hebrew God’s punishment for rulers who defy Him is that after they and their families are killed, their corpses lie unburied. The Old Testament describes dogs and birds eating such corpses. The Bible repeatedly refers to dogs licking up human blood.
The biblical Jezebel is thrown from a high window to shatter on the flagstones below, and when the men go to dispose of her corpse, they find the stray dogs have left only her skull, her feet, the palms of her hands.
When I was a child, the predatory tactics of our dogs made me think about the differences between wild animals and domestic ones. So did the long, bloody leg bones of cattle we sometimes found in our yard, the dogs snapping at each other briefly to establish the right of gnawing out the marrow.
But I really got interested in the wild and the tame at bedtime, when the howling began.
It would start somewhere out on the plains, a sound like the otherworldly cry of the owl compounded with unspeakable loneliness. It would double, as if the same coyote suddenly stood in two places; choruses would join in; voices would compete to scramble over each other, then suddenly fall into harmony. Then, close to the house, the dogs would howl, each dog’s voice recognizable and distinct.
I’d seen a few coyotes by day. The dogs would suddenly stop whatever they were doing and stand gazing toward something unseen in the prairie grass. The bloodhound would bark—low, inquisitive, with a touch of menace. All three dogs would burst into a run. The coyote would appear far away, bounding in and out of the grass as he ran, the dogs pursuing. The coyotes were fast. Their appearance was only a second ahead of their disappearance. Sometimes a coyote came for the chickens in the night. My father would rush out with a rifle, warned by the dogs.
So coyote and dog were enemies. Yet I had seen a dog in town that my grandmother pointed out as part coyote. My uncle had shot a raiding coyote once, and when we saw the carcass up close it had long reddish hair like a collie: further evidence of crossbreeding. And when coyote and dog howled together in the night, it didn’t sound like an exchange of threats. It sounded like a shared song.
The coyote can live where people can’t, and even where wolves can’t. He inhabits the desert, but also survives in snow. He dwells in the banks of rivers unseen by human eyes, but also walks into cities in daylight to scavenge human garbage. The coyote flees from our gaze, but never leaves our lands. He comes back when we sleep to take a lamb or a calf. He raises his cubs within our hearing. He knows us, and fears us only within reason. He knows our guns kill only along the lines of sight.
In Spanish his name has come to mean “crafty.” He knows how to kill rattlesnakes without getting hurt. He knows how to catch rabbits by driving them until they hit their territorial boundaries—a male rabbit will not intrude on the territory of another male, even to save himself from being eaten. The coyote tracks wolves to scavenge their kills. He doesn’t eat the kills of cougars unless he’s desperate, because cougars are more likely to track him down and take revenge.
Coming from a country graveyard one cool Memorial Day, I saw a coyote on a mudflat near a streaming ditch. The face and legs seemed delicate, as if they might prove smooth and ceramic to the touch. The body looked too thick for those slim extremities, encased in too large a coat, and the tail hung back and down, thick as a haunch. The coyote did not break into undulant bounds, or jet out, but walked away, the slender legs working in rapid, perfect coordination, like an insect’s, the furred body gliding forward. A second coyote I hadn’t noticed followed the first one into the grass; a third turned to look at the car before he joined them.
The coyote’s equivalent in the Old World is the jackal—some jackals are indistinguishable from coyotes by sight, and they may really be the same animal. The biblical abhorrence of the dog extends to the jackal. In the Old Testament, he wanders the streets of ruined cities, a metaphor of desolation strangely echoed in the Egyptian god of the underworld, a man’s body with the head of a jackal. Job evokes his desolation by claiming brotherhood with the jackal. (Some translations confusingly call the jackal “dragon,” a term also used for some great reptile.) In Revelations, the jackal is the mother of the Antichrist, the root of apocalyptic evil.
I came to Philip and Alberta Hart’s house to see captive wolves. As I reached the front door, I glimpsed them in the yard: three white wolf-dog hybrids and a pure white wolf, blizzarding around each other behind the fence. Their tongues lolled and their tails wagged before they whirled out of sight.
Philip Hart took me into the yard to see them up close. The pure wolf, a waist-high male, ran at me. He was a lithe seventy-five pounds, not especially large for a wolf, but bigger than most dogs. I offered him a smell of my closed hand, as I would a strange dog. His perfect teeth were white, not even slightly yellow, and his coat was an unbroken white too. He took my hand in his mouth and held it there. The point of one long canine tooth rested on the knuckle of my forefinger, and further back another tooth clicked against my wedding band. I told him how handsome he was. His mouth had no trouble accommodating my fist. I took a good look at the carnassial teeth on the side of his jaw, the specialized ones with which a wolf shears meat from a carcass. I didn’t think he would have much trouble removing my hand.
“He’s being friendly,” Hart said. “If he wanted to hurt you, he would have come at you with his mouth closed.” The wolf released my hand and put his fore-paws on my chest, standing on his hind legs to look me in the eye. I thought I should have been terrified, but I wasn’t. I could read the wolf’s body language. It was the same language dogs use, a language people read without thinking about it. Posture, tail, ears, and hackles had told me I was never in danger.
Eventually I got around to asking my host about the danger of wolf-dog hybrids. He raised and sold hybrid pups. Hybrids had been in the news because a few had killed human children. States were passing laws to limit the percentage of wolf blood allowed in a pet.
“That’s the wrong idea,” he said. “People think the hybrid goes crazy and kills because the wild wolf genes eventually express themselves. But wolves don’t kill people; dogs do.” He was right. In the United States, domestic dogs kill more people than rattlesnakes, venomous spiders, stinging insects, bears, or sharks. Dogs, in fact, are second only to humans as killers of humans. Pure wolves, wild or captive, kill people so rarely it’s hard to find authentic cases. Of all the dangerous animals that are supposed to fear humans innately, the wolf is the one whose fear has been documented. Scientists tracking the movements of wolves find they sometimes abandon great tracts of land so they’ll never have to cross a human scent trail.
“The hybrid has the wolf’s instinct for establishing its dominance, plus the dog’s lack of fear for man,” Hart continued. “The more wolf you put into a hybrid, the safer he is. The closer he is to fifty percent, the more likely he is to kill somebody. I don’t even do many fifty-fifty crosses anymore. My crosses are wolf father, hybrid mother, so you get a high percent wolf.”
More than a century ago, Native American and European American were spilling blood for the Great Plains, a country whose plant eaters were culled by wolf and cougar, black bear and coyote, eagle and owl and rattlesnake. The land was pocked with the vast cities of the prairie dog, cities whose population could run into the billions. But the animal that dominated any traveler’s sense of the Plains was the bison. It moved in uncountable herds whose wallowing and walking and pawing shaped geography, whose thirsts controlled the surface water as much as storm and stone did, whose carcasses sustained predator and scavenger.
A bull bison is massive, providing enough meat to feed a tribe for days. It’s powerful enough to pulverize an intruding human. Back then, people would occasionally see, among the bison herd, one male far larger than all the others. This monster, when brought down for his hide or his meat, would prove to be a eunuch. Castrating a male bovine makes him grow bigger. That’s why beef sold in stores comes from steers, which are castrated males.
The giant bison were survivors of wolf attacks. A single nip during a chase was enough to sheer the testicles off.
When a wolf pack tackles a large herbivore, there is a pause before the chase, a moment when potential killer and potential prey eye each other, as if making a pact to play their roles. The herbivore that buckles and runs has signed a contract.
Wolves can run for miles. They take turns resting while pack mates harry the prey. This tactic multiplies the wolf’s individual stamina, so that few herbivores escape a wolf pack by tiring it out. The pack can take down a moose or a bison when it’s exhausted and some of the wolves are fresh.
A favorite killing move for wolves is to tear at the windpipe. Another is to spill a lot of blood. As the herbivore runs from the pack, he leaves his vulnerable sides and rear open to quick bites. The bite of a wolf, even on the run, does heavy damage, and an accumulation of bite injuries drops the prey: shock, caused by loss of blood.
The house had been expanded down the mountain. I descended sets of steps between rooms. There seemed to be a lot of rooms. Finally I reached a sliding glass door, and out the door I saw two wolves standing in the dark. I had come to visit Bud and Nancy Saunders, who kept the wolves. Moments before I arrived, the couple said, a small herd of deer had crossed the pasture, and the wolves had howled. Nancy handed me a tape recorder cued up to an old recording of the wolves’ own howls. Play it to them, Bud said; maybe they’ll talk back. I pressed PLAY.
The sound from the recorder was thin, mechanical. The echo that broke from the wolves’ throats to envelop the smaller sound was fluid, beautiful. It woke in me something close to fear, but quieter. It was like the coyote song I remembered, though fuller and deeper. It seemed to have a current of meaning flowing just beyond my grasp.
When they let the wolves in, I sat on the floor before the fire, which brought auburn highlights out of their gray-brown overcoats. I scratched each wolf on the chest. Their coats were deep. I would lose my hands in them and bring them out slick with the oil and smell of wolf. When I got involved listening to Bud and Nancy, I stopped scratching one of the wolves. She wrapped her huge paw around my wrist and pulled. I resumed scratching. Their paws are more prehensile than a dog’s, Nancy confirmed. They clamp their front legs around the necks of big herbivores and score the flesh like cats.
I looked at a wolf and saw something I’d never seen in a dog’s eye: my reflection. “That’s because she’s looking you in the eye,” Nancy said. “Dogs don’t. They’re submissive to humans. Wolves aren’t, not permanently.”
“These aren’t pets,” Bud added. “Dogs are pets. They think you’re the master. Wolves think you’re a pack mate. Leadership in a pack is always open to challenge.”
I asked them if they’d ever been challenged. Nancy told about a time she’d fallen in the presence of the wolves. One of them came for her. Nancy came up slugging. The skirmish was over in a second, with no one really hurt. Nancy said if she had hesitated to hit the wolf, things could have been very different. Some wolf owners make a policy of thrashing the animal thoroughly the first day he comes to live with them, just so the hierarchy is clear.
There’s a pattern in the attacks of captive wolf-dog hybrids: they go after children who fear them, or adults who show weakness—a limp, a stumble, anything to tell them their time to rise in the pack hierarchy is at hand.
We have always forced the other inhabitants of our planet into roles of our own scripting. The scripted roles come in obvious packaging, like the biblical portrayal of the snake or the moral-laden animals of Aesop’s fables. They also come in subtler forms: every encounter with an animal holds shades of meaning cast not by the immediate circumstances, but by books, folklore, even the tired metaphors of our language. In fact, we interpret most of our interactions with animals symbolically, inflecting them with anthropocentric emotion. I know men who pursue the killing of snakes as if each one embodied satanic evil. When I trap a mouse in my house, I feel as if I’ve triumphed over a burglar. Surely my pleasure in watching a hawk has something to do with the freedom I half-consciously allow it to symbolize.
The wolf is embedded in human history so deeply his truth may never come clear. In Western perception he has been demon, devourer of human flesh, and raider of stock. He has also been an alter ego: the werewolf as emblem of human pleasure in sin, the berserker as emblem of human prowess in war. Americans conflate the wolf with wilderness and Native peoples to symbolize noble savagery, a myth that has antecedents in the wolf-suckled builders of Rome, in the stories of feral children nurtured in lupine dens. For some people, saving him from extinction is a step toward redemption for our ecological and genocidal sins. I often notice such people disparaging the coyote in favor of the wolf, as if the smaller canid’s continued success, his talent for exploiting human proximity, were a sellout—to whom or what is never clear.
The wolf’s power to make us imagine is a function of taboo and danger. Our ancestors saw him among the corpses after battles, eating human flesh. He learned from that our darkest secret: that we are good to eat. But that was only a rediscovery of a fact he knew before we learned to write things down.
Species distinctions among wolves, coyotes, and jackals are often based on size—the coyote is smaller than the red wolf, which is smaller than the timber wolf. The standard species divider for animals in general is interbreeding: if two animals can copulate and thereby produce fertile offspring, they are of the same species. Horses and asses are different species because, although they can produce offspring together, the offspring, mules, are usually sterile. With the canids, this test yields confusing results. Wolves, dogs, jackals, and coyotes can interbreed into many different hybrids. Some breeds of dog are even said to cross with foxes.
The canids challenge our concept of species. Intuitively we perceive them as different from each other, but their frequent interbreedings mark them as identical species. Meanwhile, the dog, which we accept as a single species, shows more range of body style and behavior than can be found between, for example, wolves and coyotes. There are tiny dogs bred to sit in idle laps; there are huge ones bred for killing lions, boars, tigers, and wolves. There are swift ones bred for hunting coyote: they stretch and savage the quarry as other dogs would a rabbit, but they don’t eat him. He’s too much like a dog, and even his butchered and disguised flesh seems to invoke a canine taboo.
We used to breed great mastiffs to carry harnessed lances and pots of burning tar among enemy armies. Caesar’s spirit will “Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war,” Shakespeare’s Mark Antony says, not altogether figuratively. Dogs are bred for everything from hauling to scenting to herding to burrowing after badgers. Their bodies have taken diverse shapes to mirror their jobs.
The boundaries of canine species constitute a mystery in which we are intimately involved, and its roots reach into prehistory.
When predators come out of the trees, they change.
There was, forty million years ago, a primeval carnivore, ancestor to the ones we know today, the animals like wolf, tiger, otter, wolverine, skunk, and all the others that shear the meat from the bodies of other animals with a scissorslike modification of the side teeth. The primeval carnivore lived in jungles, climbing trees with its formidable claws, finding prey with its sharp senses and its stalking skills. Its evolution took two different paths. One branch stayed in the trees, maintaining the solitary life of a climbing hunter that can still be seen today in the leopard and the feral cat.
The other branch came down to the ground, where it eventually diverged further to fill many ecological niches, from the omnivorous lifestyle of the bear to the semiaquatic habits of the otter.
But the divergence from this branch that interests me here is the one that became canid. The wrists that had flexed for climbing in the primeval carnivore stiffened for running, because the canid line specialized in running down prey. That specialty affected more than the structure of the limbs. It led to cooperation in hunting. Stalking had worked in the trees, but on open savanna the chase was everything, and predators in groups could chase more effectively than solitary ones.
Cooperation in hunting led to an elaborate social structure. Wolf society is built around extended families: a dominant couple of breeders, a system of care in which the young grow into supportive subordinates or else leave the pack to join another, an elaborate body language, a vocal language, gestures of appeasement and unity and anger.
The same pattern has recurred several times. The cat line diverged again later to produce the hyenas, which developed into running, gang-fighting predators with an elaborate social system. Later still, another group of cats, this one staying anatomically close to the ancestral line, came down to the savannas. The lion is a social pack-hunter, unlike other cats.
The cat lifestyle never ceased to be workable, though. The fox rediscovered the ways of his precanid ancestors. His behavior is more like a cat’s than a dog’s: solitary except to breed, a stalker instead of an endurance runner, a climber of trees, an eater of mice and grubs; his tiny kits are the prey of the owl and the eagle.
The general canid pattern is pervasive enough to crop up in other, unrelated lines. Baboons have not only the social structure but even some of the anatomy of dogs, to which they aren’t related—an example of convergent evolution. The obvious case among primates, however, is the human line. We, too, descended from trees, became hunters of fleet ungulates, and consequently developed a complex social system.
The similarities between human and wolf are profound: vocal language, complex society, body language so similar we can read each other, a deep predatory pleasure in killing that causes both species to sometimes slaughter far more than necessary. The affinity runs deep in our patterns of development. Both animals have clumsy young with large heads and feet. Adults respond protectively to children of their species, but the cues that cause the response are general enough to transcend species. That’s why humans are capable of adopting puppies. There’s evidence (though disputed) that wild wolves sometimes protect human children, presumably because of the same broad instincts.
Wolves and humans both go through phases of intense learning in particular areas. Certain tasks have to be learned during these “imprinting” phases, or they will never be learned at all. For wolves, hunting is an imprintable skill. For humans, language is one. But a canid’s hunting instinct can, during imprinting, be modified to fit the society it’s in. For example, it can be trained to serve human wants.
These affinities make it possible for human and wolf to mingle in a hybrid society. One more ingredient completes this symbiosis: neoteny, the retention of juvenile traits into later life. For the dog, as for the pig, neoteny is an evolutionary shortcut. It allows the animal to pluck adaptations from anywhere in its individual development, without having to evolve them gradually. It’s what separates the dog from the wolf. The dog is a perpetually childish wolf. He fits into human society by retaining his infantile desire for constant affection, making humans love him. He retains also his youthful submission to authority.
More important for man’s interest in the dog as a living tool, neoteny opens an enormous range of physical potential, a plasticity inherent in the changes mammals undergo as they mature. Imagine your own body had become stuck at the age of thirteen, when you were having a growth spurt. You would have grown larger than most humans. Neoteny allows dogs, with a few generations of selective breeding, to get smaller or larger. But size is only one example; any trait that changes with stages of development can become “frozen” at some stage. That abnormal development can be passed to offspring. We can therefore breed dogs that are, for example, fiercer or more dependent. Most specialized dog skills have some neotenous component. In short, neoteny gave us different breeds of dog.
When dogs go wild, they tend to be skulkers on the fringes of human settlements, living on our trash. They are more like juvenile delinquents than independent adults. They lose the specific breed qualities we inculcate and become generic, like teenagers growing away from their parents before forming their adult personalities.
We humans, as I’ve said, are domesticated too, though we think we are masters. Hundreds of nights I have trudged out, snow or flood, to feed and water the dogs: I serve them. I have staggered with heavy buckets to the hog feeder: I serve the swine. I have curried the burrs from the hide of a horse, brought bread to migrant ducks, scattered feed for chickens, shoveled dung from the pens of cattle: these are all services I perform for “lower” animals.
The care of animals, along with the tending of crops, is a root of our social structure. It dictates our need for permanent homes, our construction of walls and fences, ultimately our economy and culture. The dog makes this possible, because it was the dog, with his keener nose and ears, that made it feasible for us to protect livestock from nocturnal predators. Our tools, intelligence, and eyesight complement his senses; we share a territorial instinct that gives us a common goal.
Early European explorers of North America sometimes found themselves trailed by lone wolves who scavenged their garbage and woke them to passing bears or strange wolves. This must be how the partnership of human and canid started in prehistory. Probably humans eventually took the pups of wolves and jackals from dens and raised them. This partnership caused the divergence of dog from wild canid by putting certain wolves and jackals in the domestic situation that brought out neotenous characters over the generations. In short, the difference between a wolf and a dog is the human touch. It is not a case of conscious control. As a fungus captures an alga to form the symbiote known as a lichen, we have captured the dog in a symbiosis that has remade us both.
A human who decides to cross dog with wolf is also trying to cross an ancient rift between tame and wild, between what lives with us and what moves unseen in the night. We made that rift thousands of years ago when we took in the pups of wolves and jackals that scavenged our middens. We deepened it when we set these adopted canids against their wild brothers, girding them with spiked iron collars and teaching them to protect human habitation and stock from their own kind.
Ancient as that rift is in human terms, it is young in the longer perspective. The earliest evidence of cohabitation between human and dog is no more than fourteen thousand years old: a mere wink before we began to record our own histories, a fraction of our existence as social hunting animals of the savannas, which measures in the millions of years. The relationship progressed differently from place to place—the dog revered in northern Europe, reviled in Palestine. But those differences reside mostly in our perception. Dogs everywhere are tangled in the conduct of human life, as the lowest members of our societies.
Everywhere in the world, at virtually the same time, human and wolf formed a partnership. That is the strangest part of it all: the sudden universality of a bond across species. This bond distinguishes the dog from other canids. It also distinguishes modern humanity from its older branches, because it is an essential element of the change from hunter-gatherer to the settled life.
If we humans died out tomorrow, the dogs and wolves would begin the healing of their long rift. The dog would bring its adaptability and genetic diversity to the wolf; the wolf would bring its independence and social structure. The special breeds would disappear in a few generations, the weak hearts of the pure dying out in competition with the vigor of the mongrels. The jackal would slouch through the streets of our ghost towns.