Saturday, December 31, 2011

An encounter with the dogs' nature

Natural dogs I call them. Perhaps not this pack exactly as these individuals have probably taken a circuitious route through generations of our peculiar whims only to be tossed back out by the callousness of abandonment. For many this is a horror of unknowns and wildfire mange, but others manage to find their roots from way back before domestication. Some even find their ancestors. But by that I do not mean wolves, there is something inbetween, and that is the natural dog, pre-domestication.
I have a theory and am about to test it. About 20 dogs live on this patch of wasteground on the outskirts of Bangkok. I have watched them through binoculars from a multistorey carpark, which may seem like a naturalist’s desparation in a barren metropolis but to me it feels as if I’m looking at something strikingly new that touches our relationship with nature quite deeply.  These dogs are unowned and live what looks like a moderately tough life of scavenging and dodging. It is night, stuffily warm, distant street-lights provide a few candles-worth of orange gloom and a nearby motorway provides a muffled background hum. I have no torch and am going to walk through the area where I know this pack of mongrels is lying up. Walk with me, I dare you.
But first look over to the left at the mid-distance homes of wealth and barriered gardens. Imagine jumping over one of those walls at night and meeting the canine residents. Rottweilers or poodles, they would not be wagging their tails when they come to greet you. Still want to come with me?
Good. We walk slowly to allow our feet to feel the way. After a dozen or so careful steps we first become aware of shadowy forms, gone if we try to look directly. As we edge forwards they seem to circle from infront to behind like a ship’s wake. Eventually our eyes start to pick out more detail and confirm that we have dogs on all sides. Silent dogs, so silent. This is what we will remember more than anything.
Suddenly one bolts from under our feet and breaks that silence having been woken from a slumber too deep or a dream too captivating to notice our approach. Looking alternately back over each shoulder it scampers away. On realising that the problem is no more than two humans the barking stops and it slinks with its companions. It gave four brief barks, that’s all; barks so fitting the situation and, dare I say, so natural. Then we are through and the silent pack closes in behind us, but not threateningly, they just want to go back to sleep.
Why didn’t they bark properly or snarl or bite? That’s what such curs should do, isn’t it? The answer, I believe, lies in what we are to them.
My theory is that socialised pet dogs are the problem dogs, the ones that see a person as a social threat so act aggressively. Free-living dogs see us as we are, a different animal not a psuedo-dog, hence the avoidance rather than confrontation. The theory that when we started to settle down and grow into communities some wolves, which are basically undomesticable in themselves, filled a scavenging niche and evolved into a dingo-like animal which was more ripe for domestication, is not mine. But looking at the free-ranging village dogs so prevalent around the tropics it makes so much sense.
But surely the dog is not a natural animal, it’s man-made. That’s the point. That’s hitting the nail on the head. The nail that always so firmly pins the dog to our egos and arrogant assumptions. We walked through that pack of pariahs at night and saw the real nature in the dog. Our dogs, the very ones that we dumped because of the nature of us. They had reverted and that makes me so happy.
Look beyond the pitiful abandoned dogs so poorly prepared for freedom, the ones that do not manage the leap back to their past, and you can see the generations of lower-latitude independent dogs perfectly designed for a role on the edge of our society; unowned and free, deserving of our respect and as natural as the sparrows that similarly share our space.
I dared you to come with me physically now I dare you to join me in spirit.
Look at your own pet dog. Ask it who did the adapting, them or us. It will wag its tail and give the perfect reply that the answer is whatever you want it be, sir. The wild creature is still there but so beautifully camouflaged that we assume that we made it ourselves. We didn’t, nature made the dog, we just did the breeds. 

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