Tag Archives: dogs

Never Judge An Article By Its Headline

I am occasionally reminded that “news” outlets these days are more in the business of drawing viewers than of actually reporting accurate news.  This is especially dangerous in the area of science — journalists are not often trained scientists and it sometimes occurs that a journalist, in reading an article and trying to pull an eye-catching headline out of it, draws an incomplete or erroneous conclusion from the research and then publishes a “news” article about that conclusion.  Thousands of people read the erroneous headline, never look at the source publication, and pick up, however subliminally, the mistaken message.

Today in my Facebook feed I found these two competing headlines:

Your Baby and Your Dog Light Up Similar Parts of the Brain

Neurobiological basis of human-pet relationship: Mothers’ brains respond differently to images of their child and their dog

Image Source: Dee @ www.morguefile.com

Image Source: Dee @ www.morguefile.com

The first headline says that our brains react similarly when we view photos of our pets and our children, implying that the same mechanisms may influence our relationships with both.  The second headline states that our brains react differently when we view photos of our pets and our children, implying that different mechanisms may influence our relationships with both.

I was somewhat appalled to find that both articles refer to the exact same study, which actually supports both conclusions.  Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital examined the brains of 16 women (14 actually completed the entire study) via MRI while they viewed photographs of their children and their dog, as well as photographs of unfamiliar children and dogs, then compared the women’s reactions to each.  The abstract ends with the following sentence: “Although there are similarities in the perceived emotional experience and brain function associated with the mother-child and mother-dog bond, there are also key differences that may reflect variance in the evolutionary course and function of these relationships.”

So, based on this extremely small (only 14 subjects!) and preliminary study (the official press release indicates that the researchers themselves suggest further research with a larger sample), one can conclude that, well, we use the same bits of our brain to evaluate our relationships with both our pets and our children, but these bits respond differently to pets than they do to children.  Both of our headlines could be true.  Who knows?  This tiny study is only “contribut[ing] to answering this complex question“.

The lesson here?  Always read the source material, and never assume that any single “news” headline is telling you the entire story.  (In defense of both journalists in this instance, the accompanying articles were both much more neutral in tone than the headlines, and both provided reference to either the official press release or the original article.)

“Zombie Dog” Research Ongoing

Source: morguefile.com

Source: kconnors, morguefile.com

Today’s radar ping was a throwaway line in an otherwise unrelated article on a comedy web site, mentioning research involving the creation of “zombie dogs“.  The research, which is entirely real, is being carried out scientists at the Safar Center for Resuscitation Research at the University of Pittsburgh, who want to know if reducing the metabolic state of mammals with traumatic injuries can help increase survival of the treatment for those injuriesThe original article, as well as most of the news about it, is from late 2005.  The media briefly got excited about being able to use the phrase zombie dogs in professional conversation, but, since the science was (theoretically) legitimate and (most of) the reanimated dogs were just fine when brought back to life, eventually everyone put the pitchforks away and forgot about the zombie dogs.

Except, of course, the Safar Center.  They are still doing research on taking animals (and humans) to the brink of death and back — almost ten more years of articles with spine-chilling titles like Intravenous hydrogen sulfide does not induce hypothermia or improve survival from hemorrhagic shock in pigs and Magnetic resonance imaging assessment of regional cerebral blood flow after asphyxial cardiac arrest in immature rats.  Reading down their publication list tells you that, when they can, they are doing relevant experiments on humans, but, since no human capable of informed consent is ever going to volunteer to suffer severe brain injury, when the researchers can’t find human models they use rats, mice, dogs, pigs, and monkeys.

On the one hand, I completely understand wanting to find new ways to fix people who have been severely damaged.  Much of this research is, obviously, going to support our troops, a noble goal, and as you can see in the publication archives, a lot of the research is being done to help children.  I have absolutely nothing against these goals, and the scientific part of me completely understands that, in order to help some people who really need it, sometimes we have to do things which seem impossibly horrible.  On the other hand, every single one of these experiments starts, essentially, by whacking a couple dozen (sedated) rats on the head to induce brain injury, or essentially draining all the blood out of several (also sedated) pigs to induce cardiac arrest.  (If you are looking to cure traumatic injury, Step One in your experimental protocols is to create traumatic injury.)

There is something about this which is, to me, unspeakably twisted, but damned if I know an immediate solution to it.  Using only consenting human subjects as they appear by random chance would set the research back years, and if my child were struck by a car I know I would want all the research going into knowing how to sew my child’s head back on; on the other hand, if I were struck by a car, would I want to know that 2,000 rats died so that they could sew my head back on?  20,000?  Is there a minimum or maximum number of rats(/pigs/dogs/monkeys) that my life is worth?  I know it’s worth a lot of rats to me, but am I the governing authority here?  Cosmically, am I worth more or less than a rat?  Ten rats?  Is my contribution to society worth 2,000 lifetimes spent languishing in a little plastic tub in a research lab?  Would I want to meet those rats?  Explain it to them?  Would I want to explain it to the pigs?  The dogs?

No solutions here, alas — just a note to the world that this stuff is still happening.  No idea how to make it right, but, somewhere, this stuff went seriously wrong.

Would an Animal Shelter Import a Puppy?

In an article decrying (with some justification) the tendency of animal-rescuing persons to refer to animal-breeding persons with derogatory names, the author stated (emphasis theirs):

Animal shelters in the USA have been casting a wide net to fill their kennels for years. According to the US Public Health Service, Chicago O’Hare was the destination airport for 10,125 dogs imported from overseas in 2006, half of which weren’t vaccinated. Scientists from the Center of Disease Control estimated that over 199,000 dogs (38,100 unvaccinated) came into the country through the Mexican border that year alone, and in 2007, one organization in Puerto Rico by itself shipped more than 14,000 strays in seven years to the United States for adoption at shelters. ABC News reported that according to G. Gale Galland, veterinarian in the CDC’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, as many as 300,000 puppies a year – most from countries with little or no health safeguards, are being imported to satisfy the demand for puppies at shelters.

This set off my WTF detector, because, in my experience, I think the last thing the workers at the shelter where I work would ever want to do would be to purchase, with money, more animals for the shelter.  People walk in their door every day with baskets of puppies, often purebred.  At this exact second they have four purebred Beagles, a purebred German Shepherd, a Labrador retriever, a handsome white Boxer, and a mother Pug with two puppies.  Speaking of puppies, there is also a litter of five little Lab/Beagle mixes, at least three other, single, puppies, and some lovely juvenile (teenage) dogs, as well as possibly an infinite number of kittens.  Every cage is full.  For what possible reason would they want to ask for more dogs?

The original G. Gale Galland quote, in a 2007 article about how importation of unvaccinated dogs is prompting concerns about rabies, does indeed say that “as many as 300,000 puppies a year” are being imported — but it does not say that all the animals are specifically going to shelters.  Two paragraphs down in the same article, the Border Puppy Task Force in California describes the puppies as being “sold for $1,000 each in shopping center parking lots on the street”.  The Task Force web site exhorts people not to “pay in cash” for a puppy “on a street corner, in an alley or parking lot, or at a swap meet”.  Most shelters do not sell dogs on the street for $1,000 cash.   Perhaps these imported dogs are not all going directly to shelters?

from Kenny123 on morguefile.com

from Kenny123 on morguefile.com

I was surprised to learn that the bit about getting “14,000 strays in seven years” shipped in from Puerto Rico was true, but again, the quote is incomplete: these animals (known as Satos, or Sato dogs) are not just puppies, they are dogs of all ages.  The shelters say that they are being shipped from an area where there isn’t a lot of help available for them to places where they are more likely to be adopted. Critics say that shelters in areas where there aren’t a lot of stray dogs are importing strays from Puerto Rico rather than “go out of business”.  This letter from someone decrying the practice and its matching rebuttal do a pretty good job of summing up this mess.

This National Animal Interest Alliance (NAIA) paper appears to be the source of the “10,125 dogs imported through Chicago” as well as the “199,100 dogs entered from Mexico” statements.  Note that the paper refers to dogs, not puppies.  When considering where these animals go, the same paper states: “Some of these increases [in importation] may be explained by the apparent recent expansion in a high-volume international commercial puppy trade.  Breeders overseas and across borders ship puppies to the United States for sale through commercial pet stores, flea markets, and internet trading sites.”  Then it adds, “In addition to imports for commercial sale, several animal rescue operations import dogs from other countries for adoption in the United States.  For example…a humane rescue organization imported 295 dogs to the United States from the Middle East.”  Again, the true answer seems to lie right in the middle: yes, there are clearly shelters importing dogs (and puppies).  There are also breeders and commercial facilities importing puppies.

There seems to be a shouting match going on concerning shelters shipping in animals from other rescues.  My animal shelter would tell you that this process (NAIA calls it “humane relocation”) is a great thing; they are thrilled to be able to send animals to shelters in other states so they have room for the new ones constantly walking in the door.  NAIA (which is headed by a number of people who love animals, many of whom also happen to perform animal research, and also breed dogs) seems to have a number of articles putting down this practice as “money-making” on the part of the receiving shelters.  It’s likely that both sides of the story are true, depending on which shelter you look at, and where you live.  This shelter in Atlanta may well be slowly becoming a for-profit organization and is shipping in animals to keep itself financially afloat, but not all shelters behave like this one, and not all relocation programs are primarily intended to raise money for the receiving shelters.

While it is true that some shelters import pets, from both other US shelters and shelters in other countries, it feels to me as though this is more about NAIA (the primary source of a lot of articles, as well as the term “humane relocation” referring to movement of animals between shelters) using articles about a real concern (unvaccinated imported animals bringing in zoonotic diseases) to support an attack against animal rescue groups’ negative attitude toward pet breeders.  I can see (some of) the thought behind their position: in general, dog (and cat, ferret, horse, etc.) fanciers who take good care of their animals should always be encouraged, be their animals from (reputable) breeder or (reputable) shelter, and, in fact, some breeders are also rescuers.  (Responsibly) breeding pets is not intrinsically a terrible act.  On the other hand, portraying all shelters as money-grubbing, fanatical and untrustworthy “pet shops”, and denouncing a program that (at least sometimes) allows animals unlikely to be adopted in one area to be shipped to another for faster adoption, is not good for the one thing we all love best here: the animals.

Sometimes I Know Too Much

Today, on my Facebook feed, amongst the photos of kittens with yarn and puppies adorably chewing their own feet, this photo of a pile of euthanized dogs wandered past:

source unknown

source unknown

It was accompanied by a bland but well-meaning glurge poem in which a dog wonders why it had to die despite solvable behavior problems.  Now, I completely agree that solvable behavior problems are no reason to drop your dog off at the shelter (I believe firmly in Not Shooting The Dog), but the poem, alas, misses the point: the horror of this photo does not lie solely in that there are dead dogs in it.  It lies at least partly in how they died: these poor things are in a gas chamber, and have just been gassed to death, likely with CO2.  This is the view the shelter technician saw upon opening the door afterwards.  (When this image is fed into Google image search, it turns up dozens of articles on gas chambers, and how horrible they are.)

That animals are euthanized at all, because people still view them as property, as a commodity, as something to be “dumped” when they become obnoxious or ill or old or inconvenient, is a terrible thing.  That animals are still “euthanized” by CO2 is an even more terrible thing.  The people spreading this photo are missing a huge opportunity to note that not only did these dogs die because people are occasionally irresponsible morons, they died in a terrible, awful, unbelievably frightening and ugly way.  (Click on that link, which contains video, at your peril.)  They were twice the victims of human carelessness: the first time by the actions of those who landed them in the shelter, and the second by the actions of those who thought “lowest cost” was the primary requirement when choosing a method of humane euthanasia.

This is one of those sad points where I have to give up and flail helplessly at the screen.  The words all mush together into one big AUGH.  I applaud the people trying to spread the word about what we are doing to our companion animals, and can’t fault them for their choice of photo.  I wish that the Machine wasn’t so huge that thinking about one part of it (“convenience dumping” of “excess” animals) didn’t lead to the discovery of another, equally awful part (“euthanasia” of dogs by CO2).  I think what is scaring me the most, right now, though, is that I know enough about the world to glance at this photo and immediately recognize it as a gas chamber rather than a freezer.  I’m glad I know about it — I’d rather know than not — but sometimes I miss the quiet-in-the-head of not knowing this is happening.  It was rather peaceful.

Shelter Stories

The man is clearly very sad to be leaving his dog at the shelter.  He is also clearly deaf.  His hearing friend and companion is comforting him with hand signs and hugs as he says goodbye to the little female long-haired Chihuahua, whose big, frightened eyes never leave his face.

His companion is filling out paperwork, explaining to the shelter personnel that they are moving, somewhere the dog is not welcome.  The dog is terrified, trying to hide behind the legs of both men, enclosed in an eerie circle of caged, staring shelter cats and their flat, yellow-eyed welcome.  The leash encloses legs like a hungry snake.

The deaf man catches the dog’s attention, leans down, and carefully makes a very clear signal several times with his hands.  The dog stares at him uncomprehendingly, but with every line of her body desperate to know what he wants.  Signal.  Signal.  Signal.  The dog vibrates with urgency.  What does he want??!?

She can’t obey him.  She doesn’t understand him.  He stops signaling — her desperation to understand him has at least stopped her getting underfoot.

His companion finishes the paperwork.  They lift the dog and hand her to a shelter worker, who gives her a sympathetic squeeze as she trembles.  The men start for the door, then the deaf man abruptly turns and gesticulates, mixed gesture-and-speech.  “She doesn’t….”

The shelter worker tries, but her look mirrors the dog’s.  “I’m sorry?”

Paper, a pen, a practiced search.  In big, careful letters, he writes: SHE DOESNT LIKE BISKTS on a post-it note.  He draws a little cartoon bone beneath: she does not like dog biscuits.  The shelter worker nods solemnly, points at the bone and shakes her head.  No biscuits.

Shelter Stories

When I got married, my mother congratulated me: “Now you’ll have a spouse to get you out of any situation.  ‘Sorry, I can’t view your vacation photos, Vicar — the wife needs me at home.’  ‘Can’t make it to your dog’s birthday party, Helen — the husband needs me to run some errands.'”

It turns out that having a spouse is a wonderful excuse everywhere.

I: “My wife just went to jail.  This is her dog — I just don’t have time for it.”  The Lhasa Apso and her four three-week-old puppies arrive in the footwell of a large and expensive pickup truck, driven by a man who cannot spell “Lhasa Apso”.  A gap-toothed three-year-old grins innocently as a worker fishes the puzzled, tense dog and her brood out of the truck.  Driver and son don’t even follow the dog indoors, filling out the paperwork from the cab of the truck and driving swiftly off.

II: “I don’t know — she told me to bring it in, so I did.”  The miniature Schnauzer is six months old, freshly groomed, terrified, and self defensive.  “Dad” carries him under one arm like a football, shrugging one shoulder, gesturing with the dog.  A shelter worker cautiously drops a slip lead over the growling dog’s head, makes careful friends, and carries him away.  In the cage, wearing his expensive collar and tags, he will continue to growl, with huge, wide eyes.  Dad doesn’t see this.  He fills out the paperwork and walks away.  He tosses “Poor puppy,” into the air, a parting gift as he strolls out the door, getting on with his day.

Shelter Stories III

“He’s a Boxer, chocolate, with white spots, about this big, and wearing a red harness,” the man says, gesturing with his hands.  “Haven’t seen him since Wednesday.”

The shelter worker sympathizes, but there are no dogs fitting that description here.  “Where did he get lost?” she asks, starting to fill out a “lost dog” report.

“Well, every day I keep him out on a chain, and when I get home in the evening I let him off, and he just has the run of the neighborhood, you know?  He always comes back.  Everybody knows him.  So anyway, on Wednesday I get home, and I let him off, and off he goes as usual, right?  Except this time he didn’t come back.  And he didn’t come back Thursday, and he didn’t come back Friday.  I just don’t know what could have happened.”

“How old is he?” asks the worker.

“About a year.”

Shelter Stories I

Cairn terrier in shelter cageNearly thirteen years have passed since you were a puppy, and now you are old, mostly blind, and mostly deaf, doddery and pleasant, ready to lie about the house providing doggie ambiance, and retire in a sunbeam.

Today, Mom and Dad put you in the car, and they took you to a strange room full of nervous animals.  Your tail wagged for everyone, even the cats, and the strange humans in the room.  Then someone walked you away from Mom and Dad, picked you up, and put you in a small metal box with a wire front.

Mom and Dad didn’t come back for you.

Since you are old, you will likely not be adopted.  Who wants to adopt an old, blind, deaf dog?  Should you be allowed to compete for scarce adoptive homes against all the young dogs who are also looking for homes?  Would being adopted even be good for you — suddenly moving, after thirteen years, to a new, scary place you can neither properly see or hear?  What is the humane choice for you?*

And what do we say to Mom and Dad, who just dropped you off at the shelter when you got old?  If we make them feel bad about this decision, they will not even bother to bring their next old, blind dog to the shelter for humane euthanasia — they will just open their front door and let the dog walk out, and he or she will become someone else’s problem.  Maybe that dog will make it to a shelter.  Maybe they’ll meet up with a bigger dog, or some angry kids, or the underside of a truck.  Is it better for you that we can at least give you a quiet exit, and treats before you go?

This story repeats itself every day.  I saw it happen yesterday, but it happened again today at a shelter in your town, and it will happen again tomorrow.  The only way to stop this story happening is to work to create people who don’t think it’s appropriate behavior to drop a family member off at the shelter so someone else has to deal with its aging and death.  The first step in that process is spreading the word that this is even happening.


*Note: Here’s a shelter which offers humane euthanasia for older or sick pets as a free service.  I feel this is a good service shelters should not be ashamed to offer, and which people who do not have the $75-100 or so it can cost to euthanize a pet should not be ashamed of using.  I vastly prefer this option to the “let’s let it suffer until it dies on its own” approach.

Online Learning Tool: Animal Ethics Dilemma

While searching Amazon for more books to eat, I found a mention of a free “online learning tool” called Animal Ethics Dilemma.  It presents five case studies (focusing on the use of genetically modified animals, specifically monkeys, in research; the welfare of farmed chickens; euthanasia of aggressive pets; rehabilitation of wildlife; and slaughter plants) and provides various ways to explore the issues presented by these situations.  It encourages the user to  consider various response options to potentially real-world situations.

Overall, it’s well put together.  It does a decent job of introducing five broad areas of animal welfare.  The exploratory answer options tend to be a little fixed — the tool is trying to introduce the user to five (debatable) points of view (“contractarian“, “utilitarian“, “relational“, “animal rights” and “respect for nature“) and, instead of allowing freeform answers, the tool forces you to choose between five fixed answers, each representing one of the categories.  I don’t honestly believe that any one of these viewpoints is entirely right in all situations, but the division helps to simplify the problems a bit for initial interpretation.

You do have to create a username and password to use the thing, but it’s free, and it never asks for any personal information.  It’s designed to let you create a profile of yourself before experiencing the tool, and compare it to a profile of yourself after working with the tool.  It’s interesting, and it’s not preachy.

For what it’s worth, I personally figure as highly “utilitarian” and “animal rights”.

New Book Available on Wolf Hybrids

The bulk of my animal career has been spent working with the socialized, hand-raised wolves of Wolf Park, a wildlife facility in Battle Ground, Indiana.  While working there I met a variety of people who had issues, of one kind or another, with wolf hybrids (also known as wolfdogs, or wolf x dog hybrids).  The problems these people (and their animals) faced inspired me, and a coworker of mine, to write a book, so that people who suddenly find themselves confronted with something labeled a “wolf hybrid” would have somewhere to turn.

The book is now available for purchase.  It can be purchased through Wolf Park, if you’d like to support a nonprofit animal facility.  It can be purchased through the publisher, Dogwise Publishing, if you’d like to support an excellent publishing house with an emphasis on dogs, training, and canine behavior in general.  It can also be purchased through Amazon if you would like to take a look inside the book before purchasing it.

It was our goal, in writing this book, to make the world a little better for critters that got inadvertently mixed up in the “wolf hybrid” controversy — whether they be wolves, dogs, wolf hybrids, or the people who meet them.  If you are a shelter worker, a rescuer, a veterinarian, an animal control officer — or just someone who loves dogs and the things that dogs do — please consider picking up a copy.  The more people know about these wonderful animals, the better.