Dragons, Devils & Dinosaurs: A Symbiologist’s Guide to St George’s Day

It’s St George’s Day today; here in England, this is the feast day of our Patron Saint.  We share him with a number of other countries including Moldova, Palestine and (perhaps unsurprisingly) Georgia, but we are particularly ‘into’ patron saints in the UK; our Union Flag is a mishmash of the flags of Saints George, Andrew and Patrick (St David – the Welsh patron Saint – was left out…nothing personal against David, mind, it was just that at the time the flag was created Wales was still considered part of the ‘Kingdom of England’.)

The other patron saints in the UK and Ireland seem somewhat logical choices: Patrick (Northern Ireland and Ireland, obviously) and David (Wales) were fairly local and significant in the bringing of Christianity to the ‘pagans’ of their respective countries.  St Andrew (St Peter’s brother) was in fact Palestinian, but gained particular meaning for the Scots for a number of reasons; they had his bones for a while and have invoked him as a protector in battle and of Scottish independence since the 1300s.

St George – well, we all know that George slew a dragon.  Wait… what?

St George & Dragon: Armand Point

Yup.  Killed it dead (after first defeating it and dragging it into town to use it to encourage people to convert to Christianity, obviously, or he’d be a pretty poor Saint).

When I was younger I just, sort of, accepted this story, although no-one mentioned at school that George was probably born in Turkey and the dragon business apparently took place in Libya – though let’s not forget that the whole story appears to be based on a compendium of older, mostly Greek, myths about dragon slayers.  Nevertheless, the tale made its way to England and was popularised on the return of the crusaders, who had probably been inspired by George’s unsubtle conversion methods… The story was further embellished, romanticised and Anglicised by medieval retellers.  Similarly to Andrew, George  – symbolic of bravery and overcoming adversity – became the protector of the English military and hence our patron saint.

Why the history lesson?  Well, there are currently stuttering attempts by the English to make St George’s day more of an event (unlike the Irish and Welsh, we don’t really do much for our patron saint’s feast day, apart from note that it has taken place again).  This minor media attention meant that I started thinking about the story again for the first time in years.  Why do we have an aspect of our national identity based around a myth / legend of a Turkish soldier?  Why do we use this as a metaphor for courage and overcoming adversity?  Are true stories of real, actual people overcoming adversity not good enough for us?  And… most importantly… what is it with dragons?

There’s no such thing as a dragon (sorry, Billy Bixbee), or at least, not the kind you see flying about in Skyrim and being slain by Saint George on his white horse.  It’s likely that there has never been such a creature; the ‘dragons’ described by the ancient Greek historians mostly appear to resemble oversized pythons and monstrous skeletons of sea dragons, it has been suggested, could have been those of whales which, minus the blubber, can look surprisingly dragon-esque.

Skeleton of a Killer Whale. Photo Credit: Wolfgang Sauber

More than the debate of ‘real’ dragon origins, what has struck me during my mini swatting-up session (which has not included oriental dragons, by the way, as the literature on those is much more substantial) is the interesting symbolism surrounding them.  The Welsh Dragon is said to represent the Red Dragon (the Britons) defending Wales in an epic battle with the White Dragon (the Saxons).  Yet the connections with Christianity in Europe are the most notable. The Biblical serpents and dragons are often in cahoots with, or a representation of, the Devil:

“And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years” – Revelation 20:2

St George’s defeat of the dragon takes on new meaning in this light; perhaps it was the devil, and not simply adversity, that he was overcoming.

To this day there is a connection between Christian missionaries and dragons, though now there is a new twist in the tale.  Creationist literature cites the widespread occurrence of dragon legends as support for their belief that humans and dinosaurs once co-existed (and that the world could consequently have been created comparatively recently).

With the exception of some more recent interpretations that consider dragons to be intelligent, noble, sometimes even friendly beings, most depictions of dragons are very devilish; they are firey, bitey, malicious beasts who mostly enjoy roasting crops and livestock and keeping maidens in the larder, or dragging unwitting fisherman into lakes and seas.   David Jones, an Anthropologist from the University of Florida, has also spotted this and has taken it a step further, suggesting that dragons are ubiquitous in legends across the world not so much because they once roamed (or flew over) the earth, but because we humans share the joint worry that… they might.

The gist of Jones’ theory is that dragons combine the scariest ‘bits’ of a number of dangerous species and they are therefore representative of the ultimate human predator, a combination of big cat, eagle and python; they are large, scaled, flying, swimming and lethal.  Plus, they breathe either poison or fire, two additionally dangerous characteristics.  From an evolutionary perspective, this would explain the enduring human fascination with this mythical taxa.

This is an intriguing hypothesis that perhaps explains why, despite its distant and seemingly irrelevant origins, the legend of St George appeals to so many; maybe he didn’t just slay the dragon, but everything there is to fear about the natural world.

Baboons Keep Dogs as Pets?

Extract from ‘Animals Like Us’ (National Geographic).

I had a discussion in mind for the video above, but then I found out that Hal Herzog wrote it over a year ago.  Nothing like being behind the times…

If you don’t have time to watch or read either of the above, here’s the gist:  Hamadryas baboons in Saudi Arabia, according to a (now quite old) video, kidnap dogs as puppies and ‘raise them as pets’, treating them as family members and receiving their protection in return.  Hal is (rightly) a little skeptical; although we see, in the video, a male baboon ‘kidnapping’ a puppy, and a couple of adult dogs associating with baboons, we don’t actually see the interim stage (i.e. the ‘raising as pets’ part…)  The counter-argument is that  the male baboons might be ‘playing’ with the puppies (in their own rather rough way) and that the baboon-dog relationship is more mutualistic than hinted in the article; the dogs may not so much be ‘owned’ by the baboons as simply cohabiting with them.   Hamadryas Baboons & Canaan Dog, Saudi Arabia. Image: National Geographic

The clip is from a documentary called ‘Animals Like Us’.  Why the obsession with trying to determine how ‘like us’ other animals are?  For me, the interesting thing about this is the real relationship that exists between the baboons and the dogs, whatever that may be.  Sure, it’s extremely interesting if comparable to the human-pet relationship (which, it should be noted, is hardly set in stone as a concept), but it’s equally interesting if that’s not the case, not least because this may, in fact, be a unique association unlike anything observed elsewhere.

What appears to have gone unnoticed, in the sticky mirk of defining what does and does not constitute pet-keeping, is the fascinating parallel between this association and the afore-blogged research regarding the potential evolution of the domestic dog as a scavenger of the human waste dump.  Could it be that the baboons in this association provide an alternate, current model by which to study coevolution?  Could it be that waste-dumps, where scavenging is abundant, provide a solid ground for cooperative (or at least, barely competitive) interspecies associations?

As Hal notes, this definitely needs more research.  I think that research should take place not to demonstrate how ‘like us’ these ‘unlike us’ species may be, but simply to better understand them for what they are.

 

 

 

Back on the Burger-Wagon

CowHorseCow. Photo Credit: By InSapphoWeTrust I know, I know.  I said, ‘been there, done that’.  So, sorry to return to the issue, but I think there is another symbiologically relevant point to be brought forth from this continuing horsemeat malarky, which I didn’t really look at last time.  But hey (geddit?), I’ve had a week off and need something to get my teeth into.  Sorry, I’ll stop with the puns.

In my last post about horse-meat, I concentrated on the cultural relationship people have with horses in this country and considered why one would be disgusted at the idea of eating horse.  I also said this (so you don’t have to go back and read it again):

“As someone who spends far too long staring at food labels in supermarkets (before deciding just to have a veggie curry because it’s less stressful), I wasn’t particularly shocked to hear that not everything that goes into a Tesco Value Beefburger could be considered ‘beef’.  It says on the packet that beef only constitutes 66% of the actual burger;  I know, the rest is water, wheat flour and ‘beef fat’, but still, there’s no detail of which country it comes from or what part of the cow you’re eating; or even if ‘beef’ and ‘cow’ are necessarily synonyms.”

Last time, the labelling issue – whilst acknowledged – was an aside to a wider point about cultural taboos.  This time, I want to think about why it is such a problem that people may have been ‘misinformed’ into eating horse, especially as that has now become the crux of the issue.

I also want to acknowledge this article: Horse meat – the hardest thing to digest is that it’s your fault. which bravely and eloquently (if rather angrily) expresses a thought that presumably many of us have been thinking: that ultimately, you are responsible for what you consume.  I don’t mean this to be a personal attack on consumers, though; it’s a call to consider, from a less emotive position, how we’ve reached a point at which we are unable to identify the animal we are eating, let alone where it came from or how it lived.

Hunters, Herders & Hamburgers - Richard BullietRichard Bulliet, in his book Hunters, herders and hamburgers – a strangely appropriate title – coined the term ‘post-domestic society’ to refer to those communities that have become completely removed from the realities of animal slaughter.  To put this in perspective, the ‘hunters’ here are hunter-gatherer societies. Domestic societies  – the ‘herders’, i.e. pastoralist or agricultural cultures, are observed to become acclimatised to animal death because they live closely alongside the animals they raise, keep and consume and they witness – often from an early age – the process of animal death and preparation for consumption.

Bulliet noted that, Lebanon being a largely ‘domestic’ society, 90% of students at the American University of Beirut had witnessed animal slaughter compared with less than 20% at New York’s Columbia University.  I have never seen an animal slaughtered, though I am more familiar with the processing side, not least because I come from a town that has an old-school butcher’s shop where the carcasses are hung up in the windows.  It never really bothered me – perhaps because it’s always been there – and now I’m strangely proud of it, because I believe that if you are to eat animals, you should understand fully what that implies. Butcher's Shop Window. Photo Credit: Joadl

Back to the point, though; what kind of strange relationship is this that so many humans now have with domestic species, that we can go our whole lives eating meat without ever having to kill anything?  Well; we trade meat for money, something that I can be fairly confident in saying happens nowhere else in the natural world.  There are two things at play in the horsemeat scandal, I think.  Firstly, there is a post-domestic attitude that leads people not to disregard, necessarily, but to forget or simply not even consider the origin of their meat.  Post-domestic citizens are shielded from the realities of meat eating – the blood and guts, as it were, hardly come into play when burgers are chosen from supermarket freezers.  We are separated, too, from those interspecies interactions that are associated with the end result of consumption – the birth, the feeding, the herding, the death.  So there is no interaction at all and the animal – whatever it may be – is lost sight of. This is where factor two comes into play; money.

Meat packages in a supermarket. Photo: MattesIt is too easy to forget, with 99p McDonald’s meals, that ‘meat’, i.e. animals, are expensive to raise (and rightly so); they require a whole lifetime, however comparatively short, of feeding, sheltering and healthcare, especially (and crucially, for me) if that life is to be one worth living.  The pressure is on, though, to drive prices down, to be competitive.  In the end, is it really surprising that the bottom end of the price range becomes something that you may not consider appropriate meat?  Offal, or maybe horse?

What has this to do with symbiology?  Well, I’m really making a reverse point.  What’s gone on here is not an association between species, an interaction between organisms, but a great gaping hole where that interaction, for better or worse, once sat.  I’m not sure I would like to live in a domestic society because they are tough and gory, but that being said, living in a post-domestic society is a little like living in space.  Connections to reality – to the way the world is when there are no supermarkets and processing plants and cleverly-hidden slaughterhouses – are getting thinner and fainter.  Connections to other animals –  even if they ultimately end in death – are growing weaker.  I sometimes feel like we are drifting away from the rest of the world, even as we try to understand it better.

So, my attention was drawn to this article the other day, which describes the attempts of a primary school to educate children on the entire process of rearing meat; they are to raise pigs and then send them to the butcher (though I imagine they won’t see the actual slaughter – might be a bit much too soon).  I am not sure that I’m on board with teaching children how to advertise and sell meat, as that seems to hark back to the competitive pricing issue again and I’m not sure that’s what I’d focus on, but I can see the value in children being taught to understand exactly what their meat-eating involves.  It gives them the opportunity to be fully informed when they choose their future relationship with meat.  A good friend of mine became vegetarian after learning, as a child, what happened to the pigs she’d come to regard as friends.  Fair enough, and that might happen to some of these kids too. Sow with piglet. Photo Credit: Scott Bauer

Equally, the children might be unfazed and simply continue to eat pigs with aplomb (unless they’re Islamic or Jewish; either its not a very religiously diverse school or the teacher hasn’t thought this through). As far as I’m concerned, in essentials that’s OK too.  The key point is, they will understand the input and resources required to raise animals; the true cost of their consumption. They will (hopefully, and importantly for me) recognise the value of the life of their pigs, see that those lives means something, even if they are eaten at the end of it.  They will have an interaction and they will be symbiotes in the real world, even if only for a little while.  They may be the ones who end this fantasy of consequence-free consumption.

The Rescuers – the pitfalls and potential of interspecies altruism

Since I published my blog about morality, I’ve been noticing lots of instances of humans demonstrating our extensive capacity for altruism (re-cap: acts that help others without any significant gain to ourselves).  Particularly, me being me, I’ve noticed how far we extend our altruism – far outside of our own social group, to include strangers, other animals and even ‘concepts’, such as a real concern for ‘nature’ as a whole.Brazilian Beachgoers Rescuing Stranded Dolphins

I’ve also noticed the conflict that this expansion of our empathy seems to initiate.  Not only does it create novel moral dilemmas for us when we project our own moral values onto other species (as discussed in my blog about cats as serial killers), it also produces dilemmas as to the reasonable limits of our altruism.  Without wanting to harp on about the cat issue again, I must highlight this quote from the extensive press relating to it:

“It is not humane treatment of animals to place a killing machine in their midst. Nor is it humane treatment of animals to allow one to live, with the knowledge that others will die painful deaths because of that act.” – Karin Kline, Los Angeles Times

Erm… I have an issue with the second sentence of that statement.  Allow me to jump off my fence and dust the sawdust of my backside for a moment while I point out that, by that logic, we should not be allowing any predators to live, at all, ever.  Such a level of intervention into the lives of others, I think most people would agree, would be a step too far and would likely have disastrous results for the functioning of our planet.

So, although I think most would agree that we can’t reasonably attempt to intervene in every violent and non-altruistic interaction that takes place, we are still left with the question: when is it OK to intervene?

The Crow and I have been watching the BBC’s ‘Africa’ for the past few weeks and in the most recent episode – regarding the future of the continent – a number of these issues were discussed.   Filmmakers and local conservationists watched a baby elephant die of starvation.  They did not intervene.  On another occasion, however, an adult female was stuck in mud unable to free herself; the team pulled her free using heavy machinery.  The explanation was that, during the drought, the team felt that there was nothing they could realistically do for the infant.  There was no food, no water and the calf was too weak to walk.  It was agreed that with so little chance of a positive outcome, it was not worth causing the mother the stress of their intervention; in such a situation the mother is not to know that humans are trying to help.  Their experience of humans may not always have been positive and the first part of a different video below – in which humans did intervene to save an elephant calf stuck in a well – shows how distressing such well intentioned actions can be (don’t worry – on this occasion it has a happy ending):

I don’t know of researchers, conservationists or filmmakers ever intervening in situations where an animal is threatened by a predator – some of the camera operators on ‘Africa’ said how emotionally difficult it had been to watch hundreds of young turtles snatched by crows and eagles.  Here, though, another of our most developed abilities – reasoned thought – often wins out over the initial empathic response.  Most people recognise that life functions on death and consumption, even if (like my mum) you’d rather not watch it happen.

The question of human intervention, then, is normally restricted to events that could be classified as ‘natural spite’ (such as elephants trapped in mud and beached whales) or situations caused by anthropogenic activity (such as dolphins trapped in fishing lines and birds coated in mystery substances probably of human origin).

Photo: Brendan McDermid/ReutersThe big dilemmas arise when we just don’t know what’s happened, or what is the best course of action.  Last week, in New York, a lone dolphin was discovered in the Gowanus Canal.  David Kirby of the Huffington Post has written a really thoughtful article considering both sides of the story, which is worth reading in full.  In short, though, the official advice from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was to leave the dolphin alone until high tide to give him the chance to ‘rescue’ hisself.  Sadly, he didn’t survive that long.  Although there were many concerned onlookers, restricted access made it very difficult for anyone to reach the stranded dolphin and, even if they had, there was nowhere nearby to take him.  The general desire to help, though, was apparently evident  – the photo I’ve yoinked here (all credit to Brendan McDermid/Reuters) shows a man climbing over the barriers in an attempt to offer the dolphin some comfort.

Although we may be conflicted, I am heartened by the length and breadth of our compassion and altruism towards others, both within and across species.  It makes me hopeful that, by employing both this natural generosity and the aforementioned reason, we’re not entirely doomed to failure as a species and as (self-appointed) stewards of this planet.  Our emotions and reason mean that as well as acting selfishly, which heaven knows we’re also very good at, we also want to help – and for many of us, this extends to a desire to help not just our friends and family but other animals, plants, entire ecosystems or even the whole planet!  So, for me our capacity for altruism is one of the most fortunate of evolution’s branches: imagine what things might be like if we lacked it.

It also seems that this adaptation is not just a one-off.  Evolution is full of patterns and parallel solutions to common problems (I like to thing of parallel evolution as the theory of ‘if it ain’t broke..’)  As I discussed in ‘Moral(animal)ity‘, there is a growing body of data regarding other social animals exhibiting altruism and the foundations of moral systems.  It is hardly surprising, then, that some of the most ‘socially intelligent’ of these animals have also been recorded to generalise their altruistic behaviour to other species, including humans.  It’s the usual suspects – elephants, cetaceans, great apes – with a couple of less-obvious inputs, for example, from pigs and parrots (again, though, both highly social species).

Dolphins, in particular, have been observed on multiple occasions helping both humans and other cetaceans out of sticky situations, suggesting that they either have a particularly strong capacity for altruistic action or that people watch them a lot.  Could be a little from column A, a little from column B…  I’ve put some links to examples below.  Many of these accounts are anecdotal, but they have considerable potential for further study and – as Marc Bekoff says – the plural of anecdote is data.Cookie.  Photo: Wales News Service

Finally, a touching (and local to the Battcave) example of true animal nonhuman altruism, whether intended as such or not; it was reported today that Cookie the Cockatiel woke his owner in the middle of a house fire by repeatedly dive-bombing him, saving the boy’s life.  Tragically, Cookie did not make it out of the fire and has therefore become an ultimate altruist, by giving his life to save another’s.

Aubrey Manning – Animal Magic: Why Species Give Each Other a Helping Hand  /  Dolphins Save Surfer from Becoming Shark Bait  /  Beluga Whale ‘Saves’ Diver  /

http://www.bing.com/videos/browse?mkt=en-us&vid=1f20ccaf-6a25-4f9f-9578-fbddd95cec1f&from=sharepermalink&src=v5:share:sharepermalink:&from=dest_en-us

(This one is interesting, because I’m not sure whether or not the gorilla intended to save the duckling or was just really interested in it; what do you think?)

For the Love of Camels

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Anyone who knows me will by now have learned that I have an unusual fondness for camels.  As I’ve picked up some new readers (thank you all, by the way, for stopping by), I decided I should probably bring this up to, you know, put my cards on the table.

I love camels.

Of course, that fact in itself is not worthy of a blog post in anyone’s mind but mine.  What IS worthy of a post, though, is the inevitable response whenever this idiosyncrasy of mine comes up, which happens more than you’d think.  Except at the International Camel Conference (yes, there is one and yes, I’ve been) the next question is pretty much always, “erm… why?”

Why indeed.  The irreplaceable Sir David Attenborough was on the Jonathan Ross show on Saturday night – UK readers can catch up here for the next month (by which time it will probably be on YouTube anyway).  Although, as ever, he spoke many words of wisdom (Sir Dave, not Jonathan Ross, he rarely speaks words of wisdom), the exchange I found particularly interesting was this:

JR: “Would you call yourself an animal lover, or is it just an academic interest?”

DA: “I am absolutely fascinated by animals… I mean the word ‘lover’ is, you know, a funny old word… [laughter] – well it is, isn’t it? I don’t love snails, particularly, but they are very interesting.  Have you ever seen snails mating?”

This is more along the lines of what I mean when I say I ‘love’ camels, though not quite the whole picture.  The word ‘love’ has many of interpretations. I don’t, for example, love camels in the same way that I love the Crow (i.e. romantically), my parents (i.e. familiarly) or even the Masked Bandits; our love for pets, incidentally, is an interesting one as it’s almost a halfway house between the love for friends and family. There are elements of both bonding and of a desire to nurture… but I digress.

When we say we ‘love’ animals, then, what are we getting at?  Surely, as Sir Dave notes, we rarely love ALL animals.  I’m certainly not a fan of crane flies, or (as noted in my first blog) mosquitoes.  Equally, many people are not a fan of camels, particularly in the Western hemisphere.  In these parts, if I said, “I love dogs” or (slightly more contentiously at the moment) “I love cats”, many people would say, “Awww, me too.”  This is not generally the response with camels.

I have read, written and spoken at length on various camel-related issues and in this time have learned a great deal about them.  The more I have learned, the more fascinated I have become.  Did you know, for example, that camels can sense water from up to 3 km away?  That they have three eyelids?  That their milk naturally contains an insulin-type protein that can be used to treat diabetes? That they pee ‘backwards’ (i.e. between their back legs, in the opposite direction to cows, horses etc.)? That they are one of a select few animals observed to respond to music?  All true. However, I’m not here to try and convince you to like camels, but to ask you to reconsider why you might not ‘love’ camels like you do dogs, or cats, or horses. If you aren’t interested in animals at all, of course, there’s little for you here: sorry. If you already love camels, you’ll enjoy this post, so please continue!

Camel Face. Photo Credit: eNil I will grant you that camels smell.  That is inescapable, but then so do many mammals (wet dog, particularly, is not a pleasant scent, nor are various human… odours).  Some dislike camels because of their ability to spit a delicious concoction of partially chewed food, saliva and digestive juices.  Fair enough, if one has spat at you.  Has that happened to you?  What were you doing at the time?  I would put money on whatever it was being fairly irritating.  Still others see camels as ‘grumpy’, or ‘aloof’.  Well, if your eyes were similarly positioned in relation to your nose and your head was seven to eight feet off the ground, people might think you were aloof, too.

Western explorers in the 19th and early 20th centuries tended to be scathing and even vicious about the camels they encountered on their travels:

“In almost everything written on life in the desert the camel bears a bad name, and indeed he richly deserves it… he has the combined malice and stupidity of the worst kind of Georgia mule.  He is ugly as sin… his black heart is filled with melancholy hatred.”  – W. Seabrook, 1927

I sense Seabrook rode a rather bad-tempered camel; camels display the same amount of individual variation in personality and temperament as most species, especially social vertebrates.  However, his enthusiasm to denigrate an entire genus in this way suggests a certain cultural prejudice not necessarily related to real camel behaviour.  Fortunately, other explorers were more sensitive to their surroundings:

 “Many Englishmen have written about camels.  When I open a book and see the familiar disparagement, the well-worn humour, I realised that the author’s knowledge of them is slight, that he has never lived among the Bedu, who know the camel’s worth.” – W Thesiger, 1959

In news reports and on the internet at large, camels are still portrayed as a bit of a joke – long, gangly legs, droopy lips, interesting noises and, of course, the hump (or two).  In fact, their relationship with humans has been one of the most extensive and enduring of all such associations and their centrality to certain cultures can hardly be overstated.   Anthropologist Teka found that many Afar families in Ethiopia, were:

 “unanimous to endorse the idea that they prefer to lose a son than a camel.  According to them, if a son dies you bury him and you may or may not get another son, but life continues… but if a camel dies everything is left where it is, and there is no movement which means there is no life and the household collapses.” (Teka, 1991)

Al Dhafra Camel Festival.  Photo Credit: A RahmanSimilarly, until comparatively recently many Arabian peoples relied on the camel’s provision of transport, milk and general all-round assistance with a desert lifestyle. In the modern Middle East the dromedary is still considered a gift of Allah and its cultural history and symbolism continue to be celebrated through beauty contests, heritage festivals and camel racing, a modern form of an old Bedouin pastime.

If we all take a step back, though, away from our cultural baggage and projection of our learned ideals of beautiful and desirable characteristics, the true camel comes into focus.  As with cats in my previous post: camels are camels, they are this regardless.

When I think of camels, I think of an incredible, exemplar culmination of powerful evolutionary pressures, I think of the incredible (to me) feats of endurance they are able to achieve on a daily basis, I think of their individual, humorous characters and I think of their ability to form bonds with each other and with humans.  I think of their unique way of maintaining life in desolate lands.  I also think of Shilan, the camel so small, white and fluffy he was more like a large llama, who carried me uncomplainingly for days across quiet desert sands.  My research and experience of camels has extended my interest into something that is a form of love – interest, admiration, pleasure in their company.  I think that counts.

I don’t see love and hate as external forces.  I see humans as learners, absorbers, flexible and moulded by our experiences and the world in which we are immersed.  For me this is a connection with the camel, perhaps surprisingly given my cultural background.  I would not pressure or presume anyone else to feel the same.

Still: when the next person asks me why on earth I am so engrossed by camels, I will point them to this extremely self-indulgent blog and reply: why on earth not?

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Breaking News: Cats are Carnivores

The human-cat relationship appears to have hit a rough patch. Photo Credit: Viriditas

Recent research estimates that free-ranging  cats in the US kill up to 3.7 billion birds and 20.7 billion mammals each year.  A quick Google News search of the term ‘killer cats’ brought back thousands of results, with headlines like, “That Cuddly Kitty is Deadlier Than You Think“.  I have to admit, my first reaction was surprise. Not, initially, at the numbers of animals killed, but that this is apparently big news.  I think my favourite quote (from the same article) is this one:

“For all the adorable images of cats that play the piano, flush the toilet, mew melodiously and find their way back home over hundreds of miles, scientists have identified a shocking new truth: cats are far deadlier than anyone realized.”  – Natalie Angier, New York Times

That is the voice of someone who spends a lot of time on the internet and not much time with cats.  Personally, I’m fairly convinced that the domestic cat’s spread and success across the modern world is not borne of their musical talents.  In fact, I would say that their ability to catch and kill a large amount of small, furry creatures has more than a fair bit to do with it.

Apologies for the flippancy; it does seem that the numbers provided by this study are significant, if rather broad (there is a lot of difference between the quoted ranges of 1.4–3.7 billion birds and 6.9–20.7 billion mammals).  What struck me about the situation, though, was the irony in the idea that the very feature of cats that may have accelerated their domestication – and consequently their success – is now (in some circles) a reviled and unwanted characteristic.

So how did we get here?  Well, as with dogs, the prevalent theory is that cats were domesticated by assimilation.  They are thought to have first began an association with humans in the near east about 8,500 years ago, possibly drawn to human settlements by the resident populations of commensals – rats, mice etc. – therein.

Sarcophagus of Prince Thutmose's cat.  Photo Credit: Larazoni As is well documented, cats enjoyed significant success in ancient Egypt where they had a variety of mostly positive religious associations; as goddesses (the female cats’ obvious promiscuity may have resulted in their being linked with fertility), as incarnations of the sun god Ra (who was believed to do battle on a nightly basis with the serpent of darkness, as cats would have been observed killing snakes) and as unearthly beings in their own right, perhaps due to the fascinating way in which their eyes react to light.

Their elusive and independent qualities, however, have also led cats to be vilified by humans over the course of our unorthodox symbiosis.  In Europe between the 12th and 14th centuries, under the scrutiny of Christianity, cats were associated with heretical sects (who were thought to worship the Devil in feline form) and, later, labelled as the demon familiars of witches; their prevalence as a Hallowe’en costume continues to this day.  Even in the 19th century cats’ reluctance to submit to human will – unlike dogs – was seen as malicious and they were little trusted, particularly by those men who saw them as in unfavourable cahoots with ‘womankind’.  Their reputation for independence, however, also made them popular with the bourgeoisie of 19th century Europe; it is thought this significantly influenced their adoption as house-pets (in contrast to their previous, much wider role as – yep – rodent catchers).  These opposing roles – pets versus pest-control – have caused conflict ever since – I vividly recall waking in the middle of the night to the uneasy scenario of listening to my much-loved cat Jimmy chomping on some unfortunate rodent on my bedroom floor.

There remains today conflict of opinion when it comes to cats.  They have enormous (and slightly disturbing) popularity as memes and in viral videos, most of which have little correspondence with ‘normal’ cat behaviour (although Maru, admittedly, is hilarious).  Yet they are still not generally kept as pets in countries such as South Korea and, even where common, they are notably less popular than dogs – one survey by Stephen Kellert and colleagues found that 17.4% of the sample US population reported disliking cats (as opposed to 2.6% who disliked dogs).  Still, too, they engender hatred: there are several ‘I Hate Cats’ blogs and websites, not to mention a number of books such as the extremely popular 101 Uses for a Dead Cat (which is probably mostly tongue-in-cheek, but rather dark nonetheless).

African Wildcat. Photo Credit: Rute Martins European Wildcat. Photo Credit: Michael Gäbler Behaviourally, cats are talented predators and will hunt a wide range of prey, more varied than their (very close) cousins the European wildcats, though they tend to hunt smaller creatures than wildcats, suggesting they are less skillful hunters.  In addition, even feral domestic cats tend to live in the vicinity of human settlements and obtain more food from scavenging than do wildcats (though wildcats will also scavenge from humans on occasion).  Interestingly, there is continuous debate as to how different three of the small cat ‘species’ actually are, i.e. African and European wildcats and domestic cats.  They interbreed without apparent difficulty.  Their lack of significant genetic or behavioural distinctions (with the exception of hunting habits and human-association) suggests to some that cats have retained – as seems fitting to their independent nature – some distance from their human symbiotes, weaving in and out of various levels and types of association with humans.

Now we have a dilemma, though.  Sometimes, it seems, the last thing a species should do – unless it is human – is be successful.  Domestic cats now inflame debate because they do not fit with certain human ideals of morality, or understand the difference between an endangered robin and an ‘verminous’ rat.  Of course, it’s apparently not the pets that are to blame so much as the feral members of the domestic population, those who – for whatever reason – live outside of human control.

Cats are cats.  They have changed, a bit, as a result of their enduring association with humans, arguably the world’s most destructive species; and they have prospered and found pastures and prey new as a result.  I feel, though, that this new judgement of them is a consequence of our changing, of our inconsistencies, of our transformations and conflicts as to what we value, what is natural and what we should control.

I’m not suggesting that nothing should be done; but I would like to believe that we could approach this dilemma, this domestic with one of our oldest domesticates, in a sensible fashion.  That means not being horrified or outraged that cats kill birds, and lots of them, but accepting it as the way of things and moving forward towards a solution – or a compromise.  It means acknowledging that the biggest threat to endangered species in the States and the rest of the world is still widely understood not to be cats, but (mostly anthropogenic) habitat destruction.  Cats go where humans go; as we have seen, even feral cats remain near human settlements. These studies might provide clues as to how we might best tackle this problem – but please let’s do so with clear thinking and humanity, rather than attributing judgement and blame.
Cat & Mouse. Photo Credit: Lxowle

Let’s not turn cats back into ‘demons’ because we have changed our mind about what’s important; let us consider them as cats and make sure that, in equal part, we continue to consider ourselves.

My academic training means I can’t help but  reference my sources for some of the above information, however loosely!  Some are linked above; those that are not are shown below.  Academic Sources:

Turner, D. C. & Bateson, P. 2000. The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  Podberscek, Anthony (2009). Good to pet and eat: the keeping and consuming of dogs and cats in South Korea. Journal of Social Issues 65(3): 615–632  /  Zeder, M. A. 2012. Pathways to Domestication. Biodiversity in Agriculture: Domestication, Evolution, and Sustainability. Ed. P. Gepts, T.R. Famula, R.L. Bettinger et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

News Articles (note the emotive titles):

“Killer cats: deadly pets murder nearly 4 billion birds a year”  /  “Cats are ruthless killers: should they be killed?” /  “The Feline Killer that Stalks the Streets” / “Cats Killing Billions of Animals in the US” / “‘Stone-cold serial killers’: Domestic cats slaughter billions upon billions of animals in US every year”

“Dog evolved ‘on the waste dump'” – ?

This BBC article by Jonathan Amos tells us that new evidence appears to support the ‘dogs as scavengers’ hypothesis (i.e., that the human-dog relationship evolved through a process of assimilation; dogs hung around the food generated by human settlements, so hung around human settlements and moved from a commensal to a mutualistic relationship with humans by gradually involving themselves in human existence.  The most docile and cooperative would be more successful and may therefore have benefited from additional human benefaction.

The ‘opposing’ hypothesis is that we humans were the agents in the interaction; some humans adopted wolves (as puppies, it is often suggested, which allowed them to be more easily tamed) and began to use them for hunting or possibly security, selecting for traits that served the humans best. Photo Credit: Przykuta

If I had to pick one, I would go for the scavenger hypothesis; not just because of this recent evidence, which is interesting, but also because in some cultures dogs still are, essentially, commensals.  They hang around villages, not owned and not wanted, and scavenge.  Genetically, these dogs are as closely related to wolves as they are domestic dogs; the researchers think this indicates that they have been more ‘naturally selected’ than other domestic dogs, with less human input into their evolutionary development. (This suggests, though, that human involvement in an association automatically makes the result ‘unnatural’, a line of thought I don’t tend to agree with – more on that another time).

The human preferences in question have led, it is thought, to ‘neoteny’ in dogs. This means they appear to have evolved into permanent wolf-pups, with many youthful characteristics, (that would in wolves be ‘grown out of’) preserved into adulthood.  Examples are obedience, docility, flatter faces and floppy ears, though this obviously varies between breeds and individuals.

Personally, I don’t think the two theories are necessarily mutually-exclusive; if I remember rightly, there is also evidence to suggest that wolves were domesticated almost concurrently in multiple cultures; this being the case, there’s no reason why different processes could have prevailed in different areas.  There’s also nothing to say that humans chose to feed, raise and employ certain individuals from the local scavenger pack, which could have accelerated a symbiotic process.

Acknowledging, then, that the dog is not a chosen domesticate or companion everywhere, for those cultures (like mine) which have an enduring and generally positive relationship with them, I prefer to think in terms of ‘co-evolution’: we didn’t pin them down and force them to associate with us and they didn’t coerce us into it…. I like to think we chose one another.