Thursday, September 10, 2009

As Always, It's All About Protein

When I look at my dog sleeping happily at my feet I don't wonder why he chooses to live with me rather than in the wild. He wouldn't survive a day in the wild, to be honest. He has absolutely no prey instinct, he refuses to be rained on, he hates cold, and he won't lie even on the floor without a pillow. He was born thoroughly domesticated, as dogs are these days.

The question of how wolves came be dogs has been pondered by researchers over and over again. Where were they domesticated, how, why? I've always figured that a couple of brave and friendly wolves were attracted by a fire and started spending nights sleeping by some of our ancestors, who started feeding them scraps. Then they started hunting together and hanging out 24/7, and before you know it the wolves were sleeping next to rather than near the humans, protecting the humans, helping out by pulling and carrying things for the humans, and a relationship that has lasted thousands of years was born. This is a happy story of codependency, but according to a story in yesterday's NY Times, it's bunk.

Using genetics, dogs have been traced back to one place of origin, a remote province of China. The disturbing thing is that this is one of those Chinese provinces where historically dogs are food, not pets. Thousands of years ago, once man had the ability to build cages and trap, wolves were caught and kept in pens, fattening up for the slaughter. Wolves came to live in proximity to humans not because wolves saw anything fortuitous in the relationship - what's good about being meat, after all - but because humans looked at wolves and saw lunch. Thus wolves began to be raised in captivity.

Travelers passing through this province then saw the wolves in cages, and instead of seeing lunch saw an animal that could be of some use for warmth, protection, hunting, hauling. They traded for these domesticated wolves and carried them off, dispersing them eventually throughout the known world. 10,000 or so years later you have Brody, shedding all over my pillow while he watches me type.

It's somewhat disturbing to rethink the whole human/canine relationship this way, but it also explains why, if wolves wanted to be domesticated, you never hear stories of humans camping and meeting some friendly wolves out in the wild. It also explains why dogs are so willing to be housebroken. It's not because they love us and want to please us, but because they don't want to be fileted.

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