[Note: This is the fortieth sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy. The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews. These samples are not freestanding pieces. They will be easier to understand if you start with sample 01, and follow the sequence listed HERE — if you have some free time.]
Limits to Growth
Garrett Hardin revealed some fundamental concepts about growth and limits. These concepts are considered to be heresies by our culture, which is tormented by toxic superstitions, like our fervent blind faith in perpetual growth. Santa Claus is real, and he’ll be back again tomorrow, and the next day, and forever — a never-ending barrage of cool toys that we’ll fool around with for a while, and then send away to the majestic Landfill Mountains. Hardin, like Malthus, was a naughty heretic because he stated the obvious — all growth has limits. A campfire will die when it runs out of wood to burn. A city will decompose when its grocery stores shut down. An industrial civilization will go belly up when its energy sources sputter.
Big Mama Nature is amazing. She has created a sacred dance of growth and limits, eaters and eaten, parasites and hosts. Hardin noted that every species produces more offspring than is needed to merely replace mommy and daddy. This surplus allows for expansion when resources are abundant, or more habitat becomes available — until expansion slams into limits. A swarm of a billion locusts will feast on delicious wheat fields until there is nothing left to eat, game over. In the realm of our culture’s magical thinking, there simply are no limits, we can believe whatever we wish. “Just think a happy thought and you can fly!”
The cool thing here is that producing surplus offspring is a vital component of the sacred dance, the secret of its success. Surplus critters provide essential nourishment for the predators that depend on them. It’s an elegant balancing act. The prey cannot suffer from population outbursts, because when their numbers surge, this leads their predators to increase in number — more bunnies… more coyotes. Likewise, the expansion of predators is limited by the availability of their prey.
The balancing act does not depend on predators alone. Limits to growth can also be set by starvation, disease, violent conflict, climate juju, and sudden miracles of mass enlightenment that inspire voluntary self-restraint (just kidding!). Unfortunately, in our culture, voluntary self-restraint is not seen as a virtue, but rather as clear evidence of a feeble mind, or an infestation of brain worms.
Hardin concluded that humans have cleverly (unfortunately) bypassed numerous limits to growth by temporarily turbocharging food production (instead of family planning), by continuous campaigns of predator eradication (both man-eaters and livestock varmints), by a deep reduction in death rates via the resource-guzzling technologies of modern medicine and public sanitation (intensive death control without intensive birth control), by continuously boosting our energy supply (wood, coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, etc.), and on and on.
We’re getting near to the bottom of the bag of magic tricks for keeping the plague of perpetual growth on life support. Not every wish comes true. It won’t be long before humankind slams into limits as mighty and immovable as the Himalayas. Billions of radicalized believers in perpetual growth are tap-dancing into an era of titanic surprises. Big Mama Nature spits and hisses as she works, “So, y’all don’t believe in limits, eh? Well, hang on to yer arses! Limits don’t care what you believe.”
In the good old days of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, the entire family of life consisted of wild plants and animals, and wild humans were just one of the gang. Back then, if a wolf pack ripped up a young aurochs, nobody cared. Predation was perfectly normal and healthy. When some cultures transitioned into herding domesticated critters, the game changed. Those cattle and sheep had become my personal property, and the wolves had no right to molest them. But, of course, they ate them anyway. Because of this, wild predators ceased being relatives, and became intolerable enemies, noxious pests that had to be exterminated.
Alfred Crosby discussed the colonization of Australia. Grazing animals from Europe were introduced into an exotic ecosystem, far away from the predators, parasites, and diseases that had limited their growth in the old country. With access to lots of vegetation, they grew to full size quicker than usual, and produced more offspring. Because there were zero wolves, a single shepherd could oversee thousands of grazing animals. Wild dingoes did kill livestock, but far fewer than Old World predators had.
Evolution did not genetically prepare hominins to be apex predators. It was cleverness, innovation, and spooky technology that enabled our ancestors to become peculiar imitations of genuine, natural born, apex predators (lions, tigers, bears, etc.). These abilities also enabled our ancestors to better defend themselves against attacks from natural born large carnivores. A mob of angry hominins with spears was the last thing many predators saw in their final moments of life. This success reduced our losses to predation, which weakened a traditional limit to growth, and disturbed an ancient ecological balancing act. More hominins could exist, grow up to be hunters, and kill more game and carnivores.
Over the passage of centuries, trends shifted. There were far fewer wild carnivores, and far more livestock and humans. Bye-bye predators. Hello human tsunami. It continues to this day. The U.S. has been heavily invested in “predator control” for more than 100 years. Today, we invest $100 million per year in Wildlife Services, a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In just 2018, Wildlife Services killed 68,186 coyotes, 1,002 bobcats, 375 mountain lions (cougars), 338 bears, 357 wolves, and so on.
Today, the large carnivores of America have been sharply reduced in number, and are primarily confined to isolated regions. In my long life, I once saw a flicker of movement in a forest that may have been a cougar. I’m not sure. Most folks are more likely to win the lottery than to have a life threatening meeting with a large carnivore in the wild. Out in the forests and fields, we now enjoy an unnatural sense of safety, despite being large, juicy, slow moving meatballs. We’re something like children in a nursery, where nothing can hurt us. The lions, tigers, and bears in our infantile lives are soft fuzzy stuffed animals. We are so far from our original home in the living world, and our ancestors’ time-proven way of celebrating life.
The Kaibab Plateau lies north of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Prior to 1905, it was home to about 4,000 deer. President Theodore Roosevelt loved the deer. After a century of intense gun slinging craziness, the plateau was essentially the last surviving remnant of America’s once abundant wildlife. In 1906, he created a national game preserve to protect them. Most of the cattle, horses, and sheep were then deported, because careless overgrazing had rubbished the vegetation.
By the time the preserve was created, wolves had already been heavily exterminated by ranching interests. Now, deer hunting was banned, and the Forest Service declared war on the remaining wild predators. Between 1907 and 1939, they killed 500 bobcats, 7,388 coyotes, 20 wolves, and 816 mountain lions. As the deer herd grew, the bureaucrats glowed with pride at their success.
By 1924, the deer herd had skyrocketed to about 100,000 animals. Vegetation was stripped off the land, and animals began starving. By 1939, the land was seriously damaged, and only 10,000 remained. This tragedy fascinated Aldo Leopold, who worked for the Forest Service. He wrote that the deer live in fear of the wolves, but the mountain lives in fear of the deer.
This is a classic example of a trophic cascade, an imbalance that radiates through an ecosystem. With primary predators eliminated, grazing animals exploded in number, stripped the vegetation off the land, and then starved. This was a top down cascade. There are also bottom up cascades. For example, if extended drought nukes the forage, the herbivores starve, and so do their predators. If potato blight rots the spuds, peasants experience a die-off, along with their lice and fleas.
The Bible’s Old Testament emerged in a Hebrew culture of herders and farmers. In their mindset, the livestock they owned were valuable property, and the wild predators that killed them were monsters from Satan. Behold their skills at magical thinking: “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the bullock: and dust shall be the serpent’s meat. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, saith the LORD.” Wow! That plan would be a death sentence for the holy mountain.
William Stolzenburg wrote about the benefits of wolves. American couch potatoes, ranchers, and hunters really, really hate Bambi-killing wild predators, like big bad wolves. In 1925, officials in Yellowstone National Park succeeded in exterminating the last surviving wolf, and a trophic cascade was launched. Naturally, elk exploded in number, forcing park officials to scramble. Some were captured and moved, others were exterminated. In 1995, shifting public attitudes inspired the reintroduction of wolves into the park.
Wolves came to the rescue of damaged stream and wetland habitats. During their 70 year absence, red deer had substantially stripped away the vegetation along waterways. With fewer trees protecting the waters, marine life was more vulnerable to predators. With the return of wolves, more and more deer became Happy Meals, and the surviving deer decided to migrate to less accessible locations. Before long, the willow people returned, shade returned to streams, overheated waters cooled off, and the fish were overjoyed by the great healing provided by the wolves.
Wolves came to the rescue of struggling forests. During their absence, forest regeneration declined, because elk gobbled up too many seedlings and saplings. The youngest cottonwoods were 60 years old. Wolves totally enjoy lunch dates with tree-killing elk, much to the delight of the tree people and other forest dwellers.
Wolves came to the rescue of antelope, who were in decline, because coyotes ate too many young antelopes. Wolves were delighted to dine on their coyote cousins. Within three years, half of the coyotes had become Happy Meals. Consequently, far fewer baby antelope were killed, which led to a recovery of their numbers. A reduction of coyotes was also a gift to other animals, like rabbits, mice, foxes, weasels. Wolves also benefitted scavengers, like bears, ravens, eagles, and others, who were happy to dine on partially consumed carcasses. Predators are essential components of every healthy wild ecosystem.
Stolzenburg noted that American housecats annually kill an estimated one billion wild mammals and hundreds of millions of birds. I live in neighborhood with many lonely humans who keep cats for companionship. Here, birdsong is minimal. A mile away, in a cat free riverside forest, the bird symphonies at sunset are magnificent. Where coyotes have managed to survive, they have become great cat lovers, much to the delight of the birds.
Delicious Two-Legged Meatballs
Once upon a time, while wandering through a dusty musty 100 year old book, I came across the story of Cormac mac Airt (son of Art), a High King of Ireland. His story comes from a misty realm that blurs together legend and history. It’s full of bloody feuds, fairies, druids, and wolves. Some say he maybe lived somewhere between A.D. 150 and 366. When Cormac was born, the druid Olc Aiche sang five spells over the boy, to protect him from the five primary dangers in life: slaying, drowning, fire, sorcery, and wolves.
It was striking to be reminded that there was a time when, every day of your life, there was a decent chance that you might have an unscheduled lunch date with a hungry wolf pack. In Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the word “wolf” appears 72 times. If the records in my family tree went back 10,000 years, many thousands of folks in the extended families of my ancestors must have been killed and eaten by large carnivores — a perfectly normal, natural, wholesome event.
Michael Bright wrote an entire book of stories about man-eating carnivores — whole chapters on wolves, snakes, tigers, lions, crocodiles, and others. Wolf packs in Paris killed 40 in 1450. British sources noted 624 humans killed by wolves in Banbirpur, India in 1878. In 1996-97, more than 50 children were killed by wolves in Uttar Pradesh, India.
In 1769, 400 were killed by tigers in the area around Bhiwapur, India. In 1922, tigers in India killed 1,603 people. Sy Montgomery wrote a book about the tigers that live in the mangrove swamps of the Sundarbans region, near the border of India and Bangladesh. She wrote, “Here the tiger is feared but not hated; here it is worshipped but not loved. For the tiger is a sacred creature who rules an enchanted land.” During a six-year period in the late nineteenth century, Sundarbans tigers ate 4,218 people. In the 1990s, they were still killing hundreds every year.
In Tanzania, a pride of 17 lions in a game preserve by Lake Nyasa killed 1,000 to 1,500 people over 15 years. John Gunther reported that five hundred Africans were killed by lions near Ubena, Tanganyika in 1946 and 1947. Once upon a time, the original range of modern lions was enormous — most of Africa, the Mediterranean basin, the Near East, the Middle East, and much of India. [MAP]
Today, in the twenty-first century, tool-using humans have been the big animals for thousands of years, arrogantly gloating like New York billionaires. Most humans now spend their entire lives without ever once experiencing a real fear of being attacked and eaten. A wildcat that innocently trots past a school must die. Naturally, becoming the dominant animal has done quite a head job on our perception of reality. It has given birth to the belief in human supremacy, which rubbishes our ancient intimate relationship with the family of life — the relationship that nurtured the evolution of our species, and made us who we are.
Because of this attitude, as long as industrial civilization exists, I can’t imagine how humankind could ever be persuaded to demand the abolition of predator eradication, and allow predators to fully recover, and freely return to their sacred occupation, maintaining balance in the family of life.
It is clear, with absolute certainty, that the explosive growth of industrial civilization will smash into limits it can no longer sneak around — limits of nonrenewable resources like fossil energy, mineral ores, topsoil, ancient freshwater aquifers, effective antibiotics and vaccines, and so on. There are folks alive today who will witness that collision. Eventually, humankind will run out of manufactured ammunition for their weapons, and other defensive tools. At that point, mighty Superman shrivels into a far more vulnerable primate meatball. Joyful large carnivores will celebrate the dawn of a great revival, and a long overdue process of healing will begin.
Long, long ago, our hominin ancestors were humble meatballs. Baz Edmeades work introduced me to an interesting story about a large prehistoric cat that apparently loved hominins so much that our ancestors may have been his favorite lunch. In 1924, Raymond Dart discovered the remains of Australopithecus africanus in South Africa. It appeared to be the missing link between ape and man. European scholars soiled their britches. Africa? A continent of primitive savages!?? This was profoundly embarrassing and depressing.
White society traditionally assumed that our holy species had originally evolved in a more dignified region, somewhere much closer to London, probably. This was reinforced by Charles Dawson’s gratifying discovery of the missing link between ape and man. Its skull was found near Piltdown village in Sussex, England in 1912. It was a hoax. White folks had a good cry.
Dart had lived through the horrific bloodbath of World War One. Studying the bone collection in the Swartkrans cave of South Africa, Dart observed that many skulls had been damaged by powerful impacts. Based on this evidence, and his wartime memories, he concluded that our early ancestors were insanely violent, and probably cannibals too.
Years later, C. K. (“Bob”) Brain studied the same cave. He concluded that the ancestors had not actually been killing each other. Instead, they appeared to have been a favorite source of nourishment for large cats and hyenas. Early hominins were rather small, and probably not masters of self-defense. For large carnivores, Australopithecus was a much easier prey than speedy antelopes.
Brain observed that numerous hominin bones were found in the cave, but far fewer antelopes and other critters, which seemed weird. Who killed them? His primary suspect was the large feline carnivore Dinofelis, nicknamed the dirk-toothed cat. Brain strongly suspected that it had specialized in hunting our hominin ancestors. He found some Paranthropus skulls with holes punched in them that exactly matched the long upper canine teeth of the big cat.
Dinofelis had lived well for several million years, until the emergence of Homo erectus, the first hominin having human-like body proportions, and an extra-large brain for its body size. Erectus was a major turning point in our evolutionary saga. Erectus-like critters migrated from Africa into Asia and Europe, and were big game hunters. The type found in Europe is called Homo heidelbergensis. They were killing woodland rhinos in Boxgrove, England 500,000 years ago. Erectus was likely a more challenging prey for Dinofelis. The dirk-toothed cats went extinct about 1.4 million years ago. Without this limit to their growth, the hominin mobs continued to expand.
What would the world be like if Dinofelis had not blinked out? What if they had prevented the emergence of large-brained Erectus, and kept our hominin ancestors inside Africa? Would the planet today be in perfect health, home to billions of sabertooths, cave bears, woolly mammoths, giant sloths, Irish elk, and on and on? Would your soul be living a condor today, soaring above the mountains?
Circle Dance of Nutrients
Derrick Jensen, in his book on human supremacy, pointed out that every student in our culture is taught the notion of a pyramid-shaped food chain. Apex predators (like humans) are placed at the pinnacle of the pyramid, and at the bottom are the wee ones that can only be seen with microscopes. It’s no surprise that this hierarchy resembles the hierarchy of power in civilizations. Jensen rejected this model. He sees the family of life as a process of cycles within cycles. The wee ones are no less important than the large carnivores. “You eat and you will be eaten. That’s life. Get over it.” A Cheyenne proverb said it like this: “Let us all be meat, to nourish one another, so that we all may grow.”
Paul Shepard wrote that we spend our lives in a grand and mysterious drama called, “Now you eat me.” Life lives on death. Evolution created a number of large carnivore species that are larger, stronger, and faster than humans. Without tools and fire, we were helpless sitting ducks. At birth, we are second- or third-class predators. Without tools, hominins would have likely gone extinct prior to the emergence of Erectus, Neanderthal, or Sapiens. But we had tools, and we persisted. Many large carnivore species have been driven to extinction. Hominins played some role in this, by directly killing the predators, or by depleting the game animals they depended on.
Val Plumwood was an Australian environmental philosopher. One fine day in 1985, she hopped in a canoe, and paddled around in a lovely national park. She was quite surprised when a large crocodile knocked her into the water, and violently pulled her underwater. It was a mind-blowing experience. This can’t be happening! I am a human being! She nearly died.
The crocodile’s sharp teeth gave her a sudden and memorable lesson about an important fact of life. All life is food. I am meat. In an ecosystem, “we live the other’s death, die the other’s life.” Our bodies belong to the ecosystem, not to ourselves.
Vegetarians believe that only animals have souls. We must dine on nothing but soulless food. This builds a concrete wall across the family of life, separating the haves from the have-nots. Plumwood says bullshit! “All our food is souls.” “Our bodies flow with the food chain… they do not belong to us; they belong to all.” She chose to be a vegetarian, not because eating meat was wrong, but because factory farmed meat was a spiritual abomination. Domesticated animals are raised in jam-packed concentration camps, isolated from the wild world, and raised solely to be edible commodities — nothing but meat. She believed that the monstrous process de-souled them.
Plumwood detested modern burial customs, which she saw as a weird component of “heavenism,” the belief that our brief time on Earth is like a stay in a cheap dirty motel. Our true home is in a heavenly paradise, far from Earth. We bury our dead in coffins, to better preserve their bodies, until angels come to carry them away to their eternal home. The objective is to prohibit the normal and natural recycling of the nutrients within the corpse.
In our culture, we place grandpa’s well-dressed corpse in a sturdy coffin, and bury him deep in the ground, well below the upper topsoil where countless tiny living things work tirelessly to transform organic rubbish into nutritious compost. Rich folks sometimes entirely enclose the coffin in a concrete vault. God forbid that a mob of hungry worms should have a magnificent banquet, celebrating grandpa’s life, and forwarding his nutrients to the future generations of all species. The body you live in today is made of nutrients recycled countless times, over millions of years, from the dawn of life.
The civilization we live in is manmade. We consume food mostly made from domesticated plants and animals, mostly from elsewhere, that is processed, transported, and sold by complex energy-guzzling industrial systems. We do not roam across the surrounding land, hunting and foraging, singing and dancing. Our lives are largely isolated from direct intimate contact with the local ecosystem we sleep in. Civilization is like a walled fortress we live within that keeps us isolated from nature. In a sense, it’s like a strong coffin.
Other cultures do a far better job of composting corpses. In sky burial, corpses are left on the ground for the vultures to eat. This was done by folks like the Tibetans, Western Algonquians, and Zoroastrian communities in India. Similarly, Walter McClintock wrote that the Blackfeet recycled their dead by placing their corpses on scaffolds built in trees, called death lodges. John Gunther wrote that the Bakutu people of the Congo recycled corpses by laying them on termite hills.
Once upon a time, even the prim and proper English recycled the dead. Barry Cunliffe wrote about excavations of prehistoric sites in Wessex. For several thousand years, until about 1000 B.C., corpses were exposed in special locations, where hungry teams of wild scavengers and composters could feast on them. Leftover bones were buried in pits or ditches. The official word for this custom of exposure was “excarnation.”
The Maasai are a tribe of African cattle herders who live primarily on meat, milk, and blood. From their perspective, tilling the soil is an enterprise that is totally beneath their dignity. They won't even break the sod to bury their loved ones. Paul Spencer described how they recycled their dead. The corpse was rubbed with animal fat. Then it was taken outdoors, placed beneath a tree away from the village, and left there for the hyenas and other scavengers. Usually it was gone by the next morning. Joseph Thomson added, “To bury a corpse would, they think, be to poison the soil; it must be thrown to the wild beasts without ceremony.” A side benefit was that well-fed hyenas were less likely to molest their livestock.
Knud Rasmussen described the Inuit customs in Greenland. In an ecosystem where the ground was frozen solid, graves could not be dug for the dead. Corpses were buried under a pile of rocks, where they would eventually decompose, and return to the ecosystem. Knud met Merqusaq, an elderly native who told him about a cold dark winter long ago, when their clan ran out of food, and hunger set in. People starved, some died, and were eaten. “I saw them eat my father and my mother. I was too young and could not stop them.” When they ran out of corpses, they decided to kill Merqusaq and eat him. He struggled to escape, and lost an eye in the process. Cannibalism was sometimes a necessary practice in this extremely harsh land, where the survival of the group’s most essential people was job #1. Boys too young to hunt were expendable.
About 66 million years ago, the Chicxulub impactor (an asteroid or other space object) slammed into the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. It may have been up to 50 miles (81 km) in diameter, and was moving at 12 miles (20 km) per second. It released billions of tons of sulfur which acidified the oceans. Intense acid rain probably nuked forests. Dust blocked out the sun, altered the climate, and blindsided ecosystems. After enjoying 160 million years on Earth, the dinosaurs went extinct, except for some of the winged ones who were the ancestors of today’s birds.
Much of the Earth was tropical in the dinosaur era. Small mammals had existed throughout the epoch, and some survived the sudden transition. With the warmth-loving cold-blooded dinosaurs gone, a niche opened up for large mammals, warm-blooded critters better able to survive in cooler climates. If the Chicxulub catastrophe had not happened, you and I might be happy lizards today. Peter Ward wrote that “we are the children of the asteroid.”
Andrew Bard Schmookler pointed out that in the big history of the Earth, the colossal catastrophes have usually been caused by stuff like asteroids, volcanoes, climate swings, and so on. The catastrophe we’re living in today is called civilization, and it emerged from within the family of life. The mass extinction event we’re living in today is the largest since the asteroid strike. It’s driven by a whirlwind of ambition, innovation, ignorance, and illusions.
We are the only animal to cause a mass extinction, to exterminate entire forests, to dam the flow of major rivers, to drill deep into the Earth to extract sequestered carbon, to drain ancient aquifers, to fill the atmosphere with so much crud that the climate is heating and glaciers are melting. How smart is that?
Edward Abbey concluded, “Man is literally undoing the work of organic evolution.” Human numbers are growing explosively, while all other apes are in decline. As the populations of many wild animals are falling, the number of domesticated critters is soaring. Selective breeding has fine-tuned them to optimally serve human needs. Most of them depend on humans for their survival, few would be able to survive for long in the wild.
Man’s Best Friend
In an earlier chapter, I mentioned Paul Shepard’s view that the domestication of dogs was a daunting turning point in the human saga. Recently, that notion snapped into sharper focus for me. I was reading about Knud Rasmussen’s visit to Greenland in 1903–1904. He met Maisanguaq, who told him a bear story. “Bears know everything and hear everything that people say.” Sometimes they shape shift into human form. An Inuit woman once came upon a mysterious dwelling and went inside. She quickly hid when the bears returned home. She listened to them talking about humans. “We cannot stand against them, for they bar the way for us with their dogs and they kill us with their arrows.”
Indeed! When a bear is surrounded by vicious snarling dogs, the advantage goes to the human hunter. Without the dogs, the big strong bear would be much safer, and the smaller weaker hunter would be in greater danger. Louis Liebenberg wrote about the San. It was far easier for them to hunt gemsbok with dogs, because there was a point in the chase where the tired prey stopped, faced off the mongrels, and the hunter killed it (deer also eventually stop, face their attackers, and surrender). Dogs were rewarded with the guts and leftovers.
Humans are not as fast as many large game animals. Dogs will chase anything that moves, and they can run quickly. They have a phenomenal sense of smell, so they can easily follow prey that are not visible. During a high speed pursuit, they repeatedly bark so the hunter knows where to go (wolves don’t constantly bark like dogs do). Once dogs had treed a raccoon, it was easy for the hunter to kill it. Dogs could find the dens of hibernating bears buried under the snow. Sleepy bears were easy kills.
Bottom line: when working together, the dog-human team could find, kill, and eat much more game. This was far from a common scheme in the family of life, especially at such a large scale.
¶ Tim Flannery wrote that we selectively bred domesticated animals to better suit our needs. This process created unusual new organisms that had little or no chance of surviving in the wild, away from the human sphere. By mastering the art of conjuring useful mutants, humans “became the most powerful evolutionary force.” We no longer had to spend lots of time wandering around in search of game. We could hold the livestock we owned in confinement, and accumulate their offspring. Animals having the most desirable traits were the most likely to be retained as breeders.
The success of animal domestication greatly increased our food resources, and swept aside a number of traditional limits to growth. Of course, our reckless joyride in breaking the laws of nature was perfectly unsustainable, and we are deep in karmic debt. One way or another, Big Mama Nature will guide what remains of the terribly bruised and beaten family of life onto a much needed path of healing.
Wikipedia provides a lengthy scientific discussion on the origin of the domestic dog, and it is a bewildering hell broth of conflicting theories that will leave your head spinning. You will find that dogs were domesticated somewhere between 15,000 and 40,000 years ago, at a location that few agree on, somewhere in temperate Eurasia, between Western Europe and Siberia. Keep these dates in mind as you read the following paragraph.
Humans began migrating into Eastern Europe around 36,000 years ago, and arrived in Portugal around 34,000 years ago. Wikipedia listed the extinct animals of Europe. They include cave bear 27,500 B.C., cave hyena 11,000 B.C., cave lion 10,000 B.C., grass eating rhino 10,000 B.C., Irish elk 5000 B.C., scimitar-tooth cat 10,000 B.C., woolly mammoth 2000 B.C., and woolly rhino 10,000 B.C. Humans and dogs entered the Americas around 13,000 years ago, at which point an extreme spasm of megafauna extinctions followed. (Dogs had nothing to do with the extinctions in dog-free Australasia.)
Certainly, no large animals were driven to extinction by dogs alone, but it would seem very likely that they were willing accomplices in many hunting adventures. Dogs were not natural born apex predators, and neither were humans without weapons. But the combo of humans, weapons, and dogs was effective at killing large game, a bit too effective. Over time, the combo grew even more powerful with the addition of horses, and later guns. Limits retreated.
¶ Herders had a serious hatred for the wolves who killed their dimwitted livestock. Large strong dogs were bred and trained to kill wolves. By around the third century B.C., Irish wolfhounds were on duty. Much later, the Irish used them as war dogs, to control the Norman terrorists. Two wolfhounds could knock an armored Norman knight off his horse, down to where he could be ethically euthanized.
War dogs were used by the Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Alans, Slavs, Britons, and many others. Romans had platoons of war dogs with spiked collars and chain mail armor. Prior to battle, they were deliberately underfed, and then they were released as the first wave of attack. Their Molossus war dogs were unbelievably vicious, but they were wimpy compared to the broad-mouthed war dogs of the Britons, whose mastiffs could grow up to 200 pounds (91 kg).
Columbus brought war dogs to the New World in 1493, to terrorize the uppity natives. Gonzalo Pizarro brought a thousand war dogs to Peru in 1541. Spaniards trained their dogs to disembowel natives (rip out their intestines). In the early U.S., Benjamin Franklin advocated the use of war dogs against the Native Americans that sometimes hid behind every tree, and were not slightest bit fond of white folks. Close your eyes and imagine standing in front of five or six charging 200 pound war dogs determined to rip you to bloody shreds.
¶ Tom Brown has developed an extremely intimate relationship with wild nature. He gained fame for his knowledge of tracking, survival, and nature awareness. He lives in rural southern New Jersey, a region on the scruffy side. In 1977, garbage was sent to open dumps, where it provided a food supply for dog packs, which were growing in number, and becoming a serious annoyance. Unwanted litters of puppies were often abandoned in the woods by buttheads. Some of the mutts who ran with the packs were pets who slept in their master’s home at night.
The packs were killing horses, cattle, sheep, and house pets — domesticated animals whose wild survival skills had been bred out of them. They sometimes attacked people, a baby in a carriage got mauled. They would surround a farmhouse all night, waiting for someone to come out. From time to time, police took action, using poison and traps, sometimes shooting them. Tom was sometimes hired to help them find the packs.
During an especially intense episode, one pack hammered farmers, killing large numbers of sheep, but only eating one or two. In a bloody frenzy, they simply killed for thrills, like humans do. The chief of police hired Tom to shoot the troublesome pack. He did, without pleasure, there was no other option. Many of the dogs were starved, diseased, loaded with ticks, covered with open sores.
¶ Wolves have never forgotten how to be wolves. Bears have never forgotten how to be bears. The same is true for every wild animal species. But all domesticated animals, to some degree, have been severed from their wild ancestors, in mind and body (genes). The two super freak animals in the world are dogs (domesticated wolves) and humans living in non-wild cultures (farmer, herder, urban). In the last 12,000 years or so, both have mutated into a variety of unusual forms, like a person with multiple personalities, or a sorcerer who can deliberately shape-shift into a wolf, bear, frog, raven, and so on.
Originally, humans were hunters, foragers, and scavengers. With the emergence of plant and animal domestication, we became herders, farmers, millers, weavers, traders, warriors, and so on. Then came industrialization and globalization, which led to many thousands of new crafts, professions, and freak shows — none of which resembled our archetypal wild ancestors, folks who had never forgotten their natural identity. We’re like the bar scene in Star Wars, an extremely diverse mob of mysterious aliens.
Originally, dogs served as garbage disposals, intruder alert security systems and, most importantly, hunting partners. Later, some were bred to be wolfhounds, big and strong enough to drive away livestock-eating wolves. Then war dogs, bred to terrorize enemies, and preserve the lives of warriors. Then sheepdogs that kept the herds together, guided them, and rounded up strays.
Keith Thomas noted that common working dogs were for the scruffy folks, but the nobility developed something new: high class dogs — hunting hounds for the gentlemen, and small lapdogs (mostly toy spaniels or pugs) for the ladies. Middle class folks striving for upward mobility acquired dogs to demonstrate their elevated social status. Today, the pet population has skyrocketed. Many are considered to be “fur children,” members of our family, beloved companion animals. Thomas was a party pooper. “The fact that so many people feel it necessary to maintain a dependent animal for the sake of emotional completeness tells us something about the atomistic society in which we live.”
Glossy magazines are loaded with photos of glamorous celebrities and their adorable dogs. Super-trendy breeds have become must-have status symbols and fashion accessories for ambitious go-getters eager to present the appearance of fame and success. I recently looked in the Seattle paper’s want ads to check current prices for yuppie puppies. English bulldog, $3,500. American Akita, $1,650. Bernedoodle, $2,900. French bulldog, $2,695.
Look what we’ve done to the wolf! Like Midas, everything we touch turns to gold. What a curse! Look at what we’ve done to the wild human!