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Sunday, May 11, 2014

Chimpanzees, Dogs and Domestication

Today is Mother's Day, and I am being nostalgic. In the picture above, from nine years ago, you can see me and Bow inside the sun room, while Sword and her friend are out in the yard on the back  porch. They are playing hopscotch on a chalk outline they made on the concrete. Bow was in his favorite pose, riding on my back. And, of course, there's a swing.

Today, the sun room has been transformed into the inner pens, the back porch is the floor of the outer pen, and the swing has been moved outdoors. It's Bow's swing, but today, since it is Mother's Day, Bow let me use it.

Bow was very unconcerned with my use of his swing, but Leo, who is a barker, kept trying to get more attention. If he were inside the pens, he would not feel so left out. Luckily, I do also interact with Leo at other times, so he's not entirely a neglected or a feral dog.

Which reminds me, offhand, of a discussion of chimpanzees, dogs and domestication I recently had with some friends and friends of friends on Facebook.

It all started with someone claiming that humans, even under conditions of slavery, cannot be domesticated, because they are so smart that they can cloak their tendency toward violence and thereby avoid having the violence culled right out of them. This, it was claimed, was in contrast to dogs who have been entirely domesticated, and can therefore be expected to be non-violent toward humans.

I took issue with this. I pointed out how many incidents of dogs killing humans we have in the United States each year. The killings are not breed specific. My point was not  that dogs were bad or that certain dogs were violent, but simply that those dogs who do not choose to kill humans do so not out of some kind of genetic predisposition against violence, but because of the way they are brought up, the way they are treated and the positive relationship that they have with humans. I mentioned that chimpanzees, who have not undergone "domestication", have by contrast not killed any human in the US in decades.

Up popped some woman, a friend of my friend, and gave me a stern lecture. She told me that chimpanzees may seem cute when they are babies, but by puberty they are very dangerous, and I should have a plan in place to get rid of mine. (She assumed Bow was in the cute baby phase, or else I would be dead by now.) Then she explained that domestication is not the same as taming, in case I thought it was, but was a program of genetic selection for certain traits that dogs have undergone for tens of thousands of years and that foxes underwent more recently in a less lengthy process.

First of all, if domestication as a way to disarm populations were really a possibility, whether for humans, dogs or chimpanzees, don't you think it would be achieved by now? The biggest killers of other humans are humans themselves. Governments interested in eradicating resistance are plotting to take away our guns or to drug us, because they don't know of any sure fire way to make us docile.

Many people have their dogs neutered, and it is not just for purposes of birth control. If birth control were desired, why not just perform a vasectomy? The same people who claim dogs are domesticated also push for universal neutering of all domestic dogs. Why?Some of it is to control behavior.

 Dogs don't always do what we expect them to. Neither do humans or chimpanzees. All of us are dangerous, whether armed or unarmed. Many different expedients are tried to neutralize the natural tendency to resist authority that comes built in to any intelligent being.

But even castrati can plot against the king, and neutered dogs and chimps have been known  to do much damage. So neither "domestication" despite its centuries' long breeding program, nor other methods such as drugs and lobotomies, is a substitute for a relationship of trust.

Telling people their dogs are domesticated and hence cannot harm them is an invitation to having people treat dogs badly or fail to relate to them at all, and expect that everything will be fine. Everything can be fine, but first you need to earn respect.

I go into the pens every day, bare footed and bare handed, with only trust for a weapon. It works a lot better than domestication ever could. Nobody in my house is domesticated: not me, not my daughter, not the dogs and certainly not Bow. We all came down from a long line of carnivorous predators, and somehow we avoid killing each other every single day.

Amazing, isn't it? But I bet it's the same at your house, too! Happy Mother's Day!


  1. I wonder why people who know so little about chimpanzees continue to lecture you based on one news story. They do not know much about you and Bow, so I would not even think much about what they say.

    1. Thanks, Julia. I think people can't help giving other people advice, sometimes, even if they have no experience in the matter. I do think about what they say, though, because I want to understand and possibly learn how better to communicate with other people who do not share my views.

  2. As to this statement ("The biggest killers of other humans are humans themselves.") , I always get a kick of seeing peoples' eyebrows go up when I say, "more people have been killed *in the name of God" than for any other reason on this planet.
    I love that she picked up the breeding / genetic selection stuff for dogs. Yes, they look to breed positive traits of breeds and get rid of weak traits (ie, breeding out hip dysplasia in german shepherds), but not trying to domesticate them for crying out loud. I agree with you - every human, animal & whatever else has the ability to be violent.
    Even the most seemingly non-hostile people can turn violent - probably more so than others.
    Loved your closing, "somehow we avoid killing each other every single day."

    1. Thanks, Kathy. Glad we agree on this!

      I think in some ways that dog breeding is skin deep, because it is the external traits that people check for primarily in purebred dogs, although it may not always have been that way.
      However, among those who want to outlaw exotics, the idea of domestication as a result of breeding is very entrenched. I don't know the history of that movement, so I don't know who it was who first thought up and gave voice to this idea.

  3. At least with the dog breeders I've known (mostly German shepherd breeders), their goals have been to improve the breed by breeding out the bad traits. I've know breeders that would neuter a GSD that had hip displaysia even though they had paid thousands of dollars for them to use as breeders.
    But yes, I agree there are others that do it for the skin deep stuff.
    I had no idea there was this drive among the group that wishes to outlaw exotics. Sounds like another "cause" being driven out of fear and ignorance.

    1. I'm glad they are working on breeding out hip dysplasia and other genetic deformities and illnesses among German Shepherds. They are one of my favorite breeds, though I have not had one in years, because I have just taken to adopting strays, who come in all different shapes and sizes.

      They are trying to pass laws outlawing ownership of exotics in every state, with varying success. The most recent law passed is in Ohio. The drive is funded by HSUS. They sell this to the general public by appealing to safety concerns as well as implying that keeping exotics is cruel. I think when they have met their goal with exotics, they plan to go after dogs and cats.

  4. It seems like we have to fight for everything we want to do in life these days.