Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Going to the dogs

But suddenly something struck Maria's side so hard that she yelped and stumbled. It was Bingo, who had come unnoticed into the kitchen and now planted himself between the astonished Maria and the cage. She recovered at once, and ignoring Bingo, she rushed the cage again. But Bingo barked with great authority, a shout of a bark, and again he slammed himself into Maria. Amazed, she stopped, and then, as dogs will do when circumstances seem too puzzling, she simply left the scene, withdrawing to the far side of the room to see what would happen next. There she stayed. Then all of us were quiet in the half-lit room, Bingo trembling with emotion and panting hard as he faced Maria watchfully, Maria overwhelmed by this unexpected turn of events, me shamed by my own dog, and the mice and parakeets exhausted and still. Bingo stayed where he was as guardian until Maria left the room. Then I reached my hand to him apologetically. Quietly, humbly, he touched my fingers very delicately with his tongue.
For context, Bingo wanted to mate with Maria, which is why his actions when she was menacing the smaller pets surprised the author.

The author is Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, an anthropologist who observed the dogs living with her and her husband and recorded the results in The Hidden Life of Dogs. I know her from an animal column she writes for The Boston Globe. She's been criticized for anthropomorphizing dogs as depicting them with thoughts and feelings, but her case that they have such is pretty airtight.

The book is not wall-to-wall heartwarming and tender moments. Some of it is disturbing as well as sad. But overall there is something touching about it, not least in Thomas's attempts to reach out and understand.


susan said...

I'm not sure it's anthropomorphizing to be of the opinion that all animals have thoughts and feelings. This interesting case reminds me of a neighbor's German shepherd who protected my then still young dachshund from other dogs. Leibchen would stand under him when she felt threatened and Ace would growl until they left.

Rupert Sheldrake is another very well known scientist who's studied animal relationships among themselves and with us for a long time. Have you ever heard of 'morphic resonance'?

Ben said...

To be clear I'm not saying that she's anthropomorphizing. That's something that other scientists have said about her work. But like she says, it would be very strange if thinking and emotions just suddenly appeared in our stage of evolution without any inkling in other species.

That's a lovely story about Leibchen and the German shepherd. And it does point to a more complex relationship. Leibchen and the shepherd weren't related, so it's not like you can explain it through one dog protecting its genetic line.

I have heard of Rupert Sheldrake, and in fact I have one of his books on order from the library. I was expecting it this weekend but it's an interlibrary loan and the first branch that said they could send it to me turned out not to have it. So hopefully in the next couple of days.