Category Archives: animal behavior

Colorado Tourists Feel Threatened By Sheepdogs

As someone who used to work extensively with wolves, I have something of a background with, and fondness for, livestock guarding dogs.  These dogs are a primary, generally quite effective, defense for ranchers against local predators, including wolves.  They live and roam with the flock, providing 24 hour protection, at little cost.  The process works via carefully raising dog puppies with the flock, so that the pups become socialized to the sheep — the pups become kind of “honorary sheep” and fiercely defend their adopted “conspecifics”.  This can be protection for both predator and prey.  In Africa, dogs are employed to defend livestock against cheetahs — protecting the stock from the cheetahs, and the cheetahs from the wrath of the livestock owners.

Today I found myself looking at an article which suggests the dogs might be a little too fierce.  The dogs “snarl”, and “on some occasions, chase” tourists around the Molas Pass area in the San Juan National Forest.  I am curious as to how close the tourists are getting — in the wild back country of Colorado, which I recall being a very wide-open place — to the flocks for the dogs to become alarmed.  The dogs generally do not roam far from their flocks and do not usually become aggressive unless they, or the sheep they protect, are directly and closely approached.

In any case, “snarling” and “chasing” things that get too close to the sheep are kind of required behaviors for livestock guarding dogs.  They aren’t trained to be aggressive, but they are not specifically bonded to humans, either.  They are designed to deter the approach of unfamiliar mammals (and that includes humans) to their adopted flock.  Wasn’t that kind of the point?

However, this is just a briefly trending argument between two groups of people (ranchers and tourists) who want to use the same piece of land for two different activities, and it isn’t a particularly new thing (people have been arguing about land use for years and years).  What is most interesting to me is the photo accompanying the article I first saw (which was not the original, source article).  The original, source article has photos of Akbash guard dogs doing what they do 99% of the time — standing in a field, quietly surrounded by sheep.  The article I first saw used a “file photograph” of two dogs fighting to illustrate the exact same story.  Also, contrast the two titles: the original title, “Problem dogs in backcountry?“, and the title of the story with the fighting dog photo, “Fierce sheepdogs alarming tourists in SW Colorado“.

Same article, two entirely different slants — brought about simply by changing the title and the accompanying photo.  Another good reason to always check the source of an article, no matter where it’s published.  (For full disclosure, the photo I used for this post came from this site.)

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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.

Empathy Found in Rats, Still Lacking in Humans

Rat freeing a trapped cagemateSo the current journal-article meme floating around is a little study by Peggy Mason at the University of Chicago investigating “the origins of empathetic behavior”.  (Link goes to UChicago press release; here’s the NPR article; and here’s the full article as published in Science.)

It’s actually a pretty well-designed study, although, as someone who has actually performed path-following research on rats and as a former pet rat owner, I’ll have to take issue with describing moving off the walls of that “arena” as “scary”.  Neither rat in the video seems particularly perturbed.  This is likely a consequence of the fact that laboratory rats are not “natural” rats and haven’t been for a very long time — they are in fact a domesticated rat, bred (intentionally or inadvertently) over thousands of generations to deal well with human handling and the laboratory environment.

As thrilled as I am that scientists are even starting to consider the possibility that animals have empathy (or “homolog[s] of empathy”, or whatever animals are allowed to use in order to make their feelings seem less important than ours), much less run actual research to prove such theories to others, it irks me that people feel research even needs to be done on this point.  The whole argument for using animals as “models” for humans is that they have similarities to us.  If rats have limbs and organ systems and neural constructs similar to ours — as scientists do keep arguing, as otherwise rats would not be such “good animal models” for human disease, behavior, and physiology — why would they not have a feeling mechanism much like ours as well?

My question here: You’ve just proven that rats are social creatures that feel for each other and exhibit both altruistic (opening the cage does not necessarily benefit the free rat, although the argument can be made that freeing the trapped rat reduces the free rat’s own stress) and empathetic (opening the cage seems to involve a recognition that the trapped rat is less than happy) behavior.  What behavior will rats have to exhibit before you realize they are living beings with thoughts and feelings, and stop breeding them by the billion for dubious research?

(The short-story writer in me immediately comes up with a premise: someone proves conclusively that rats have feelings and emotions, and someone else says “Hey, now I can experiment on their minds!” and starts running experiments trying to replicate depression and suicide in rats…oh, wait, that’s already being done….)

Cow Enters Rescue Group’s Monkeysphere

A little while ago I posted about the Monkeysphere, and how there is a maximum number (Dunbar’s number) of social relationships that social animals (including humans) can simultaneously maintain.  If a person (or animal) is outside your monkeysphere, you do not view him/her/it as a social companion, and may find it difficult to generate empathy for him/her/it.

Here’s an example of that happening now.  Bavaria (like other countries) sends, probably, hundreds of thousands of cows to the slaughterhouse annually, but here’s a group frantically trying to save one loose, wandering cow.

It’s not that I disagree with the idea — and, from a fundraising point of view, it makes a lot of sense.  Having a name and a face on your campaign will definitely help raise money.  “We’re trying to save Yvonne!” will get more people interested in your cause than “We’re trying to save 100,000 anonymous cows!”  It’s just a fascinating example of the Monkeysphere in action.  Yvonne entered these people’s monkeysphere, and suddenly they can see her as a social companion, and suddenly it becomes worth purchasing not only her, but a former “stall mate” of hers, as well as mobilizing search and rescue units on all-terrain vehicles, to rescue her.

The other cows in Yvonne’s herd?  Too many faces — won’t fit in the monkeysphere.  Off they go.

(Not saying anything bad or good here.  We all do our best with what we have.  The rescue certainly cannot take in 100,000 cows every year, and Yvonne will definitely help them with their mission, benefiting the other cows indirectly by being their “ambassador”.  There’s no right or wrong here.  Just…pausing to look at the world as it goes by.)

(On  a similar note, this article “introducing you to the truck driver you just flipped off” is trying to get you to add truck drivers, in general, to your monkeysphere in order to get you to empathize with them and reduce incidents of road rage.  Did it work?)

The Monkeysphere

The online magazine Cracked, which is primarily known for cramming the maximum amount of four-letter words into the minimum amount of space but still occasionally tosses out some utter brilliance, in 2007 put out an article called “What is the Monkeysphere?”  The article presented the concept of Dunbar’s number, the theoretical maximum number of social relationships any given animal (including humans) can form and maintain at any given time.

The theory goes: Think about having a pet.  A dog, for example.  Your dog has a name (“Gozer the Magnificent”) and wears a funny hat and likes eating frozen rhubarb.  Now imagine you have five dogs.  Their names and personalities are a little harder to remember, but you can still keep them straight.  Now try to picture owning a hundred dogs.  Likely, you can’t even picture that many dogs, much less think of individual names or personalities for each.  The maximum number of dogs (or people, etc) with whom you can form caring social relationships is somewhere between five and one hundred.  That’s Dunbar’s number.  That’s the biggest social sphere we, as “monkeys”, can create.  That’s our monkeysphere.

Dunbar’s number varies from person to person and from species to species, but the basic principle is the same.  Where animal research, farming, zoos, and the pet industry — animal industry in general — goes wrong is about the point where the number of animals being cared for by any one person becomes greater than Dunbar’s number.

If a lab tech is told to care for ten mice, they all get names, personalities and individual identities.  A lab tech caring for a room full of 500 mouse cages, each containing between one and five mice, barely has time to count the mice as they blur past during each daily check.  A slaughter worker tasked with “stunning” four cows an hour can move slowly and patiently, properly aim the “stunning” device, and make sure each animal is dead before the rendering process begins.  A slaughter worker tasked with “stunning” one hundred cows an hour — as many currently are — is “processing” something like one cow every thirty seconds.  There is no time for patience or proper aim.  A zoo or wildlife park worker who cares for ten to fifteen animals has names for each one, and the animals are often treated as personal friends.  A zoo director, overseeing a collection of five hundred to two thousand animals, starts to see them as “units” rather than social companions.

Other factors — primarily money — come into it as well, but there is something about reaching Dunbar’s number that really damages the structure.  Once the humans can’t form social relationships with the individual animals anymore, they stop treating the animals as beings with which you might form social relationships — and that starts the whole downward spiral, where “what we should be doing” begins to look more and more different from “what we are actually doing”.

Just a thought.