Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Perfect Parasite

This morning as I was lying on the floor, with Baxter's head resting comfortably on my shoulder, and watching the end of the Tour de France, my thoughts drifted to two distinctly different things I had read recently. Both related to the long-held belief that humans saw potential in wolves and actively went about capturing and domesticating them to do our bidding -- a concept that never quite worked for me.

I ran across a website for a dog sanctuary that invites people to give up their pet dogs, saying that it's cruel to keep dogs in your home and that they should be allowed to run free to hunt and roam in packs like their wolf ancestors did. I'm easily prone to guilt, especially when it comes to my loved ones, so that site forced me to do some thinking about Baxter's "captive" life. Is it cruel to keep a dog in the house, with tethered walks and hikes and romps around the dog park as his primary outside social activities? Is it cruel to feed him every day instead of letting him hunt for his own food and, if he's lucky, tear into a carcass once a week?

No. Something just doesn't feel right about that "dogs are captive wolves" idea. Baxter seems really happy in his domestic life and I can't shake the feeling that he wants to be right where he is. Yes, I'm a human reading the situation and Baxter has never had it otherwise. But still, it's hard to deny that a dog feels comfortable when he's snoring on your shoulder. Would he leave if he had the chance? I don't think so. When he does get the rare opportunity to run freely in the wilderness, he always comes back. He doesn't even like to be out in the yard by himself for more than 15 minutes at a time. He wants to be near us. WE are his pack.

An explanation that makes sense. The Truth About Dogs (as discussed previously) casts the whole dog/wolf domestication scene in a new light that, for me, makes a whole lot more sense. The author postulates that dogs are, and pretty much always have been, parasites on humanity...but he means it in a GOOD way. Bear with me here, because I won't begin to do justice to the fine explanations in the book, but I think the concept is pretty compelling.

Scientists are rethinking the whole dog-human relationship based on archeological and DNA evidence that suggests dogs may have been much more willing partners in their shift from wild animal to foot warmer. Somewhere along the line there was a genetic anomaly that allowed a wolf (and subsequent generations) to lose their natural fear of humans. This occurred long before we started using dogs to herd sheep and hunt wild boar, however. Looking at fossils and piecing together the archeological and DNA histories of dogs and humans, scientists now believe that early dogs, who were scavengers as well as hunters, used to follow humans around, eating out of their garbage piles and hanging around the fire pit where the smell of food was irresistable. Some of us probably threw rocks at them for a while, but I'm picturing the scene that developed:

An early cave woman, eating dinner by the fire, looks down and sees an early dog (probably quite scruffy) sidling up to her. The dog gives her that sweet, innocent, "I really need a piece of that meat, I really, really do" look we all have come to know and love. It's a short trip from that to "Look, he can sit up!" and "Oh he's soooo cute, can we take him back to the cave?"

Scammers. They have been working the food angle from the very beginning. Then they got shelter too. And all they had to do in return was be sweet and loveable and, when man decided to try to train them, do just enough to be useful and keep their happy home. Let's face it, dogs domesticated us. And we love it. And I now have scientific evidence to back up my claim that when Baxter is snoring on my shoulder, he really is content to be my perfect parasite.

I have to go now. Bax is putting his paw on my arm and asking to go outside. I will do his bidding.

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