Wednesday, November 24, 2010

How Dogs Tamed US.....

Last night I saw the first episode of "How Man Tamed the Wild" on Nat Geo t-v.  Among the interesting segments was one that made me really sit-up and watch closely.  It was about the 'Metrodogs' of Moscow.  These are members of the approximately 35,000 feral dog population that roams Moscow without restraint.  They are also smart enough to know that being friendly to the Muscovites is necessary if they want to live their lives unmolested, so they are actually quite sociable as they go about the tough job of making a living by their wits.  The so-called 'Metrodogs', however, go a step further.  They have learned how to use the extensive Moscow subway system, and it seems clear that they both get on and off trains at the stations of their choosing.  In other words: THEY KNOW THE SUBWAY SYSTEM.  One Russian who is researching these amazing mutts--who all look somewhat the same, btw, like a German Shepherd-Labrador cross--guessed that they know the various stations by their unique appearance, by scent......and because the announcer tells them the name as the train pulls in. 

On hearing this I immediately had a mental image of this dog getting off his seat, stretching and yawning, "Well, that's my stop." written across his face as he makes his way toward the door.

There was plenty of footage of these dogs sharing the platforms with passengers of the two-legged variety, and there is even a bronze statue of a Metrodog on one station platform.  Obviously, Muscovites like and admire these pooches for their independence and audacity.  One passenger remarked that the dogs will go right between your legs to get where they want to go.  And he was smiling as he said this.

Moscow dogs have formed packs in exactly the same way wolves and coyotes do....not to mention inner-city human juveniles too, of course.  Their territories are precise and non-negotiable; any dog caught in a neighboring pack's territory is in for a very rough time of it. One such pup, trapped along a steep riverbank was calling for his pack-mates to come get him out of a jam.

Another very interesting tidbit was that researchers have discovered genetic differences in animals that are non-aggressive and those that remain aggressive.  This, in fact, was the defining criteria for being 'tame' or wild: friendly or not.  They have some idea that a few wolves with this 'tame' gene began to reach out to humans about 15,000 years ago, and that was the beginning of the endless adventure of dogs and humans working and living together. 

But, perhaps the most interesting research that has been done in this area is that of a Russian scientist, beginning in the 50s and still underway--he, btw, actually braved the firing squad under the Stalin regime to do it. Dimitri Belyaev found that some 60 generations into artificial selection for 'friendliness' that silver foxes began to actually change their appearance. They became multi-colored, developed a lighter bone structure, and they began to do something no wild fox does.....wag their tails as a sign of friendly intentions. 

And, last but not least is a story from an island far out to sea off County Donnegal, Ireland: Tory Island.  Up until he disappeared in 2008, there was a porpoise named Doogie who was the local 'harbor porpoise'.  This is actually not a rare thing for a porpoise to become habituated in a particular harbor and to visit with the local fishermen and boaters.  I have heard some amazing stories about such animals.  But, one day in Tory harbor, a yellow lab named Ben saw Doogie out there and decided that he needed to meet he paddled out and began a friendship that went on for years. On a given day Ben would see Doogie and make his way out for a frolic in which Ben would swim in tight circles as Doogie swirled around him.  Click on the header above to see a video of Ben and Doogie having a visit. 

When I first became aware of this, my thought was: "What in the world went through Ben's head that he decided swimming out into a frigid, dark body of water to meet a very large and only partially visible creature?"  Then I remembered: "Oh, that's right...HE'S A DOG!!"

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