Friday, December 7, 2018

Domestication Stories #2: What it Means to be Alone

Content warning: some violence and gore

Flatnose was going to die. He knew it would happen soon, and he knew he deserved it. He'd accidentally killed his own brother during a squabble. His own father had been the one to begin the banishing-chant, and he hadn't fought it, simply walked out of camp with the clothes he was wearing and a single spear in his hands.

That was over a season ago, and he wasn't quite ready to lay down and let the cold take him. But it might be out of his hands now that winter was fully upon the land. He'd never been great at plant identification, or at trap-making - those had been skills that other family members had excelled at so that he didn't need to. He hadn't eaten anything but bark and lichen for many days, and his last protein had been a handful of moth larvae barely worth the calories expended to dig them out of the rotting stump. This hunt might be his last chance.

So here he was: on his belly on the frozen ground, crawling toward a small group of deer bedded down in some shrubs. He'd been stalking them for hours, and was almost close enough to strike. It was a desperate way to hunt large animals. The best way was to steer a herd into a ravine or bog where they couldn't escape or fight well, but that method required familiar lands, and a family working together. Nearly impossible for a lone man.

Suddenly, he heard something approaching from the hill behind him and to the east, crashing through the brush, making no effort to be stealthy. Flatnose lifted his head and watched in silent despair as the deer sprang from their beds. A pack of wolves ran past him and charged after them. In the span of a few breaths both wolves and deer had run over the next hill and out of sight.

He lay for awhile, listening to the wind and fighting the urge to lay his head on the ground. Wolves were often messengers of the Stone Mother, She may have sent them to tell him it was time to stop hunting and give up. One could never fully know the minds of the Gods, though, and there was one, small hope: if the wolves made a kill, he might be able to scavenge from it.

It took several tries to rise to his feet, he was that weak. He backtracked his own trail to where he'd stashed the small bundle of belongings he'd managed to make and collect since his banishment, and  started to follow the wolves' tracks. It was easy tracking when the trail was this fresh: perfect little paw marks melted in the top layer of frost.

Within a couple hours, he saw birds circling up ahead. The wolves must have made a kill. Would it do him any good, though? Alone, he didn't have a chance of scaring them off, but it was possible that once they'd filled their bellies they would leave - the pack had looked strong and healthy, they may not feel the need to guard the carcass. If he could beat the bears, lions, hyenas, eagles and birds to it, anyway. He crested a ridge and there, at the bottom of the slope, were the wolves. The pack had indeed managed to take down one of the deer, an adult, and were were eating voraciously, the way wolves do, as if it were their last meal. Flatnose's mouth watered at the sight of all that food, so close, and yet untouchable.

He made a fire while he waited. The wolves didn't even seem to care, another jarring sign of his loneliness. A group of humans would have caused a pack of wolves to stop everything to watch them, or maybe even preemptively attack. A lone human held little threat. As long as he kept his distance, they ignored him.

Flatnose huddled by the fire, and concentrated simply to stay awake. He was running out of time. The sun was sinking, and he wasn't sure he could survive another winter night without either calories, or proper shelter. The wolves had slowed down, the two larger ones had finished, and he had some hope he'd be able to try his hand at stealing some meat soon. Just as he thought this, he caught sight of movement out in the distance. A large, dark shadow, coming down from another hill. A lion.

The wolves noticed at about the same time, and turned in unison, hackles and tails raised. Six wolves could take a single lion, but they might not want to risk defending food from such a dangerous foe when they had full bellies. If the lion took possession of the meat, Flatnose chances of getting any disappeared. A lean, lonely lion was much more likely than a fat and healthy wolf pack to guard the carcass or drag the entire remains to a lair and guard it until it was completely eaten.

This, then, must be Her test. He had to do something before the wolves decided to leave. He took a deep breath and threw off his hood and gloves. He broke off the biggest branch of heather he could find, and lit it in the fire. And then, with his only spear in one hand, makeshift torch in the other, he ran down the hill.

He kept wide and far away from the deer carcass, circling to get the lion between him and the pack. It would divide the lion's attention. Some of the wolves looked his way, but the lion was still their priority for the moment. They snarled and danced outside the range of its claws, making feint attacks as the lion was snarled back and swiped at them with deadly claws, slinking closer to the deer. Neither predator wanted to engage quite yet, and there was a temporary standoff. Now or never.

Flatnose only had one spear. He had to aim for a spot that was impossible to miss, that wouldn't simply glance off bone. As he got close to the lion, it stopped and turned toward him, ears pinned and teeth bared. Before it could attack, he threw the torch in its face. It flinched and swatted at the fire. In the one heartbeat that the lion was distracted, Flatnose leapt forward and thrust his spear into the lion's belly. It screamed and spun around, yanking the spear from his hands as the cat swiped wildly at him. He fell backwards, rolling out of reach, but bruising his ribs and elbow in the process.

It was a huge risk, spearing it in the gut. It could make it even stronger and angry, and now it might target him instead of the wolves. He scrambled to his feet as quickly as possible, backing away, but the lion wasn't coming after him yet; it was pawing and chewing at the spear stuck in its body, glancing back and forth between the wolves and Flatnose. In pain, surrounded by threats, it couldn't decide what to do. For a moment, Flatnose felt great sympathy for the lion. It was a gaunt young male, hungry and alone, just like Flatnose. It didn't realize that its life was already over, one way or another.

Mercifully, it didn't need to die the agonizing, drawn-out death of a gut wound, for at that moment, the wolves decided to attack after all. Flatnose stumbled away from the furious swirl of animals as quickly as his weak limbs would carry him. Back to the relative safety of his fire. He was dizzy with exhaustion and relief: he'd attacked a lion, by himself, and survived mostly unhurt.

He couldn't see the battle, obscured by brush and gathering darkness, but he could hear it just fine, and could tell it was not going well for the poor lion. Shortly, everything went quiet and the wolves came trotting back into view. Several were limping, but none seemed seriously hurt. He could swear they seemed smug. They settled in near the deer carcass, laying down to lick at wounds or curl up to sleep. They weren't leaving the area anytime soon. Flatnose wouldn't be eating any venison tonight, but he didn't need it now. He had roast lion in his future.

He made a new pair of torches and took them back down the hill, once again keeping well clear of the wolves and their food. They watched him, but none made a move toward him. Whether it was their exhaustion, full bellies, or that they still didn't see him as a threat, or maybe even that they saw him as an ally who helped them with a common enemy, or simply the grace of the Stone Mother, tonight they would tolerate him. Now that they weren't competition for a meal, he actually hoped they would stay for awhile. After being alone so many months, it was comforting, having other creatures nearby that were neither food nor enemy.

The lion's body was resting just a few lengths from the deer, in a small hollow. Flatnose used the torch to make two new, bigger fires, one on each side of the lion. It might be enough to keep away other scavengers that came in the night. It was all he had the energy for, but he was optimistic. For the first time in awhile, he had some plans to make for the future: Tonight, he would eat until his belly was swollen and painful. Then he would sleep. Then he would get up and eat some more. He would keep the fires going; he would build a shelter; he would find some water to drink; he should try to tan the lion skin, it would be a welcome addition to his pathetic bedroll of stitched-together small animal hides, or maybe he would try to make a water-tight cooking bag so he could make stew, which was a less-wasteful way to cook than roasting. His only spear was shattered, and he was banished from all the sacred yew groves, but perhaps the Stone Mother would see fit to show him the way to a different grove of trees so he could make more. She seemed to think he should live for tonight, maybe he would live through the winter after all.


While I was in the middle of writing this story, an extremely pertinent interview was published in Psychology Today: 'Dumping the Dog Domestication Dump Theory Once and for All' I highly recommend reading it.

'What it means to be alone' takes place 150,000 years ago. Not much has changed since the time of SmallWatcher. Although the climate has fluctuated in that time, both people and wolves have adapted with no apparent changes to their habits or tool-uses. Flatnose's people, Neanderthals, still dominate the hunting grounds of Eurasia, living in traveling family groups and sharing the landscape with wolves and other predators. The creature we know today as the dog is still 100,000 years away from being fully created, but humans and wolves still have frequent interactions that are leading up to that final domestication.

Humans and wolves share what Christoph Jung in the above interview describes as, "astonishing similarities in their social behavior, their psychology and social communication." Both are also excellent hunters. Part of being a successful hunter, especially a human with a big brain, is to put yourself inside the mind of other animals, so you can predict their moves and habits. From there, it's a short step for a social creature to sympathize and feel close kinship to other animals, especially predators that are so like himself, even when those predators are often competition for the same food.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Stop Being Terrible at Werewolves: A Friendly Guide for Fantasy Writers

The modern concept of werewolves originated some time after we stopped being hunter-gatherers -  who weren't afraid[1] of wolves, and in fact made friends of them and turned them into dogs - and sometime before the Renaissance. Wolves were the last widespread, man-eating large predator in Eurasia. They could leap out of the dark woods to attack livestock and eat children and unarmed peasants. The perfect animal to hang our collective monster fears on.

This wolf, the "werewolf-wolf", is not based on real Canis lupus; it's simply a stand-in for all things savage and animalistic. Fantasy need not be "realistic", but a problem arises when writers create a werewolf that isn't a generic savage beast, but a detailed, fleshed-out species with its own society based on the way wolves actually operate in the wild. And it's almost always done poorly. I don't care if your lycanthropy is based on magic, Magik, viruses, or aliens;  If you want to base your fantasy creature on real-world animals, you need to base it on real, up-to-date science about those animals.

I recently had to quit an urban fantasy series[2] I liked because I just couldn't stand the werewolves any longer. The rest of the world-building was great, but bad science will get to me every time. Here's an excerpt from the first chapter of the first book in the series:

"', then come back out when you're ready.' ... He heard the command and stiffened, raising his eyes to meet mine. ... I knew better than to give orders to a werewolf - it's that whole dominance reflex thing. Werewolf instincts are inconvenient - that's why they don't tend to live long. Those same instincts are the reason their wild brothers lost to civilization, while the coyotes were thriving[3], even in urban areas."

Keep in mind, the werewolf character in that excerpt is young, injured, and came to this person for help. And yet even in such a state he still "instinctively" hates receiving even the mildest form of an "order", to the point that the person trying to help worries that he'll attack her because of the way she phrased a single sentence.

This lays the ground work for werewolf social interaction for the rest of the multi-book, best-selling series. Werewolves are obsessed with hierarchy and dominance. To the point of stupidity - they often get distracted in the middle of things they're doing, including fighting an enemy, to turn on each other and fight their own comrades and family. All of them (except for some very rare individuals) are constantly, every moment, every single interaction, battling to become the "Alpha" and control the rest of the group.

I read a fair amount of contemporary urban fantasy, and this is a very typical example of how werewolves are portrayed. And it stems from an outdated and over-rated idea of wolf psychology, which can be summed up in one word:

The "Alpha"

Please, for the love of doG, stop with the "alpha wolf", "pack leader", "dominance is everything" crap. That's not how real wolves (or dogs, for that matter) work. We (western science anyway) used to think that's how canines worked. But we've learned a lot in the last 40 years. In fact, one of the originators of the term "alpha wolf", who is still a wildlife researcher, has since strongly rejected it, going so far as to beg publishers to stop reprinting his older work.

I get why fantasy authors continue to use this outdated theory of dominance as a framework for werewolf world-building. It's simple, most laypeople are familiar with the concept, and it's satisfying to the chimpanzee inside our brains. But it's boring, it's unscientific, and it's a sign of lazy researching.

How To Be Better at Writing Canine-Based Fantasy Creatures 

Wolf packs are families. There is a father and a mother, who mate for life, and their children. There may also be aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins in the same pack. There is no all-powerful king. The mom and dad may not even have many leadership roles. They often do, simply because they're also the oldest and most experienced in the family, but it's by no means a given. It may be other family members who decide when and where to hunt, or where to get water, or when and where to explore/check territorial marks, how harshly to discipline trespassers, etc.

The main thing the "alphas" are concerned with is that they are the only ones allowed to have babies (this isn't a strict rule either! More on that in a moment). This is for good, evolutionary reason: puppies survive better if the whole pack focuses on sustaining just one litter at a time, sharing the duties of babysitting, providing food, and teaching. Too many puppies at once, and all the puppies starve or die from accidents because there weren't enough adult eyes watching.

This "law" of no babies is loosely enforced by the mom and dad by discouraging the rest of the family from mating. The type of discouragement, and how rigidly it is enforced, will vary a lot from pack to pack and depend on how plentiful resources are. There's no need to "fight" their parents for leadership - if a son or daughter wants to have babies, they just leave and start their own pack. Even if one of them did feel the need to fight their parent, what would be their prize? Wolves mate for life, and they choose each other. If a son kills his father, there is no crown or queen to inherit, he's just as likely to be driven off by the rest of the family as he is to "win" a kingdom.

If a daughter does get pregnant while still living with her natal pack, it is usually by a rogue male (scientifically known as a "Casanova male", which is fantastic) who's been creepin' around the edges of the family's territory. Under normal circumstances, these puppies would be ignored by the rest of the pack, and die of neglect. It's possible they may be outright murdered by their own grandparents and/or the daughter may be shunned or kicked out of the pack. When resources are plentiful, however, sometimes the parents allow their daughters to have puppies, too, and the whole pack raises all of them at once.

Another "law" that is often bent and broken: territory. Wolves are often very territorial, and spend a good amount of time patrolling and marking the family's property line. Trespassing wolves may be killed on sight, but not always. Sometimes, new wolves are welcomed into the pack. Sometimes, they're allowed to visit and even mate with some of the females, but aren't really welcome to hang out very long. Sometimes, families join together into "super packs" for awhile, then go their separate ways after awhile. Some children are kicked out of the pack when they're mature; some choose to leave on their own; some choose to stay with their parents for many years; some may leave for awhile and then come back.

Like human families, each pack is different. Some will be more egalitarian, while others will indeed have authoritarian parents that are every bit the stereotypical "alpha". But they are also dynamic. If a father or mother is too much of an a-hole, members may simply leave, which would be detrimental to the "alphas" because then they have less help raising their puppies, deincentivizing extremely aggressive kin behavior. If a younger member of a family fights or kills their parent (which does happen sometimes), it's a lot less less about "fighting to be dominant" and a lot more, "jeeze, dad was such an abusive dick, it's so much better since he moved out".

Wolves can indeed be brutal, but it's not a given. Wolves are flexible, adaptable, social, and intelligent. It makes no sense for werewolves to be mindless, rigidly adhering to hierarchy, and wasting energy fighting each other. The real lives of werewolves could be just as complex, dynamic, rich, brutal, bloody, as real wolves. Let's not limit ourselves.

Some examples of good werewolf world-building

Shout out to Hemlock Grove for creative and well thought-out werewolves that have an animalistic nature and all that fun duality symbolism without the weird baggage of dominance theory.

Shout out to DiscWorld for a well-formed and complex werewolf society that does not involve any "alpha dog" nonsense (that I've seen; I haven't read all the DiscWorld books). Although werewolves are quite harshly hierarchical, in typical Pratchett fashion, it's allegory about human monarchy/authoritarianism rather than anything to do with real wolf "pack dynamics". Bonus love to Pratchett for pointing out many times that wolves and dogs are not very different at all.

Shout out to Harry Potter, in which lycanthropy is treated mostly as a disfiguring disease. There isn't so much a society of werewolves, as there is a loose association of people who come together because they're infected by the same disease, and therefore face the same discrimination from the rest of the world. Werewolves who are bad, violent, or authoritarian, would be so whether or not they were infected with lycanthropy, not because of anything to do with wolf psychology. J.K. Rowling goes out of the way to point out in the text that werewolves don't act much at all like real wolves.


[1] The old paradigm of early dog domestication (where cave men hated wolves and wolves were scared of cave men) is falling out of favor. The newer theory, is that wolves and early humans were hunting partners to one extent or another as far back as the Neanderthals or earlier. For more info, read the wonderful book How the Dog Became the Dog, by Mark Derr (or google his essays), and the many essays on the subject by Scottie Westfall. This is also something I explore in my "Domestication Stories" series of short stories.
[2] Which I won't name. You can probably figure it out
[3] A side note of irritation for this quote specifically: new research suggests coyotes are much closer genetically to wolves than originally thought, and may actually be a subspecies of wolf, or that wolves and coyotes make up a species complex. This makes sense, because they are identical in almost every way to wolves. The only reason they're currently thriving, and wolves aren't, is that they are smaller. They can live off smaller prey and lower quality foods like fruit and garbage that simply won't sustain the mass of a wolf, a diet that means they slip under the radar easier than an animal that requires large prey. It means that  a century ago, when the government was giving out bounties on a whole list of "unwanted" animals, coyotes weren't as heavily persecuted as wolves were. Coyotes only managed to expand their range after humans systematically killed off most of the wolves in North America. Not because they're smarter or have somehow less "volatile instincts" than wolves.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Domestication Stories: Talking to Animals

(Content Warning: graphic description of hunting and butchering)

When the faint howl rose from over the ridge, SmallWatcher and the rest of the nearby Family leapt to their feet. They'd been wandering together along the bottom of a ravine not far from the den,  alternating between lounging and halfheartedly digging for mice. The last big kill had been days ago, and they hadn't scented any Prey of decent size since then. They were all starting to get hungry, and the the howls were a very welcome sound. It was GreenPaw's voice. He'd found Prey.

SmallWatcher whined in delight and danced around Aunt, begging her to start the run. The oldest in the Family, and the best hunter, everyone watched to see what she would do, even Father. Aunt lifted her nose to the wind. There was no fresh scent there yet, but she must have decided to trust GreenPaw, for she started off at a trot toward the sound of his voice. SmallWatcher stayed right on Aunt's heels, just far enough back to avoid annoying her. The rest of the Family spread out on either side (except for those who remained with Mother back at the den).

As they crested the ridge, Aunt suddenly let out an excited wuff and broke into a gallop, turning downhill. A moment later, SmallWatcher caught the scent as well: an aurochs, not far away, running alone, its sweat and fear a delicious beacon billowing up from the forest below. The chase commenced. Every muscle stretched and trembling, the scent of prey hot in her nostrils, breath burning in her throat, the feeling her Family around her, joined in the same joyous motion, hunger pangs forgotten.

Soon, she could hear it - like an entire herd of deer crashing through the brush. Finally, she caught a glimpse of the prey with her eyes. A flash of black through branches. Her stride faltered for a step. This was no calf or cow, but a full grown male, with two enormous horns. Just like the one that had killed an older Sibling this past winter. SmallWatcher and her litter siblings had been younger then, they mostly observed during that hunt. Aunt had cleverly chased the bull into a swamp, but even exhausted and mired down, it had still managed to hook its horns through VoleChaser's body. The Family stilled mourned him.

SmallWatcher's heart clenched, fear replacing excitement. It wasn't winter any longer, they weren't that desperate, were they? Surely there were easier prey to hunt today. But Aunt did not slow. She was running along side the prey, trying to pass it, get in front. SmallWatcher's heart gave another surge of fear, but she quickened her pace to catch up.

They broke out of the forest into the wide river valley filled with grass and low shrubs. Here it easier to see and smell, but also easier for the prey to outrun them. But the prey didn't run faster. In fact, it was slowing down. It dawned on SmallWatcher that it was far more exhausted than it should have been. It must have been running for far, far longer than the Family had been chasing him. Sweat had dried in salty streaks along its flanks, and blood dribbled from its nose and from a mysterious wound on its hind leg.

The whole family was running parallel to the prey now, keeping pace with ease. Aunt began to slow and veer toward it, staying just outside the range of the terrible weapons on its head. Greenpaw and Father were on the other side, mirroring Aunt's action, staying alongside without attacking. It swung its massive head back and forth, unsure if it should attack any of them. As it slowed further, Aunt took the opportunity to cross in front of it. It made a perfunctory swipe at her with the horns, but she was well out of range. The motion tired it even more (as Aunt knew it would) and it slowed to a limping walk.

The rest of the family followed Aunt's lead and started to circle the prey, taking turns to make feinting attacks. The prey snorted and swung his horns again and again, but the action did nothing but tire it more. Aunt and Father still weren't attacking yet, even though they had the prey trapped. SmallWatcher tucked up her tail with anxiety. Eventually, if they wanted to eat, they would have to attack for real, and someone would probably get hurt.

But before she could worry further, she suddenly caught another scent on the air. She froze in her tracks and jerked her head up. Father noticed, scented the air, and then trotted over to her. He rubbed against her shoulder reassuringly. Wait, watch. He trotted back to continue to circle the prey.

Smallwatcher walked away from the Family to stand on a rock. She had the best view when the Travelers arrived. They trotted out of the forest, from the same direction the chase had come from, slow but confident. It was her first time live-scenting a Traveler. Last autumn, when she was just old enough to start roaming the Family's territory, Aunt had showed her their empty camps near the river. Their live-scent was just as smokey as their cold camps, as if they carried fire with them under their skin, although they didn't look very imposing.  They were tall and gangling, not much bigger than a Family member. They had no horns or antlers or sharp hooves or large teeth, but they approached the prey without fear or hesitation.

The circle of the Family became a half circle, as they made way for the Travelers. Aunt, Father, and GreenPaw were wary, but not afraid or surprised by their arrival. Only SmallWatcher's litter siblings, who'd only been hunting for two seasons, were uncertain.

The prey lifted its head and swung around, eyes rolling,. This is what the it had been running from. It was more scared of them than it was of the Family. The Travelers stopped outside the range of his horns, and started a slow dance, shifting their weight from foot to foot, long sticks raised in their front hands. One of them began to sidle around to one side. The bull tensed, eyeing both of them, as if to choose which one to charge. Just then, Aunt raced forward and attacked the prey's flanks, tearing at them. I tensed. Was it time? Would the rest of the Family rush in? But no other family member joined her.

The prey bellowed and swung back around, kicking out, but she'd already let go and retreated. It was not a real attack, but a distraction. The two Travelers immediately took the opening as if they'd been waiting for it, leaping forward to stab their sharp sticks into the Prey's ribs and soft belly. They stuck there, deeply entrenched in flesh as the Travelers jumped back. The prey screamed and kicked, now at its most dangerous and unpredictable. Pain would bring renewed strength and bravery; It could attack any of them, now.

Each of the Travelers pulled another spear from their behind their backs, and the dance repeated itself, with one of them trying to hold its attention while the other circled around. Once again, the bull started to charge, and once again, Aunt bravely rushed into to attack its rear. This time, one spear went into the ribs behind the elbow, the other into the neck. The prey went down on its side, kicking and thrashing, its horns digging a deep furrow into the moss and dirt.

SmallWatcher twitched and whined in excitement. The prey was down! Now was the time the Family should rush in. But Aunt and Father had retreated again, and went back to just watching. The Travelers waited, too. They backed away and squatted on their heels, patient and unhurried.

Finally, after what felt like days, the prey lay completely still. One of the Travelers rose to his feet and circled around behind its head to pull out the spear from the neck. The food did not react, nor did it move when he gave one last thrust to the spine to make sure it was dispatched.

SmallWatcher marveled that the hunt was already over. The entire hunt had taken less than half a day. Some hunts of large animals took the Family days to complete. No one injured. And before them lay enough food to feed the family for two weeks. But would they get to eat any of it?

Saliva dripped from SmallWater's mouth. The scent of sweet blood and dark, rich offal filled the air.  but still, none of the family came forward to eat. Aunt and the rest of the family still paced in a rough half-circle, but slow now, at a further distance, eyeing the Travelers, and the Travelers eyed them back. But unlike if the situation had involved a lion or hyena, or a rival Family, Aunt and Father did not make any aggressive moves to claim the kill for their own. Everyone remained calm and watchful.

While the one kept watch, the other Traveler pulled a small stone from the animal skin around its middle and used it to cut into the skin on the auroch's hind leg. Two mighty blows from another, larger rock, and the lower leg was severed below the hock. He repeated the action for the other hind leg, and paused in his work long enough to suck some marrow from the end of the crushed leg bone. He tossed the second leg to his companion, who did the same. When he was finished, the dropped the leg to the ground. That's when Father made his move.

He rushed in and snatched up the leg. Both Travelers yelled, and the guard swung with his spear, but Father was already out of range. He took his prize deep in the grass to gnaw on, and in the moment of distraction Father, Aunt snatched up the other discarded leg and ran in the opposite direction. I listened with mouth-watering envy as she settled in the bushes to chew on it. My litter Sibling, FastPaws, whined and started to dart forward as well, but Aunt left her treasure long enough to block him, growling and snapping at him. Not yet. They are dangerous. Wait.

The Travelers ignored the Family as long as they stayed back, and continued to cut into the kill, slicing away at skin and tendon and muscle, until the entire hind quarter was separated from the rest of the body. The Traveler dragged the quarter off to the side by the flap of extra skin. By the time the sun began to set, the other hind quarter joined the first, and then a shoulder quarter, then more Travelers arrived.

 These ones carried more things. More sticks of all sizes; more animal skins wrapped around objects; more rock tools; more exotic scents. They dropped their things and milled around the food for awhile, chattering and waving their front limbs. Then they all sorted themselves and got to work. Some stood guard as others helped butcher, and others fiddled with their belongs, arranging sticks and animal hides in some pattern that SmallWatcher couldn't understand. SmallWatcher stared in wonder as one of them knelt and produced fire from the ground. This caused some excitement from her siblings, but when Aunt and Father continued to stay calm, they soon settled down.

None of them ate, until at one point, one of them emerged from the bloody center of the food with the liver.  SmallWatcher's favorite, though she rarely got a taste since Aunt, Mother, Father or older siblings usually got to it first. Everyone stopped work and passed chunks of liver around, each cutting off pieces small enough to put into their tiny mouths.

SmallWatcher couldn't stand it any longer. The scent of warm liver and blood were so close, even the alarming smell and crackle of the fire couldn't keep her away. She slunk down off the rock and inched toward the food. One of the Travelers shouted and pointed at her, and a couple guards came toward her, sticks raised. They were so close to her, they could have stabbed her with their spears with one lunge. They smelled exotic, dangerous; they carried on their bodies the relics of so many successful hunts - skins and tendons and bones and teeth and claws from all different animals, even teeth from a lion. She heard Father's distant growl and whine, but he wasn't coming close. SmallWatcher shivered with nerves, but didn't retreat. They hadn't attacked yet. And if there was even a chance...

Without thinking, she lay down on her belly, flattened her ears, and licked her lips beseechingly, chin almost touching the ground. She'd never seen anyone try to talk to other animals before. It felt odd, like play-bowing to a rock. But, SmallWatcher was the smallest in the Family, not counting the new pups; the last-born of a large litter, last to the teat as a pup, and last to the kill now that she was old enough to hunt. Begging was second nature to her.

It worked. They lowered their spears and looked at each other and chattered with their strange voices. And then, one of them flicked a small piece of liver at her feet. She gulped it down at once, possibly the best thing she'd ever eaten. Her actions elicited more chatter from them, and then another Traveler tossed a pair of vertebrate at her, still stuck together and covered in scraps of meat. She snatched it and ran back to her rock to chew on it. Her instincts told her to run much further away, but she sensed that her siblings wouldn't dare come and try to steal it if she stayed closer to the Travelers and their fire.

She was right: her Siblings never tried to steal her bones. She ate at her leisure, nibbling every last scrap of meat, and watched the Travelers work. When they finished their work, and had a mound of their butchered meat covered in a hide tarp, they - all except a guard - lay down near the fire to sleep.

Only then did Aunt and Father allow the rest of the Family to approach the food. Aunt's demeanor said, it's ok to eat now, as long as you stay away from them. And she seemed to be right - the guard watched them, but made no moves against them as they dragged away portions of food. Father, the strongest, grabbed the head. The Travelers had cut off the horns and scooped out the brain, but left all the face meat for the Family. There was also offal, all four lower legs, the pelvis and tail, big pieces of neck, some skin, many bones still coated in meat. There was plenty for everyone.

The Family stayed near the carcass most of the night, taking turns to drag bits away into the grass, gulping down the soft bits as fast as possible and gnawing on the bones. Aunt and Father were the first to leave, after they'd filled their bellies. They would go back and share the feast with Mother at the den.

The Siblings stayed until almost dawn, squabbling over bones and nibbling every scrap of meat they could, some of them carrying bones with them as they left. SmallWatcher was the last to leave. She nibbled on a rib and watched as the Travelers got up with the sun, buried their fire, and each took up a load of the meat to carry. They walked away, toward the river, probably to the camp that SmallWatcher had seen last year.

SmalWatcher stayed near the auroch's scattered bones until the last Traveler disappeared from view. They were returning to their den, just as SmallWatcher's Family returned to theirs. But they'd meet again, soon, out on the hunting fields.


SmallWatcher's story is set in Europe 200,000 years ago and the people she encounters are Neanderthals. Her clan wouldn't meet Homo sapiens, the humans who would eventually mold them into the dog we know today, for at least another 100,000 years, but it's very likely Neanderthals and other archaic humans started wolves on the path to domestication, simply by virtue of having the same habitat, prey sources, and sharing the wolfish traits of being opportunistic, adaptable, and curious.

Imagine how many of these encounters like what I write here must have happened over the millennia, and you can see how ancient humans could have naturally shaped wolf populations to be some degree of people-friendly, long before their "true" domestication by H. sapiens 35,000 years ago.

My series of 'domestication stories' are speculative, but are based on the most recent data we have on early people and wolvesScience used to believe that to domesticate the dog there had to be intent. It's hard to imagine selective breeding without an end goal in mind, but the more we learn, the more we understand that that's exactly how the dog (probably) came about. As canine historian Scottie Westfall puts it: "it had to be so easy, a caveman could do it". 

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Saddest Harvest

This is the third summer I've lived in this house, and it's the third summer I've made the sad collection you see in this jar: dead bumblebees collected from the back part of the driveway near the garage.

I don't think their deaths are natural. The slow but noticeable pile-up of tiny fuzzy bodies starts in early July, long before the cold nights start taking their natural toll on the population, and I maintain two bee baths nearby so it's not likely to be dehydration, either. And of all of my yard, it's only these 100 or so square feet where they accumulate; I'll find the odd dead non-native honey bee or wasp scattered all over the yard, but nothing near the numbers of bumbles in this one spot.

There is the possibility that this neighborhood simply has a lot of bumble bees. I've seen swarms of them on neighbor's lavender, and in my silk tree. The workers only live about a month, and it could be coincidence that I find so many in one spot. Maybe heat rising up from the asphalt happens to catch an abnormal number of weak workers already on their way out.

But I can't help but think it's related to pesticides. We don't use them*, and neither do our immediate neighbors, but I can guarantee that previous owners did. The house was built in 1910, so it's been through every single wave of modern pesticide use, possibly starting with the old fashioned lead or arsenic-based ones, followed by organochlorines, then organophosphates and carbamates, then pyrethroids and neonicotinoids. Most of the most popular pesticides in the last century last a long time in the environment, and could have left potential residues.

We have a curious lack of ants in the house, when many other locals have a huge ant population in their kitchens; we have a lack of wasp nests in the eaves, or under the porch, even this year, which has seen record numbers of wasps due to a mild winter. This probably means the perimeter and eaves were treated with pyrethroids in the last few years. And probably have been annually for decades, since pyrethroids first went on the consumer market. The soil and mulch left from previous owners, surfaces of the asphalt driveway, the foundation and eaves of the garage and the house, all probably have at least some residues of long-lasting insecticides.

Bee declines are more on the public's radar now than a decade ago, but of course everyone wants an easy answer and a "quick fix". The push to to ban individual insecticides like imidicloprid or other neonicotinoids  has the feel of a handy scapegoat, an easy-to-understand boogyman. What the science is clear on, however, is that the single biggest threat to pollinators (and most species, for that matter) is habitat fragmentation. Many of the same people so adamant about banning pesticides maintain pollinator food deserts in their own yards with a traditional manicured lawn.

My opinion is that residential use of pesticides for "frivolous" reasons (killing pests in ornamental plants including lawns) should be a lot more restricted, instead of banning their use in agriculture. At the same time, farmers should be given incentives for increasing biodiversity on their land, and reducing chemical inputs and reducing waste across the board (that includes long distance shipping, burning or trashing harvests when prices go down, etc).

I won't be having my soil tested because my actions would be the same no matter if it's pesticides or other things killing the bees: plant my vegetables in raised beds filled with fresh soil; mulch the heck out of everything else to bury any contamination; keep the bee-baths filled during the driest months; plant native flowers and shrubs that provide year-long food for pollinators, hopefully in a way that is so attractive from the curb I can convince my neighbors to follow suite.

In the meantime, every time I see another sad little fuzzy body in my yard, I get to ponder the follies of modern living.

Image description: A photograph of a glass jar holding about twenty dead bumblebees.

 *With a few, very tiny exceptions, such as fipronil or imidicloprid flea drops on the cat and dog.


Monday, July 16, 2018

Everyone Uses Bleach Wrong: A PSA with BONUS! Super Hero Analogy

I worked in an animal shelter once upon a time, and as you can imagine it was both rewarding and stressful; there were high highs, and low lows of all kinds, but there was one area that never failed to suck me into a twilight zone of misery: catching a volunteer or co-worker in the act of -- and then correcting on -- the improper use of chlorine bleach.

Bleach is our friend. It is the most effective, cheapest, most environmentally-friendly option for killing most of the terrible germs out there. And everyone seems to use it incorrectly. Too many people treat bleach more like a magic talisman than a disinfectant, filling a spray bottle and spritzing it on everything in the style of Windex Mom in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Bleach is like a comic book hero who has super strength only under the right circumstances. If the "bad guys" are hanging out somewhere wide open and clean, bleach is unstoppable. Other disinfectants like QAC's are more like stealthy assassins, sneaking in through the air ducts to get to the center of the bad guys' hideouts. The bad guys can learn to stop the assassins by simply blocking the air ducts, but they have no defense against the brute-force of bleach. (This is also why germs are not likely to develop resistance to chlorine bleach the way they can to the QAC's).

Except... like all good super heroes, bleach has a major weakness: dirt (all organic material, actually). The moment bleach touches dirt, it loses all its power. The bad guys can hide inside a microscopic ball of organic matter all day long. It's like a giant, multi-room mansion to them, and all bleach can do is peek in the windows.

Chlorine bleach does not work on:

Plush toys 
Most furniture
Fabric* (gray area, see below)
Dirty dishes
Dirty concrete
Dirty anything

Let me repeat this, because I've talked to a lot of people about this, from all walks of life, and it's always a hard sell: I swear to you, no matter what you've heard (or who you've heard it from): Bleach will not work on porous or dirty things. I'm sorry, you can't disinfect that cutting board you bought from the thrift store. Or the second-hand drift wood for your lizard's terrarium. We've all done it at one time or another. You're not the first one to dump bleach onto the slobbery dog toys, or litter-encrusted cat box, or into your parvo-contaminated lawn, or spritz it on your ringworm-covered clothes, and think that you killed a few germs. It really doesn't do anything except sometimes change the object's color.

And I have more bad news: the same is true for all the other disinfectants out there; there is no such thing as a magic disinfectant that will solve all your organic material problems, no matter what certain brands' marketing implies. (With the possible exception of accelerated hydrogen peroxide and potassium peroxymonosulfate, but even those are only slightly better in the presence of organic matter. Plus they're much more expensive, and have higher health risks to users, than bleach).

But do not despair! Microorganisms don't always need to be killed, they can be PHYSICALLY removed from their hideouts. Washing with detergent, tons of rinsing, hot dry cycles. Don't forget about that overlooked hero, Heat. The most important disinfection process of all, autoclaving surgical instruments, doesn't use any special chemicals at all, just heat.

And sometimes you have to just bite the bullet and throw contaminated things away. If that thing is your yard, digging out the contaminated soil and throwing it away, or burying it in a thick layer of mulch may be a better answer than trying to clean it. Speaking of...

Soiled soil
Yes, it's tough when an outdoor area is contaminated by something nasty and contagious. The most porous and dirt-laden place of all is the same place most likely to be contaminated when you have a sick pet. Most of our worst enemies like parvo, panleukopenia, crypto, and ringworm can live for a long time in the soil. Many pet websites (and a lot of veterinarians) recommend, in addition to other protocols, at least giving a chemical disinfectant a try on your yard if you've had for example, parvo dogs pooping there. I could probably get on board with the idea of giving it a try, just in case it kills a few baddies, except for one problem: if it doesn't work, (and the science tells us it probably doesn't) you won't be able to tell, and you risk getting complacent.

Dealing with contaminated clothing is almost as fraught as a contaminated yard. Yes, some bleach products are labeled to disinfect clothing - but in a very limited way: Adding the correct amount to a load of laundry in a washing machine run with cold water that doesn't contain very much organic material. In which case, the action of the detergent and water alone may physically remove more germs than the bleach will kill.

The problem is, I've seen way more people using bleach incorrectly with clothing than any other application. I've observed multiple professionals (veterinarians, certified vet techs, nurses) recommend spraying contaminated clothing with a bleach solution (or other disinfectant, like a quat, usually). This isn't doing jack sh*t. I totally understand you want to feel like you're doing something, but using it this way isn't just useless, it may make things worse by encouraging less caution with the (still contaminated) clothing.

Proper use of bleach: an original mnemomic, just for you!

If you have a non-porous thingy to disinfect, remember to S.W.A.P.

Stay cool! Heat kills bleach (aka, it accelerates the loss of the chlorine ions before they can do their work). Mix with cold water only; if you're going to use in a washing machine, set it to cold; don't use bleach on something hot, like recently washed dishes.

Wash First! -- always pre-clean before disinfecting.

Alone! -- Bleach works best alone. Don't mix it with anything besides water. Unless you're experimenting with re-creating mustard gas, and want to burn your lungs out, then by all means.

Yes, I know they make "cleaner and disinfectant in one" products that had to have passed some efficacy tests before being sold. Buy them if you can afford it, but please, please, don't try to mix your own. Don't try to mix in an essential oil because you don't like the smell of bleach (yes, I once had to stop a volunteer from doing this at the shelter).

Proper dilution! more is not always better. Believe it or not, for some germs, more concentrated bleach doesn't work as well as properly diluted bleach - I suppose it would be as if Super Bleach were all hopped up on Angry Acid and screamed the whole time he ran down the street before attacking the bad guys' hideout - announcing his presence so forcefully would give the bad guys a chance to run away (non-enveloped bacteria link). The perfect dilution of Bleach allows it to punch through the bad guy's defenses with exactly the right amount of force and speed to complete demolish them it before they know what's happening.

OK, that's one of the worst mnemonics I've ever heard, but you get it.

Now, go forth and kill some parvo!

Bleach factsheet from the NIH
Bleach factsheet from the CDC
Cleaning and disinfecting in shelters
UW FAQ on killing parvo
UC Davis FAQ on killing parvo in yards
Resistance mechanisms of bacteria to antimicrobial compounds (PDF)
Antiseptics and Disinfectants: Activity, Action, and Resistance
Bacterial resistance to disinfectants containing quaternary ammonium compounds
How long can different germs survive on surfaces?
Air temperature greatly affects how long crypto can live on the ground: one day vs. 73 days

Image description: a crude cartoon drawing of a anthropomorphized bottle of bleach, labeled "super bleach" and wearing a mask and cape, as it faces off against a blob of brown substance containing anthropomorphized microorganisms, who are frowning at the hero.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Who to blame for shelter dog euthanasias?

So, you saw a sad advertisement on social media about shelter pets dying from "lack of homes". You got sad, then you got mad. Time to blame someone! Odds are good, whoever made the ad already has a target handpicked: Is it... breeders? "irresponsible" pet owners? Maybe the solution is to punish people more, to enact more laws, give the maker of the ad money?

It feels good to blame "the other" for bad things. It's human nature. But let's all take a breath and consider what's really going on. Since the odds are good that the ad you just saw fudged or outright lied about some statistics, let's start with...

Real Numbers* 

About 670,000 dogs are euthanized in US shelters per year. Of those, about 10% are euthanized for a good reason** (ie, the same reasons that a compassionate pet owner would). So, the number of deaths-from-lack-of-home is actually about 570k.

Good news: There are about 78 million pet dogs in the US, so 570k dogs represents less than 1% of the dog population as a whole. Overall, we as a society are doing pretty good by our dogs. Let's not lose sight of that.

More good news: this number has been dropping steadily and significantly for the last couple decades. Also, the numbers of dogs entering shelters has been declining, the percentage being adopted has been increasing, and the number of strays returned to owner has been increasing. Something to celebrate!

Even more good news: even though it's still a large, sad number, there are actually more than enough homes available for these dogs***. It is a complete myth that there is an "overpopulation" of dogs in this country. It might have been true in the 1960's or '70's, but now it is not. There are 17 million potential homes, and only 570,000 dogs killed for "lack of a home". The only real question is, how to get them into the hands of people who are looking for them?

Logically, since things are already improving every year, if we want to end unnecessary euthanasia. we should focus on the things that work, and keep doing them but even better. The solution to needless killing has nothing with dog breeders, and actually not even all that much to do with the people who relinquish their pets to a shelter. The problem, and the solution, lies mostly with with the decisions that shelters make.

Bottom line: well-functioning shelters have low euthanasia rates; poorly-functioning shelters have high euthanasia rates. All other factors are drops in the bucket compared to the importance of shelter policies and procedures.

What do "good" animal shelter policies look like? They have pet retention programs, they work actively to promote adoptions, actively work to reunite lost pets with their owners... etc.


What does a "bad" animal shelter look like? They don't do the things listed above. Here's some examples.

Some more examples contrasting good vs. bad policies, and how they affect euthanasia rates.

Here's a story of how a bad shelter became a good one.

You still mad about dogs being killed? Good! Use that anger to personally improve the kill rates in your local shelter. If it's already a good shelter, or is on the right track, you can volunteer or otherwise support them. If it's a bad shelter, you can help them get on the right track, or, if they're stubborn, you can speak out, protest, boycott, attend city council meetings... all that good stuff. Be an actor, not a keyboard warrior. And don't share memes without checking them out first.

Maybe you're already very active in the rescue community, and you're angry because it seems like, where ever you turn, you see irresponsible people dumping their pets at shelters. I'm here to remind you that what you see is never the full story, if you knew what people go through when they surrender pets, you wouldn't be so quick to judge, and, even if they are the worst people in the world, they represent a tiny, tiny fraction of dog life in the US. Don't let your anger blind you to the fact that things are getting better all the time, not the reverse. Don't use your anger to spread lies and fear monger. Don't lash out at potential allies like dog breeders. Look at the numbers above and take a moment to celebrate before turning back to the work.

*There is no national organization that tabulates these stats, they vary from state to state, and even from shelter to shelter. I'm using the best estimates available at this time.

**"Good reason" is extremely subjective, and is open for discussion, most knowledgeable people in the field agree that an appropriate "kill rate" for shelter population is somewhere between 1%-20%. I've taken a middle number here for math purposes.

***This is grossly oversimplified, because clearly not every dog will be right for every family, and the US is just too physically large to move dogs around easily, and we can talk about the issues with these numbers, BUT, the point is clear: you can't say that an "overpopulation" exists.


Pet Statistics for 2016 (ASPCA)

ASPCA Research Articles

An Exploration of the Re-Homing of Cats and Dogs in the U.S. (PDF)

Shelter Reform Toolkits

KC Dog Blog

Association of Shelter Veterinarians Shelter Guidelines (PDF)