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Today’s post takes us back to Namibia.  The vast empty desert nation is the home to beautiful cheetahs, the world’s fastest land animal.  In fact Namibia has the greatest number of cheetahs in the world.  Namibia is also (now) home to heavily armed sheep farmers who make their living by raising delicious delicious sheep in the cheetah-haunted arid scrublands.  This mixture has led to…um…misunderstandings of all kinds.

Cheetah, Namibia

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) on dune with desert landscape in back ground. Namibia.

There is no need to dwell on just what the hell German sheep farmers are doing in a vast African desert anyway (or whether their forbears committed terrible genocidal acts in 1894 to obtain their lands).  History is rife with…misunderstandings.  What is important is where we stand now.  Because of habitat destruction, disease, and hunting, cheetahs are fading from the world.  And here is where the heroic Anatolian shepherd comes in.

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Anatolian shepherds are huge powerful dogs which trace their heritage to Turkey at the dawn of civilization.  The first herdsman faced similar problems to today’s Namibian sheep farmers (namely unreformed wolves, lions, and leopards brazenly preying on their livestock).  These early farmers responded by breeding big bold dogs to bodily confront large predators.  However, as civilization moved onward, the nature and appearance of herding dogs changed too.

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An Anatolian Shepherd with a border collie

Most modern shepherd dogs are smaller than cheetahs.  German shepherds, collies, corgis, et cetera tend to have long coats for cold climates. They also react to threats by herding their flocks toward safety. This was not working in Namibia, as it triggered cheetah’s hardwired chasing instincts which lead to even further carnage misunderstanding.

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With short pale hair, ideal for the desert heat, Anatolian shepherds stand 69 to 74 centimeters tall and weigh as much as the largest cheetahs.  They are less “shepherds” who move flocks around and more “guards” who directly confront predators. This triggers the cheetah’s hardwired running away instincts.  As misunderstanding decrease, the cheetah population in the world’s most populous country (for cheetahs) is stabilizing.  Happy news for beleaguered cheetahs and farmers…and good news for the Anatolian shepherd too a big beautiful dog with a new (old) job.

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Back during the sixties, a pair of psychologists (Seligman and Maier) at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a sadistic animal study in order to learn more about depression. And they did find out a great deal about depression…and about learning, conditioning, the nature of will, and many other important things. Their experiments were troubling on all sorts of levels. Yet even though thinking about this is painful, we need to do so, because what they learned by torturing dogs into near-catatonic apathy applies very directly to us as well.

OK, here is the basis of the experiment: groups of dogs were placed in restraint harnesses with access to a lever which they could activate with their paws. Group 1 dogs were put in the harness and then nothing happened and they were released…they were the control group I suppose. Group 2 dogs were put in the restraints and given a painful electric shock—which they could stop by pushing the lever. Group 3 dogs were put in restraints and shocked seemingly at random. Group 3 dogs were helpless to escape their predicament: the lever did nothing.

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After sufficient conditioning (I imagine an agent of Hydra saying that phrase in a faux German accent), the dogs were removed from the harnesses and put in a box apparatus with an electric floor. The floor would start shocking the dogs, but they could escape by leaping over a low threshold or finding a hidden panel or what-have-you. Innocent Group 1 dogs were appalled at human perfidy, but quickly found a way out of the electrified box apparatus! Group 2 dogs knew they could change their fate and they too quickly found a way to escape the painful box. They bounded around until they got out. Group 3 dogs, however, had been taught that their actions were meaningless and so their response was heartbreakingly sad: they just lay down on the dreadful electrified floor to take their shocks and whine in misery.

sad-dog

The researchers discovered that the group 3 dogs were fundamentally broken. They could not be threatened or cajoled to jump over the barrier. Only by literally moving the dog’s limbs in the correct motions and holding the creature upright could the animals be taught to escape the electrified floor (it should be obvious that these dogs were thoroughly conditioned till they were effectively destroyed, and, of course the animals used in this study—and its subsequent iterations—were destroyed after being so relentlessly abused). These studies worked the same way on other animals and in other iterations which you can look up on your own if you so like.

So what did we learn from all this? People (or other similar organisms) who have been subject to abuse and neglect have been taught not to seek a way out of their predicament—even when the way is so obvious as to be self-evident. Frustratingly it seems like those infuriating optimists who are always going around saying “you make your own luck” and “always look on the bright side” and suchlike twaddle are right…sort of. A person’s way of explaining the world to himself matters greatly in how he then tries to deal with that world. What truly matters seems to be perceived control over the situation—or perceived lack of control. Neurophysiologists even discovered the biological circuitry of learned helplessness—mood and learning affect each other in discernible chemical patterns in the brain. The wrong feedback loop can lead to crippling anxiety-related emotional disorders—as seen in the group 3 dogs (interestingly, physical exercise can help break this feedback loop, so if you end up in prison camp, or being tortured by the Viet Cong, or trapped in a hall of evil mirrors, you had better quickly start getting fit!).

 

Plus, if you get buff enough, you could just physically bust free

Plus, if you get buff enough, you could just physically bust free

Of course a philosopher would correctly point out that none of the dogs in any of the three groups ever truly had any control—it was always an illusion fostered by godlike experimenters. In our world of powerful machines, giant corporations, ineluctable plate tectonics, false democracy, and billions upon billions of hungry greedy antagonistic humans, control is likewise an illusion, but a very important one! Maybe I should not even have included this paragraph, so that we can all can pretend we have some modicum of agency in the actual world.

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Speaking of the true nature of the world, the real lesson of the dog study is short and hard. Life is a series of shocking boxes box and we need to keep bounding around banging on the walls all the time to get anywhere. Maybe the way forward is there and maybe not, but you had better believe with all your heart that it is…and that your actions have meaning. Otherwise you might as well just lie down on the floor and die.

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The first animal to be domesticated was the wolf (modern humans call domesticated wolves “dogs”).  This happened thousands (or tens of thousands) of years before any other plants or animals were domesticated.  In fact some social scientists have speculated that the dogs actually domesticated humans.  Whatever the case, our dual partnership changed both species immensely.  It was the first and most important of many changes which swept humanity away from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and into the agricultural world.

A Han Dynasty Terracotta Statue of a Dog

A Han Dynasty Terracotta Statue of a Dog

Today’s post isn’t really about the actual prehistory behind the agricultural revolution though.  Instead we are looking at an ancient Chinese myth about how humans changed from hunters into farmers.  Appropriately, even in the myth it was dogs who brought about the change.  There are two versions of the story.  In the version told by the Miao people of southern China, the dog once had nine tails.  Seeing the famine which regularly afflicted people (because of seasonal hunting fluctuations) a loyal dog ran into heaven to solve the problem.  The celestial guardians shot off eight of the dog’s tails, but the brave mutt managed to roll in the granaries of heaven and return with precious rice and wheat seeds caught in his fur.  Ever since, in memory of their heroism, dogs have one bushy tail (like a ripe head of wheat) and they are fed first when people are done eating.

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A second version of the tale is less heroic, but also revolves around actual canine behavior.  In the golden age, after Nüwa created humans, grain was so plentiful that people wasted it shamefully and squandered the bounty of the Earth.  In anger, the Jade Emperor came down to Earth to repossess all grains and crops.  After the chief heavenly god had gathered all of the world’s cereals, the dog ran up to him and clung piteously to his leg whining and begging.  The creature’s crying moved the god to leave a few grains of each plant stuck to the animal’s fur.  These grains became the basis of all subsequent agriculture.

Han Terracotta in the form of a dog

Han Terracotta in the form of a dog

Even in folklore, we owe our agrarian civilization to the dogs, our first and best friends.

I haven’t written about colors or about mammals for a while.  In order to brighten up your day with some endearing animal pictures, I have decided to combine the two topics by writing about the color fawn. This color is a pale yellow brown which is named for the delicate coloring of fawns (baby deer).  Actually the fawns of most species of deer have fawn-colored bellies while their backs are a darker brown with delicate white stipples.

A Fawn-colored Alpaca

The color fawn is often used to describe domestic animals such as cows, alpacas, and rabbits, however the animal which is most likely to be fawn is humankind’s best friend, the domestic dog.  Great Danes, chihuahuas, French bulldogs, boxers, and bull mastiffs are all often fawn-colored–as are an immense number of mixed-breed dogs. Some scientists speculate that the ancient wolves which were first domesticated in the depths of the ice age may have had yellowish fawn-colored coats (as do some extant sub-species of smaller southern wolves).

Pug Puppy

Mastiff Puppy

French Bulldog

Anatolian Shepherd

Great Dane

According to the stringent rules of dog-shows fawn dogs must have black muzzles, so yellow labs do not qualify.  However, judging by the photos returned when one image searches fawn dogs, it seems that many dog-fanciers are untroubled by precise use of the term.

The color fawn is also used to describe clothing.  Although today the color is not at the apogee of fashion, there were times when it was.  Since it was particularly appropriate for riding clothes, there are aristocratic eras when the color was regarded as the pinnacle of elegance and so it is not uncommon to come across 18th century portraits of foppish aristocrats wearing a veritable rainbow of fawn.

Portrait of David Garrick (Thomas Gainsborough, 1742, oil on canvas)

Xolotl

Xolotl was a monstrous and deformed Aztec deity associated with sickness, misfortune, lightning, and dogs (which were useful but taboo animals to the Aztecs).  He was the twin of the glorious feathered serpent, Quetzalcoatl, one of the most important and revered of Aztec deities.  Unfortunately twins were also taboo to Mesoamericans and Xolotl’s place in the pantheon in no way matches his brother’s.  Filthy and skeletal, with backwards feet, floppy ears, and a cowering, cringing demeanor, Xolotl was constantly getting into trouble.  Scarred by his own lightning, beset by his own sicknesses, his task was to help drag the sun through the underworld at night.

In one critical story, Xolotl traveled to the depths of Mictlan, the Aztec underworld, to unearth the horrible rotting bones of an extinct race of beings.  He tricked Mictlantecuhtli, goddess of Mictlan, into allowing him to drag a filthy carcass up to the world of light where his brother and the radiant gods of heaven sprinkled it with their blood.  Thus was humankind born–from the blood of the sky gods and the bones of the dead.

What happened to luckless Xolotl?  One legend tells that he suffered setbacks in the tempestuous political affairs of the gods (recall, he was the deity of misfortune).  Fearing that he was about to be banished or killed, he transformed himself into an axolotl, the indigenous salamander of the Mexican basin.  The axolotl lacks the ability to transform into a land animal which other salamanders have.  Almost all of the population is perennibranchiate, trapped with gills and fins forever in the polluted shrinking waterways around Mexico city.

Axolotl

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