TL;DR – I have them, I can control them, but my dog can’t.
When I was a boy, maybe 3 or 4 years old, I remember my parents had a retired greyhound named Taffy. She was pretty old, and shy, and I could tell she really loved me even though all I wanted to do was ride her like a horsey. I’m sure my sister has a photograph of Taffy and I together, but I couldn’t find one myself. I have a few fuzzy (ha!) memories of her, but what’s stuck with me most is how kind and gentile she was, even when anxiety and frustrations were high within our family unit.
I guess maybe it’s Taffy’s influence on me – her warm, boney ribs, and the way she smelled like corn chips and freshly mowed grass – that I’ve always considered all animals to be our peers on this planet. It’s hard to describe, considering at a primal level I think most species just want to dominate their environments, but I’ve always felt (see: emotionally) that all creatures big & small have “feelings” too.
This is probably as weird to read as it is to type, but maybe keep going so I can hopefully start to sound a little less crazy and maybe even begin to redeem myself in the world.
It wasn’t until the past year or so worth of really studying Mr. Paul the dog I came up with a thesis statement to summarize my observations, so here it goes, saying it out-loud in public for the very first time…
All living things only operate on emotional response. Some humans transcend with logical decision making abilities, only because basic needs are met with comfortable social rank.
I don’t know exactly how to prove this, but I know it’s true, and I’ll try to cite some observations to prove my point, and hopefully help this sound a bit less insane. Smarter people than me will probably note I’m playing fast and loose with words here, largely because academics are frustratingly slow to me, and I’m addicted to experiences. Cut me some slack, and drudge on.
We use the word “domestication” to talk about animals, largely towards pets & food sources, but we usually forget to apply that term to ourselves as a group of creatures roaming about the world. We pat ourselves on our shirt-covered backs and claim victory for having tamed other creatures through human selection, and we celebrate the undeniable fact we are in control of our own destinies. This seems pretty self-fulfilling now, and I’ll tell you why.
In my life, I’ve met dozens of people. They’re all different. You’re all different. We’re all different. But, the one outlier which really truly determines friend from foe is our perceived levels of domestication. Which is to say, are we on the same level, and do we both agree we can stay on the same level without threat or violation. Amongst the few billion people lingering about, and the few I’ve had the overwhelming pleasure to meet, there are only a few people that mutually agree “we’re cool” and put effort into maintaining said level of coolness for the duration of our lives together, and it makes me sad if I think about it too long.
The reality, I think, is it’s all a big accident, and we’ve just been lucky enough to win the evolutionary lottery several times in a row and we’ve brought generations of education with us (of which is starting to become ubiquitous or folk-lore at this point.)
In the 50’s, a guy named Dimitri Belyaev proved it took 35 generations to go from a big bad wolf in your neighborhood to not bad meaning bad but bad meaning good. The math here is shocking if you correlate it to humans – not that it actually accurately correlates, but if it did, consider:
- The average dog, bless their hearts, lives about 10 years
- Humans currently live for about 100 years
- 35 generations of focused human canine selection is about 350 years max
- Humans *could* go from wild killers to domestication in 3500 years, if we had some help to get us over the hump, if you will
Now, I know these numbers aren’t right. They’re a completely false shot in the dark at a loose correlation of data points that is impossible to prove in anyway actually matter. But for some reason, this math skews my perception of the human timeline in a funny way. Maybe 35,000 years was enough time to calm us down to where we are now. Maybe we were lucky enough to discover the benefits of self-selection in a unique way on this planet that boosted our evolutionary abilities into overdrive, galvanizing “ahead” of all other species whom are hanging out with us right now.
You know what I think actually gave us these abilities? Drugs.
Not actual drugs, though I bet those have profound effects also. I’m talking about preparing food in such a way that it tantalizes our senses and invokes emotional responses and experiences though delicious flavors and aromas that force our fleshy brain matter to level-up just to take it all in. Salt. Sugar. Caffeine. Fat. Alcohol. Manufactured, thoroughly processed, extreme intake levels of the most potent ingredients nature can offer us.
Today, we call it “junk food” but I believe once we discovered fire, and learned how to preserve meat, and how to salt the shit out of things to maintain their freshness, and ferment things to get us drunk, we drugged ourselves numb to our emotions which gave us the freedom to evolve the logistical decision making centers of our brains, which helped us create increasingly powerful concoctions & potions, which helped us level up, and on, and on…
So all this time, humans are leveling each other out, both with swords and celery salt. We still are to a certain degree, but we’ve collectively assessed a small group can continue to fight about nothing so the rest of us can continue to condition ourselves to procreate new and better versions of ourselves. Somewhere along the way, we befriend canines almost exclusively as companions, and whether they wanted to or not, we bred them to love us back, and, I think, they usually almost always do.
This, finally, brings me to the TL;DR of this entire bizarre rambling. My furry life-mate, Mr. Paul, has retaught me something I accidentally discovered when I was 3 years old: all animals are purely deeply emotional creatures, and while humans spend their entire lives trying to control them, animals are still fighting for the right to have the luxury to do so.
Paul the dog, is an emotional creature. I can see it, I can feel it. His immense sadness & confusion when I leave the house. His elation when I come home. The calm he feels by my side. The jealousy and distain he feels when I pet Penny the dog. His excitement when I say the word “walk” and his sorrow when I say the word “crate.” His brain understands no logic, only emotional responses to external stimuli.
He feels emotions as a constant, not as a variable. Birds only feel fear of starving, joy of being with their flocks, and excitement of migrating south again. Animals in captivity at zoos and shows only feel sadness and confusion at their predicament, they eventually grow complacent with the abuse of authority used to tame them, settling into depression so they can cope with their new jobs. No matter how compassionate zoo-keepers are, or how much money or time or care is invested in the well-being of exotic creatures, they’re not where they feel they belong, so they are not experiencing genuine joy in their lives, only whatever the opposite is.
Through repeated training sessions and with a consistent reward system, Paul the dog has learned how to navigate the world. He’s smart, and learns quickly. He’s intuitive – he knows when I’m about to leave the house and to go in his crate without me needing to say the word. Him and I are, for lack of a better way to put it, syncopated. We’ve mutually agreed our relationship is enjoyable and worthwhile, and we continue to grow together and learn together as our lives change and our family grows from 2 to 3 to 4 and more.
About a month ago, I was leaving the house to go to dinner, and at the end of our driveway was an injured bird, still alive, not bleeding, but clearly injured. My guess at the time was it had been hit by a car and bounced across the pavement onto our property, where it lay for who knows how long until I discovered it. In those moments, this poor bird did not know logic or fate, it only knew fear and pain. It was helpless, and scared, and hurting, and I was it’s only chance at relief.
I think most people would say it was just a dumb bird, and there’s a million other dumb birds like it out there, and you just put it out of it’s misery and move on. And, I guess pretty morbidly, there’s a part of me that agrees with that assessment. But I’m not equipped to do more good than harm, and I’m not comfortable ending a creature’s life, so I called Fellow Mortals Wildlife hospital and arranged to drop U-turn (yes, I named the bird) off at their facility so they could, with an educated mind and experienced hand, do what was best for this suffering animal.
I’m an emotional person living in a vulcanized world. And I think most of us are. We fool ourselves into believing this place we’ve manufactured for ourselves is civilized, so much so, many of us can now go our entire lives never experiencing the raw pain & emotion true helplessness and suffering entails. When someone survives a tragedy, we use the word “traumatized” to compartmentalize their emotions leaking out from the fragile vail of logic we all cover up with to navigate the day. Frankly, it’s all just lies to help occupy the time.
Love is the only word I can think of that everyone agrees means something different to everyone else. But animals without cloudy human logic feel love all the time. They feel relief of anxiety though perceived successes of food & shelter & warmth. They feel joy being reunited with their packs & groups. They find love, without looking, everywhere they are. When we find love, with people or pets or otherwise, our logical epicenters try to suss out all the ways it might or might not calculate, and our bias in either direction dictates the outcome of that relationship.
Not Mr. Paul, though… he just loves his family, and I love learning from him everyday. <3
P.S. This is probably the type of post that requires too much mental commitment to like or reply to because it’s all over the place, but if you made it this far, do it anyways so I can feel a bit less crazy about it all even if it’s not true.