From the zenith of the Upper Paleolithic, things began a downhill drift. A number of species went extinct from climate change (ice ages) and/or over-hunting. Every type of animal had effective survival strategies, like flying, fleeing, swimming, climbing trees, injecting venom, or counterattack. These strategies were very old, and programmed into genes and instincts. They worked. They permitted a survival rate high enough to enable the continued existence of the species.
Clever humans invented ways of outwitting these defense mechanisms, and killing more and more animals. Part of this was due to continuous improvement in hunting hardware — like spears, lances, nets, bows and arrows, traps, and snares. We also improved our skills at exploiting enslaved animals.
“The history of ecological catastrophe begins with the hound,” wrote Paul Shepard. “The first domesticated wolves were not pets, guards, companions, or meals but fellow hunters. With dogs, the first domesticated animals, the ‘conquering’ of nature started toward its final calamity.” Super-sensitive canine noses were powerful assets for our hunting teams, and working in packs reduced the odds of prey escaping.
During my research, I was surprised to find that war dogs have long been used for killing human enemies — by the Romans, Britons, Greeks Babylonians, and others. When two armies met, dozens of dogs, weighing up to 200 pounds (91 kg), deliberately underfed, would be set loose to attack, terrify, and kill both soldiers and horses. War dogs were especially effective in the
New World, where the Indians had darker skins, distinctive scents, and different attire than the incredibly sadistic Spaniards. The dogs had an easier time identifying the designated prey, thus ripping to shreds far fewer white dudes by accident.
The trio of horses, dogs, and humans took hunting and warfare to a new and far more deadly dimension. Marco Polo described Genghis Khan’s process for acquiring wild meat. There were two flanks of hunters, each having 10,000 men and 5,000 great mastiff dogs. The line of hunters would extend to the length of a full day’s journey, and no wild animal would escape their dragnet. These hunts were like a bloody vacuum cleaner.
plains, vast buffalo herds survived because these animals could run at speeds up to 35 miles per hour (56 km/h). When Indians got horses, the buffalo lost their speed advantage, and became much easier to kill. And then came the legions of white guys with rifles, on a sacred mission to eliminate all buffalo. US
William T. Hornaday was born on the
frontier in 1854, and he experienced the thunderous roar of millions of passenger pigeons passing overhead for hours. He was of the last generation to know the incredible abundance of wildlife that once existed in the American west. He witnessed the final conquest of all lands from coast to coast, and then he was horrified to observe a million bubbas with cheap rifles and shotguns blowing away every wild creature they could find, as fast as they could. He wrote “that nowhere is Nature being destroyed so rapidly as in the Indiana .” United States
William M. Tsutsui wrote an essay about environmental impacts in wartime
. By the end of World War II, pigs, chickens, rabbits, and dogs had almost disappeared. Zoo animals had been eaten. Many millions of songbirds were netted and consumed. When allied soldiers landed in Japan , it was extremely rare to see a bird anywhere. In 1945, the Japanese were clear-cutting almost 50 square miles (129 sq. km) of forest each week to make fuel for the war machine. It took many tons of pine roots to make a single gallon of oil. Rapid deforestation created many eco-nightmares. Could this be a preview of our future? Japan
Humans evolved in a world filled with abundant wildlife. Wild animals played an important role in shaping what we became, mentally and physically. Shepard noted that hunters were spellbound when observing wild animals, and could watch them for an hour, in a state of absolute fascination. But the children of tourists at
Yellowstone are quickly bored by the sight of a herd of elk. These kids suffer from an immense deprivation of healthy contact with the natural world, multiplied by the stresses of living amidst crowds of humans, mostly strangers — not to mention their obsession with techno-gadgetry.
With the explosive expansion of the domesticated world, our children have largely lost contact with the shrinking realm of the normal, healthy, unspoiled wild. Shepard was a dog owner, and he understood that many owners experience genuine affection for their pets. But pets can never be, in any way, replacements for regular contact with free wild animals. “Something is profoundly wrong with the human/animal pet relationship at its most basic level.” Pets were “compensations for something desperately missing, minimal replacements for friendship in all of its meanings.”
In our daily lives, we are bombarded with countless consumer fantasies, including many from the highly profitable pet industry. In these fantasies, pets have become living toys, and living toy fantasies are starkly different from the real experience of bringing an animal into your life. Real live pets have little in common with Disney fantasies, and every year millions of people realize that they no longer want a real live pet in their lives.
For each human born in the
, 8 to 15 dogs are born, and 20 to 30 cats. In US Inside Passage, Richard Manning wrote, “Six million to seven million dogs and cats are killed in animal shelters every year. The city of alone sends 200 tons of dogs and cats to rendering plants each month.” Should this bother us more than the chicken industry, or mass murdering cockroaches with toxic poisons? Los Angeles
The pet industry has convinced us that feeding human food to pets is unhealthy, and that commercial pet food is excellent. Laura Sevier explored the ingredients used in commercial pet food (including road kill, euthanized pets, livestock with cancer, moldy grain, etc.). “Surveys show that overall pet health is declining almost as rapidly as human health. Cats and dogs are now developing a vast list of degenerative diseases, including autoimmune diseases, allergies, heart disease, diabetes, chronic digestive problems joint and arthritic problems, and cancer.” Nearly one in three British dogs are overweight, but thankfully diet pills are available (Yarvitan, Slentrol, etc.).
One in every three dogs gets cancer, and cancer is the leading cause of death in dogs. Cancer kills between 60 and 70 percent of golden retrievers. The average bulldog lives a bit longer than six years, and the breed typically suffers from an unusual number of health problems. In Thinking With Animals, James Serpell, an animal specialist at the
, wrote that “if bulldogs were the product of genetic engineering by agripharmaceutical corporations, there would be protest demonstrations throughout the Western world, and rightly so.” of University Pennsylvania
Imagine what the pet industry could do with your children if breeders were given the freedom to produce trendy, and profitable new forms of Homo sapiens — adorable little kewpie doll critters with big eyes, or heavily-muscled 800 pound security guards. Whenever I see a miniature dog, I shudder at what humans have done to wolves.
A study by Dr. Claire Corriden of the British Small Animal Veterinary Association concluded that “eighty per cent of dogs have one or more behaviour problems,” including hyperactivity, phobic behavior, separation anxiety, sleeping problems, anxiety, anorexia, self-mutilation, stress, and depression.
Australian journalist, Ruth Ostrow, was fascinated by the growing use of psych meds for pets and zoo animals. There was a growing pandemic of mental problems in domesticated animals, including humans. “It has something to do with depression and captivity, or a sense of captivity.” There was a connection between freedom and happiness. Healthy wild animals don’t become mentally unbalanced. “When the soul feels free, a natural sense of wellbeing follows. The power of freedom cannot be put into a tablet for animals or humans.” (I love that last sentence!) Nothing beats freedom!
So anyway, we’ve been reduced from an amazing zenith of total wildness and freedom to a depressing manmade world of domesticated humans and dogs, many overweight, suffering from degenerative diseases, and widespread mental illness. Luckily, the temporary bubble of cheap energy is almost over, which will force the status quo into a fundamental reboot. Our grandchildren will not suffer from the same extreme zaniness that we do, but they are sure to have interesting challenges of their own.
OK, your homework assignment is to imagine new ways of living that might become possible after the temporary bubble of abundant cheap energy is over. Can you imagine paths to genuine sustainability?
To be continued.
Hornaday, William T., Our Vanishing Wildlife: Its Extermination and Preservation, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1913.
Manning, Richard, Inside Passage — A Journey Beyond Borders, Island Press,
, 2001. Washington, D.C.
Ostrow, Ruth, “Freedom Heals the Soul,” The Australian, September 15, 2012, p. 20.
Paul Shepard, The Others — How Animals Made Us Human,
Island Press, Washington, 1996.
Polo, Marco and Rustichello of Pisa, The Travels of Marco Polo, Project Gutenberg, 2004 (Henry Yule’s third edition, 1903).
Serpell, James A., "People in Disguise: Anthromorphism and the Human-Pet Relationship,” Thinking With Animals,
Columbia University Press, , 2006. New York
Sevier, Laura, “Should My Dog Eat Dog Food?” Ecologist, March 2009.
Tsutsui, William, “Landscapes in the
Dark Valley: Toward an Environmental History of Wartime Japan,” Natural Enemy — Toward an Environmental History of War, Oregon State University Press, , 2004, pp. 195-216. Corvallis