Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas - Dogs and Cats

"The Hidden Lives of Dogs"
"The Social Lives of Dogs: The Grace of Canine Company"
"The Tribe of Tiger: Cats and their Culture"

Eight years separate Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ “The Hidden Lives of Dogs” and “The Social Lives of Dogs”. As far as dog-keeping in the western world is concerned, it’s been almost a life-time.

But don’t take my word for it. Scroll down some of the violent costumer reviews for “Hidden Lives” at, of which three sample titles are “Very, Very Bad, Disappointing, and disgusting”; “Unbelievable nonsense”; “Most Horrendous Dog Book I Have Ever Read”. Just makes you want to read the thing, don’t it?

So what has gotten these dog-lovers in a tizzy you ask? Well, first you must know that Marshall Thomas’ is an anthropologist, and unfortunately she spent her formative years accompanying her parents in expeditions in South Africa (I say unfortunately because I believe anthropology is detrimental to the healthy development of young people – or maybe I have a chip in my shoulder caused by a certain useless degree, you decide).

When it comes to observing dogs (or cats, or deer) she looks at them as an anthropologist would, trying to figure out communication cues, the importance of kinship ties, social hierarchy, what is desired and accepted by the group and what is condemned.

If nothing else, it definitely puts dogs in a different perspective. Marshall Thomas is interested in observing dogs being dogs. That, of course is not acceptable to many modern dog-keepers. It involves no training whatsoever (as she so rightly points out, when you have a pack of dogs they train any newcomers) and very little restraint, either physical (most of the time the dogs walk themselves or are walked without leashes; when the author moves to rural Virginia, they have permanent access outside) or reproductive (the majority of females was allowed to breed at least once, with a dog of their choice, before being spayed later in life).

Training, leashes and neutering are the holy trinity of owning a dog these days. And of course, neutering and spaying are a necessity considering the numbers of strays. But before getting more hysterical than Adolf at the nightly book burning séance, the folks might have noticed that “The Hidden Lives of Dogs” was first published in 1993 and that all the canine protagonists were dead or in their senior years. This means the events related date back fifteen years, starting in the late seventies. Was it really so morally condemned then to allow your dog to walk himself and have a couple of litters? Don’t think so.

Training is the altar at which dog-owners must worship these days, so when Marshall Thomas’ speaks of a loved dog as “a dog who thought for himself, a dog who wasn’t brainwashed by excessive training” I have no doubt that many contemporary readers were shocked. But isn’t it a fact that a lot of training is behavior modification for traits that make perfect sense for dogs but that we want to eradicate for our, mostly urban, convenience? Barking, eating the inedible, rolling in the stinky, pulling the leash, chasing tail, upset at being imprisoned 12 hours a day?

I for one always found highly trained dogs slightly upsetting – I watched some during a brief stint through obedience school and without being able to put into words what exactly bothered me, only wished my own Jessie would never be that obedient (needn’t have worried really). Now I think those dogs lack something in the lines of dignity. “Dogs are slaves” Thomas’ states more than once, and that is, perhaps, the bottom-line. Still, they don’t have to be circus performers. Spartacus was a slave, right? (Funnily enough, Thomas’s is a circus supporter as she states in “The Tribe of Tiger”)

There is some strong imagery in “Hidden Lives”, the kind you won’t find in most present day dog books. One female dog is raped by a neighbour dog (yes, dogs can be rapists too) and her babies are killed by a more dominant female in the household who also had newborns at the time. It’s strong stuff you don’t usually find in dog books unless you go back to Lorenz’s 1949 “Man Meets Dog” (of whom Thomas’ draws greatly in regards to the wolf-dog theories).

It’s the kind of stuff that happens when you have a group of unaltered dogs, living together with a small degree of freedom. And it’s very interesting. No-one who reads the whole thing can doubt how much Thomas’ loves her dogs and watches out for them, providing food, shelter, veterinary care, canine companionship and liberty.

Written in 2001 “The Social Lives of Dogs” takes on the sign of the times. As the book begins there are only a few of the original husky and dingo pack remaining. The author finds a stray that, although young, is not readily accepted by the others. As such, Sundog, is more or less obliged to take the author and her husband as his “pack” companions. As so often seems the case, Sundog’s arrival sparks a cycle of pet adoption and soon a new, home-based canine (and feline) group is established (or several tiny groups, actually). Ruby a purebred (and neurotic) Belgian shepherd; Pearl an Australian shepherd-mix “inherited” from Thomas’ son; Ruby, a stray and Sheilah, a though little street dog, plus an assortment of cats. Their arrival, the way in which they carve their niche, choose their friends, enemies and evolve into their singular personalities is the fascinating subject of “Social Lives”.

Don’t worry, this time around all females were duly spayed and Thomas was living in rural area (although not completely safe as an awful accident will prove).

With “The Tribe of Tiger” I expected a feline counterpoint to the dog stories of “Social Lives”. Sadly it’s not what I got at all. Sure, there were some anecdotes about the household cats (yes, they were allowed to roam the country-side, folks and there is also some [gasp] kitten murder), but it’s mostly about the evolutionary history of cats and a lot of chapters about the author’s experiences with lions in South Africa. I kept thinking there would be more about cats up ahead, so kept reading faster… There are some fascinating accounts but…few small cats.

Thomas’ also spent a lot of time with circus big cat trainers as well as observing tigers and lions in zoos and came to the somewhat predictable conviction, that, all-circumstances being equal (meaning no cruelty involved) big cats seem much more happy, alert and engaged in a circus setting. I believe that is the same rationale that led to the creation of job training programs for prison inmates.

In conclusion? There is a lot of baloney (the word is strangely appropriate) in Thomas’ theorizing – especially in “Hidden Lives” she seem in thrall of the “huskies and other “primitive” dogs are closer to wolves” shtick – which is neither new nor very interesting, and on the whole “lion mystical bond with bushmen” thing (it’s probably true, but once again it feels overdone) in “The Tribe of Tiger”.

As with most anthropologists she is at her best when she drops the theories and just observes with a keen eye and fresh mind. That she is an amazing watcher I have no doubt, and she witnesses many small (and not so small) signs that we usually miss even sharing our daily lives with cats and dogs. For that reason, especially the dog books are wonderful, and dog-lovers should not keep away because of modern changes in what constitutes responsible dog-ownership. (Did I mention she thinks Americans are “dog-fascists”? Think that might have something to do with the hate?)

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