Survival of the Friendliest
When I was a child, we found Belle on the side of a dirt road during a camping trip in Florida. I don’t know if I remember us stopping there in the middle of nowhere or if the story was told to me enough times that I created the memory. Nevertheless, Belle was on the side of the road, an abandoned black Labrador puppy eating a dried-up frog, her bones so pronounced it looked like they were sharp enough to pop out of her skin entirely. My dad had no desire for a dog, but he let us take the puppy with us to our primitive campsite a mile or so further down the dusty road. He said she was so close to death and the road so infrequently used that leaving her was a death sentence.
We didn’t have any dogs, so Belle was passed around on our laps around the campfire and we fed her homemade beef jerky and marshmallows. She ate greedily and gave bountiful kisses in return. I imagine she had the worst diarrhea, as well, but no one mentions that detail.
Like the archaic wolves of our prehistory, this beast joined our campfire and shared in our food.
Dogs were domesticated somewhere around 20,000 years ago, and while humans may like all the credit, it is likely wolves started their own domestication. Wolves may have followed the migrations of early man and ate the carcasses left behind. As the wolves grew bolder, the women, who spent more time behind cooking in camp, probably fed the friendlier subdominant wolves – those with naturally higher stress tolerance -- until a sort of camaraderie began to form. Given an edge on survival, those friendlier wolves were more likely to successfully breed and pass on their traits to their offspring – offspring that would learn
to accept food from the women.
I can imagine a prehistoric husband
grumbling at his wife over the campfire that if she keeps feeding the wolf, it will just come back with more wolves. And the prehistoric wife smiling and hoping he’s right because long before the dog became man’s best friend, the wolf was woman’s confidant.
I was a young adult when I met the first dog I desperately wanted to save: a stray at Polk County Animal Services. The facility was like most country shelters in the south; it was overrun with homeless dogs in terrible living conditions. I volunteered to go with my coworker, Lisa, to pull dogs from Polk to bring back to our better- funded shelter in Tampa, and it was there I met a massive black and tan German shepherd.
I’ve always had an affinity for herding dogs – the shepherds, the collies. It’s the eyes, I think, the eyes that are expressive enough to move sheep with just a look. A good herding dog doesn’t need to bite; they need just the gaze.
“I look for dogs that are friendly, healthy- looking, and it’s a bonus if they have a clean kennel, they could be potty trained,” Lisa had told me before we went in. As soon as we walked into the building, the German shepherd lunged at the kennel door, rattling the chain link, shit squished between his massive paws. He pulled at my heart with his chocolate brown eyes, even if he was barking at me. Lisa frowned at the mange behind his ears and the hand I pressed flat against the chain link to try to coax him over.
“The board would never approve that one,” she tried to say gently. I was crushed. She told me what they always told me – we must move dogs quickly to save more dogs. This dog was too old/sick/aggressive/big, and, while I knew that, I was haunted by his eyes as he watched me walk away – walk away like everyone else before me.
Humans have highly visible sclerae – the whites of the eyes – which is a unique trait in the animal kingdom even among other primates. This would have been a competitive disadvantage to our ancestors as the white contrasts sharply with the rest of their faces and anywhere they were trying to camouflage. The whites also made it easy to see where the hunter was looking, reducing the element of surprise.
Dogs also have highly visible sclerae. The cooperative eye hypothesis proposes that dogs and humans developed this trait concurrently, promoting cooperation between the two species, particularly when hunting together.
I’ll reiterate this in another way: the partnership between dogs and humans was so remarkable our evolutionary track diverted and converged together.
I imagine there were some prehistoric dog nay-sayers that complained about wasted resources and dog hair in the caves, but evolution ultimately proved them wrong. Humans and their wolf/dog counterparts rose to the top of the food chain and changed the landscape of the world.
Another time I went to Polk County Animal Services, there was a stunning blue border collie in a run with her flea-infested puppies. The whole unairconditioned building smelt like microwaved dog shit and it made me gag when we walked in, but I was happy to be there. Happy to help. When my eyes met the mother collie’s, her lips pulled back into a submissive grin. Like her fur, her eyes were a brilliant ice blue. She was too timid to come up to me, tucking her tail between her legs and cowering in the corner, but her puppies were friendly and just about old enough to be adopted out. Puppies were the only animals the shelter ever made a profit on, and so puppies (and donations) made it possible for the rescue of all other animals. Every adult dog, adult cat, and even kittens cost the shelter more than the adoption fee they brought in. We were taking the puppies, Lisa decided.
“And the mother?” I asked.
“She is limping, and she isn’t friendly,” Lisa said. Animal welfare is a cold occupation, fraught with impossible decisions.
I named her Echo. She would be a repeat failure.
You often can’t tell a dog’s true nature when they are starving and scared. Their personality comes out later after they are healthy and comfortable.
After you have time to love them.
Belle was a runner. She could jump a six- foot fence on a sprint and not slow down for miles. She had bloodhound in her and she would stick her nose to the ground and run, oblivious to cars. The neighbors all knew Belle; she was friendly and harmless. They seemed accustomed to us driving around the neighborhood in my mom’s Jeep Cherokee while we hung out the windows calling our dog’s name. She would never come to us, not really. We would trick her by throwing a tennis ball at her when she came into view, and she would retrieve the ball as if the response was involuntary. She also loved car rides, so as soon as her attention was on us by way of playing ball, we opened the door, and she would run and jump into the Jeep. Such was the ritual of recovery.
We preferred to catch her ourselves, my siblings and my mother, and me. If my dad knew about her escape, or, worse, if he had to pursue her himself, he would chain her to our clothesline and kick her chest until she was too hurt and tired to yelp any
longer. When he was finished and returned to his shed, one of us, the children, would sneak out to pet her and bring her cookies or water. Her tail thunked weakly in the dirt, her eyelashes fluttering in anticipation of another strike, but she always forgave – my father’s action and our inaction. When we snuck away, she would watch us with pleading eyes, but we couldn’t untether her. My father left her baking in the sun for hours until he thought she suffered enough or just when he happened to remember he left her tied to the pole. This was the ritual of punishment.
She would always run again, longing for that taste of freedom, and I found it hard to blame her.
Echo would never be mine, but as a condition for her getting a chance in Tampa, I fostered her. I took her to various veterinary specialists to determine if she needed to have her leg amputated. She did.
Her surgery was a week away when I went into the director’s office. The modular building was set back from the main Tampa shelter with the director’s office just to the left of the entryway. At her desk outside the director’s door was Lisa, and she smiled when I came in. I almost started crying immediately.
Echo was increasingly aggressive. She had snapped at me, and, the night before, attacked my father’s great dane and it was only by luck that Echo wasn’t dead or hurt. This wasn’t the first altercation, just the most severe.
“You did the right thing telling me,” the director said. “These things always come out eventually.”
I took Echo into the exam room that last time. She wasn’t adoptable. Her amputation was going to cost thousands of dollars and finding the perfect home for her would be unlikely. My father wanted to adopt Echo, but the great dane would eventually kill her – or he would. I knew well the human capacity for violence against an animal. It was kinder to end this while she was still safe and loved. I knew all this, but hard choices are rarely softened by logic.
The lead tech put a blanket over the front of the small kennels attached to the exam room wall, so the cats didn’t have to watch. She turned on calming classical music but Echo still shivered in fear. Another tech held her so she couldn’t bite, and I spoke softly to her, stroking between her eyes to her nose and rubbing her ears, as the lead tech injected the innocent-looking substance into Echo’s vein. The room was so cold, as sterile as a room that smelt like urine could be.
I told Echo she was a good dog as she drifted away and when her ashes came back from the crematorium, I spread them over Belle’s grave.
Belle spent a decade living with us and it would take my father five years to recover from his grief over her death. When she got sick and lethargic my mom took her to the vet, but the diagnosis was inconclusive. My parents didn’t have a great deal of money, and any further tests or treatments were simply out of their reach. The vet knelt down to my level and told me to feed Belle raw liver -- to boost her red blood cell counts, I assume now, but he didn’t offer any explanation at the time.
In pediatrics, the doctor sometimes offers treatments just to give the parents something to do while they wait for the condition to resolve – or not – and there is a great deal of overlap between veterinary medicine and pediatrics. Looking back, the vet probably told me to feed her liver as an effort to give me something to do, but I wish he had offered feeding bologna or hotdogs instead. The memory is so much more traumatic than it had to be.
I spent hours with that mushy, puke-smelling meat in my hands, blood dripping through my fingers onto the linoleum floor and onto her dirty faded blue bed, cramped and crouched under my brother’s desk while I begged and pleaded for her to eat it; to get better. But she died anyway, alone, while I was at school. And I felt like it was all my fault.
I thought, if I had just gotten her to eat the liver, maybe she would have lived.
A prehistoric dilemma that has confounded scientists is how archaic humans edged out Neanderthals. Shortly (evolutionarily speaking) after archaic homo sapiens migrated from Africa to Europe, Neanderthals vanished, dying out, even though the stronger, more capable Neanderthals should have outcompeted homo sapiens.
The answer may be four-legged: the domestication of dogs. That technology, if you will, gave early humans the competitive advantage to survive and populate to the point they pushed out Neanderthals. Early dogs and humans cooperatively hunted together, the dogs wearing out large game so humans, waiting in ambush, could then kill the exhausted prey. This was a far more successful and far safer way to hunt, and homo sapiens won the evolutionary race with a feast.
Would we be where we are or look the way we do now without dogs?
There was another dog at the shelter, a hound/collie mix with gently pricked ears and eyes that could melt your soul. He spent almost a year with the shelter before he was adopted by the local police department after they performed a series of tests to determine his fitness. We were all so proud of Jethro. It was quite the story of how this overlooked mutt would become a police officer. The marketing team wrote up the “Happy Tail” in the newsletter and distributed it. The newsletter was barely cooled before Jethro was returned. He had flunked out of training in only a week. Despite the fact Jethro was being trained as a drug-sniffing dog, he was euthanized after a volunteer told the director police did bite work with all their dogs. A dog that is trained to bite is a liability. This news never made it into the newsletter.
I kept a photo album on my social media of all the dogs and cats that the shelter euthanized for behavioral or health reasons. I didn’t keep the album as a moral protest-- I understood why it had to happen. I understood that to help the many, sometimes a few had to die. But I also understood, even at that point when I was barely twenty, that there was danger in becoming unmoved by death. Good intentions can be twisted by ego and the pursuit to make operations more
Jethro was the last picture I added to my album. I was sick with compassion fatigue, and I left animal welfare.
As many people treat their dogs with anthropomorphic coddling as people who treat their dogs with casual cruelty. Sometimes a person does both, to the same dog, two sides of the same coin as love and hate itself, as my father did to Belle. If you spend any time working in an animal shelter, you will see the darkness that lives inside of people, their capacity for abuse, yes, but also their willing, cool dismissal of the thousands of dogs that are dropped off and forgotten. Yet, the business of selling products to dog owners is a billion- dollar industry. Humans have always been weird about dogs – one way or another.
We don’t deserve dogs. People like to say that. I do too.
As I write this, Scarlett, my dachshund- chihuahua-pitbull-collie super mutt, sits on her back legs, her front paws pulled back into her body as she fancily begs next to my desk. Her eyes are wide and beady as if they could pop out at any sneeze. Her tail thumps against the wood floors with a steady thwack, her ears perked up hopefully, her lips pulled into her underbite so her little teeth poke out like a vampire. I push my chair back from the desk with a mock reluctant sigh and tap my lap. She jumps up, wiggling her whole body in excitement, sneaking kisses against my cheek as I squirm to dodge her efforts, and I share a piece of my granola bar with her. Food from my fire. She is far from a wolf, and I am far from a hunter-gatherer, but that bond between us is as evident as the white of our eyes.
Emily is a writer based in Jonesborough, TN, where she lives with her husband, four children, and her service dog, Ghost. She has been published at The Raven’s Perch and has an upcoming publication with Entropy Magazine. She is an MFA in Writing candidate at the Vermont College of Fine Ar.