Archive for October, 2008

Legend of the Dog Man

Werewolves, they’re not just for Halloween anymore!

From MLive Kalamazoo – is this the Michiganders’ version of the War of the Worlds?

KALAMAZOO — Some say they’ve seen a “dog man” stalking the woods of Michigan.

And this man-sized, two-legged, upright-walking canine reportedly has been sighted as nearby as Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids, according to author and researcher of the weird Linda Godfrey.

Fact or just fiction?

[…]  Godfrey admitted she has never seen Dog Man, which it is commonly called in Michigan, but said she receives many reports from those who have — reports from all over the world.

“I don’t know the exact percentage” of sightings in Michigan, she said, “but there are quite a few … and they occur mostly in the Lower Peninsula from the Indian River area (an upscale community northeast of Traverse City). … And about halfway between Traverse City and Grand Rapids is another area of multiple sightings, and then down by Kalamazoo.”

[…]  Godfrey believes it’s possible the creature could be a species of wolf that’s simply adapted over time to be able to walk on its hind legs when it wants to. What she doesn’t think is that it’s an actual werewolf.

“I do not think it’s what people consider a traditional werewolf, a human being changing physically into a wolf,” she said. “(But) I refuse to put a label on it because once you decide it’s one thing you close the door on investigations — you may as well just quit.”

Or… your could just check out the Dog Man’s own website where one can find these interesting tidbits:

“The Legend” began in 1987 when WTCM radio morning personality Jack O’Malley wanted to play an April Fool’s prank on his listeners. He sat down to brainstorm with WTCM production director Steve Cook, who said he might have something.

Cook created a mythical half-man, half-dog, and wrote a poem about appearances of the creature. He placed the events in Northern Michigan towns, and gave the Dog Man a mysterious chronological nature. Each sighting occurs in the seventh year of the decade. The poem evenutally became a song, “The Legend.” 

The legend lives on.  The most recent sighting of the Dog Man was reported near Fife Lake, Michigan in April of this year.  Not interested in travelling to Michigan (or Wisconsin, where sightings have also been reported) to see the Dog Man?  Well, you can get a Dog Man CD or buy one of several “I Saw The Dog Man” t-shirts on line — you can even follow the Dog Man on Twitter.

I wonder where he’ll be tonight…

October 31, 2008 at 2:50 pm 3 comments

There. Are. No. Words…

For some reason, the Universe saw fit to bring both these videos to my attention today.

Warning – NSFW (or young children).

The first (click text below to see) appears to show a prominent dog trainer using an… Um… Well… “Unique” method to reward her dog.


The next shows where, IMO, this might eventually lead one.


October 30, 2008 at 1:50 am 3 comments

Going Out on a Limb

Gina over at PetConnection posted today on “A New Contender for the ‘Hell Isn’t Hot Enough Award‘.”  A heartless, irresponsible dolt who owns a boarding and training facility in Youngstown, Ohio apparently decided that feeding the dogs he was supposed to be caring for was an unnecessary task beyond his budget. And according to

Kyle Ziegler and Joe Borosky, Animal Charity humane agents, went to the business Wednesday afternoon after a woman called and complained that she couldn’t get her dog back from the man operating the place. The agents knocked but no one answered, so they got permission to look from the next-door neighbor’s backyard.


After taking the dogs, staff at Animal Charity found the animals were in worse condition than first believed. Some were aggressive against staff because of starvation, he said.

“For the safety of the animal, we’re not going to release the dogs until we’re sure they’re healthy,” Borosky said.

Ziegler said it’s not clear how long ago the seven dogs died. The veterinarian at Animal Charity would know more after post-mortem exams, he said.

The dead dogs included Doberman pinschers, pit bulls and two German shepherds, Borosky said.

Borosky said the eight remaining dogs, German shepherds, Dobermans, a mastiff and pit bull puppy, are barely alive, just skin and bones, and that four of them “might not make it.”

The opinion that Steve Croley, the owner and ‘operator’ of the facility deserves a fast, nonstop ride to hell is an understatement.  This is cold-hearted, criminal neglect of the worst kind and I’m relieved to hear that the surviving animals have been taken from him.

But there’s more to this story than the rescue of abused animals…

In a follow-up story reports:

If Animal Charity humane agents had waited for a search warrant before using bolt cutters to enter High Caliber K-9 — where seven dogs died — the city prosecutor would have filed more charges against the operator.


[Prosecutor] Macejko, however, did not file charges related to the 15 dogs found after agents entered Croley’s property with bolt cutters.

“They should have called me. I could have got a warrant in one hour,” Macejko said Friday. “Saving animals doesn’t mean you can prosecute.”

Macejko said civilians can act to save animals in distress, but the agents, Kyle Ziegler and Joe Borosky, were acting on behalf of the state and must follow the law if they expect criminal charges to be filed.


In a written response, Macejko said the Fourth Amendment, which guards against unreasonable search and seizure, applies to humane agents.

The article is a bit vague, but it sounds like the humane agents:

1. Entered the site not only without a warrant, but without asking for a warrant

2. Notified the media either before, or immediately after, they entered the property allowing the press to arrive while they were removing the dogs.

3. Further may not have been duly authorized as one of the armed agents responding had not been appointed by authorities to act in this capacity.

According to, the prosecutor responded by telling them…

“You and they further complicated the matter by turning the scene into a media spectacle. None of you had a right to escort the media around this man’s property,” Macejko wrote. “If you wished to hold a press conference, you would have been fully within your right to do so once the animals had been removed from the scene and secured at Animal Charity.”

He said her conduct — sending letters to the mayor and reporters before they spoke — “only serves to justify my lack of faith in your agency.”

The prosecutor said he learned Thursday, while researching the case, that Borosky has not been appointed by the mayor to act as a humane agent, but Ziegler has, so Borosky had no authority to act at all, other than as a private citizen.

Macejko warned Owen that if Borosky acts again without authority or enters a public building wearing a firearm under the auspices of being a humane agent, all necessary action will be taken. The prosecutor added that her agents are generally unprepared when they present cases to his office and severely need training.

Before you blow a gasket – I am in no way defending the scumbag who tortured and abused these dogs.  And if I had been there, it would have been hard to keep me from going in there to get them.  ButI am going to go out on a limb and defend the scumbag’s civil rights (along with yours and mine).  Specifically the rights granted by the fourth amendment – which specifically requires that search and arrest warrants be judicially sanctioned, supported by probable cause and be limited in scope according to specific information supplied by a person (usually a law enforcement officer) who has sworn by it and is therefore accountable to the issuing court.

OK – you say, search warrants are a good thing – but what about those poor dogs? Can’t a humane agent just break in to rescue them when they are in dire need?  Especially when the dogs are clearly visible from a public area?  Well, he or she can – but if they do so without a warrant they run the risk of polluting the case against the abuser.  From :

Morgan v. State, 285 Ga. App. 254, 645 S.E.2d 745 (2007): (a) The Curtilage.  Morgan contends that the trial court erred in concluding that the warrantless search of the curtilage surrounding his home was justified under the plain view doctrine. We agree that the plain view doctrine, standing alone, did not provide a sufficient basis for the search of the curtilage.

It is true that the deputy’s initial observations of malnourished and mistreated animals occurred while he was standing in the driveway and on the public road, a vantage point that “breached no right of privacy of [Morgan].” State v. Nichols, 160 Ga. App. 386 (287 SE2d 53) (1981). See Sirmans v. State, 244 Ga. App. 252, 254-255 (2) (b) (534 SE2d 862) (2000) (officer’s observations of mistreated animals from public roadway did not violate defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights); Galloway v. State,178 Ga. App. 31, 34 (342 SE2d 473) (1986) (officer’s observations made while on driveway did not violate defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights since officer had taken “the same route as would any guest, deliveryman, postal employee, or other caller”) (citation and punctuation omitted). These initial observations constituted “a lawful, nonsearch plain view situation” supporting a finding of probable cause to suspect that the crime of cruelty to animals was being committed on Morgan’s property. (Punctuation and footnote omitted.) Boldin v. State, 282 Ga. App. 492, 495 (2) (639 SE2d 522) (2006). See Sirmans, 244 Ga. App. at 254-255 (2) (b) (plain view observation of animals in deprived condition supplied officer with probable cause to search defendant’s property).

However, the officer’s initial plain view observations from the driveway and road, in and of themselves, did not authorize the officer to then make a warrantless entry into Morgan’s backyard–a location indisputably within the curtilage surrounding the residence–and take steps culminating in the dogs there being seized and removed from the property.

Along with the limitations presented by the curtilage issue discussed above (see Wikipedia for more on that), BlueDogState wrote an excellent post back in May touching on the potentially terrifying problems associated with allowing private animal welfare officers to conduct searches, seizures and arrests.  Though they may have good intentions, these people operate in the private sector– outside the system of checks and balances designed to help protect our rights in the public law enforcement system.  As BlueDogState astutely noted; “They answer to no one, other than the privately-employed individual that signs their paycheck.” And in too many cases (though I’m not throwing stones at the folks involved here) these are groups with agendas, not relatively impartial law enforcement officers.

Along with the potential problems that arise if we allow armed private individuals to enter our property without warrants to conduct searches and seizures, it’s also important to note that the public (i.e. you and I) has no ability to influence the operations of these private groups and individuals – so when problems (like the very sobering one discussed here) arise, as they are likely to do, – how are we going resolve them? In civil court? Criminal court? Or perhaps with sabers at dawn?

I understand the need – and even more so the desire – to rush in and rescue these dogs, but when it’s done in a manner that isn’t in accordance with constitutional search and seizure provisions – it unneccessarily creates further problems.  And allowing, or worse yet, condoning these kinds of actions could lead us all down the slippery slope that lets anyone who doesn’t agree with the way we keep our dogs or with the kinds of dogs we choose keep to take them away from us without due process of law.

October 28, 2008 at 1:10 am 9 comments

Now Smell This

Our friend LabRat over at AtomicNerds wrote an excellent post a while back on why the mirror test for self-awareness may not be applicable to dogs – or bats.  Here’s a little sniff:

Personally, however, I’ve always had an issue with the test, because it depends rather heavily on something humans take for granted- vision as the dominant source of sensory information. The fact that dogs never pass the mirror test is something that is frequently mentioned in dog behavior literature as proof that dogs have no self-awareness, no conception of “I” and “you”, that they just learn from stimulus and response. It’s extremely important for humans to bear in mind that dogs don’t think or feel or remember the way humans do, but I really wonder first if a total absence of self-awareness is a logical assumption to make of a complex social animal, and second if the test is a fair measurement of an animal like a dog. (Or, for that matter, a horse or any other complex social animal that has failed the test but doesn’t put much reliance on its eyes compared to other senses.)

For a dog, smell is the ruling sense, the chief and most reliable source of information. Not only is the sense of smell of the average dog (let alone a hound) at least a hundred times more powerful than it is for humans, it’s gives them even more information than vision does for us, because scent is the only three-dimensional sense- it doesn’t just tell them what’s going on now, it also tells them what happened then. We can approximate it by taking clues from our vision and reasoning through them, but we can’t tell that someone was standing someplace an intermediate period of time ago (but is gone now) without going through that reasoning process and doing CSI tricks. For a dog, this is standard information, part of the way they hunt naturally.

There’s no doubt about it, in a dog’s world, scent is king.  Interested in new opportunities to share the fascinating world of scent with your dog? Tired of the same old routine of tracking and hide-and-seek?  How about a scratch and sniff book designed just for dogs?  Each page in “See Spot Smell” includes a word, picture, and smell that, according to the author, your dog will recognize.  Linking scent to reading skills? Wait – is this a ploy to incorporate olfactory learning into a program to teach dogs to read?

I don’t know.  Considering where our economy appears to be headed, if I’m going to spend a bunch of time doing scent work with my dog I don’t think I’ll waste it using pictures of cheese to teach him to read – I’m going to train me a MONEY DOG!

According to their press release:

Money Dog’s Dog-Training Money Scent teaches dog to recognize and find cash. Using dogs natural ability to recognize unique scents, this training scent turns the ordinary household pet into a money dog.  “Any dog” can detect training scents for deer, rabbits or pheasant. Now your dog can detect this training scent, and detect cash. Money Dog’s Dog-Training Money Scent is perfect for games with your dog, a new tracking and trailing job for your dog, or simply to find cash.

Dog training scents come in many different styles and scents, but Money Dog’s Dog-Training Money Scent is the only dog-training scent which uses real cash to produce the unique scent.  Each 4.0 ounce bottle contains an extract of genuine cash, and is re-sealable. Because the training scent is made from cash, the fluid is not for human or animal consumption.

Gen-you-win cash extract! How cool is that? Hmmm, I wonder… if my dog can’t learn to find money using the extract, can I reconstitute it and turn it back into cash?

A money dog sounds like just the ticket. But let’s see how my buddy Audie feels about the program.  I’ll get an appropriate book, a piece of cheese and some cash and we’ll see which one he’s interested in:

I present the problem

I present the problem

Audie considers the options

Audie considers the options


He makes his choice

He makes his choice

...and shows me the money!

...and shows me the money!

October 26, 2008 at 7:28 pm 2 comments

More in Books

Today a short post on three excellent books on dog-training.  The twist is that none of these books was written by a dog trainer, and none of them deal directly – or even indirectly, with dog training.

The first is “Natural Horse Man Ship” by Pat Parelli. Despite the shortcomings of being somewhat poorly edited and including too many mnemonics and cutesy aphorisms for my taste – this book presents the clearest and most accurate and detailed discussion of the use of pressure and release in training I’ve seen.  Pat Parelli also does an excellent job of explaining the dynamic nature of emotional reactions and the need for human leadership in the human-domestic animal relationship. If you train dogs, or are interested in training animals – get this book.  And if you have a chance, attend a Parelli seminar.  To really understand how pressure and release works, you need to see it – and experience it.

Next is Chandler Burr’s “The Emperor of Scent.”  Burr’s story about Luca Turin, a scientist with an unusually sensitive nose provides some fascinating insights on how dogs may perceive – or more importantly, think about – scent.  I found the parts of the book where Turin talks about the way he perceives smells to be utterly fascinating.  Much, I imagine, like a dog – Turin can describe a range or odors from feces to flower with both remarkable accuracy and a refreshing lack of judgement. My ideas about odor, and about dogs, were changed after reading this book. (Sidebar: For a more detailed discussion on the philosophy and neurobiology of scent perception, skip Turin’s controversial book and instead read Wilson and Stevenson’s excellent “Learning to Smell“.)

Last is Peggy Post’s “Emily Post’s Etiquette“, specifically the introduction (A Note to Readers) and Part One, Everyday Etiquette (no – I’m really not suggesting you need to read and follow 847 pages of detailed advice on manners). In this time where an ‘everything goes’ attitude combined with political correctness has led us to a point where what we say and what we do is governed more by an intolerance for moral diversity than by kindness and common sense – the book provides a roadmap back to civility.  From the introduction:

Etiquette must be active. It isn’t enough to now what to do. Courtesy matters only when it is translated into everyday behavior – not just put on for show when it’s convenient. The rewards of an active commitment to everyday courtesy are myriad, though not often tangible. There are also important personal rewards that some peopel may not even be aware of, including the self-confidence that comes from knowing what to do in new or difficult situations; a positive reputation with others; and personal relationships that are more congenial, even in times of stress, because the people involved treat one another with respect.”

The italics are mine, and highlight the sections that relate directly to dog training. Teaching and maintaining some formalized set of behaviors (i.e. etiquette) to your dog needs to be more than just showing him how to perform a series of behaviors. When done properly, training gives your dog a roadmap that helps him navigate an often alien human world and helps instill in him – and in you – a sense of mutual respect.

October 25, 2008 at 6:55 pm 1 comment

Pavlov’s – Bacterium?

Off to school!

Off to school!

Ding! Ding! Ding!  More good stuff on theories of mind and classical conditioning.  From MIT Technology Review:

A century after Pavlov’s dog first salivated at the sound of a bell, researchers are saying that single-celled organisms such as bacteria can be “trained” to react in a similar way. Rather than use complex networks of nerve cells, or neurons, bacteria can “learn” to associate one stimulus with another by employing molecular circuits, according to a multidisciplinary team from Germany, Holland, and the United Kingdom.

What? Bacteria LEARNING? Well – according to Daniel Dennett, even an object as simple as a thermostat can, in a way, be said to have certain types of ‘beliefs’ about the world.  Dennett doesn’t believe that a thermostat is conscious. But he does think that, in certain ways, its behavior can’t be distinguished from beliefs.   When considered purely with respect to its specific function, a thermostat could be said to “believe” a room is too cold, and then react by turning the boiler on. Of course, that thermostat doesn’t have a mind, but it does have a purpose, function and design that allow it to react predictably within a specific set of circumstances and conditions. Kind-of like a bacterium.

We humans often attribute feelings or intentions metaphorically to non-human objects.  It is convenient for us to adopt the intentional stance when trying to understand human beings, so we try to conserve energy by using it to understand non-human ones too.  But – when we try to understand thermometers – or bacteria – at the level of the intentional stance, giving them beliefs about basic aspects of their worlds and ascribing them the ‘desire’ to perform specific functions, do we assume an increased risk of error by extrapolating too broadly?

The mechanisms responsible for controlling behavior vary widely across species – and many actions that are indistinguishable from conscious behavior are observed in the animal and electronic worlds.  A mind allows us to perceive environmental stimuli and react adaptively to them by anticipating predictable events. A bimetallic strip allows a thermostat to perceive temperature changes and react to them as well. And in much the same way, biochemical reactions can act like a bacterium’s brain.

Dennett proposes three levels of abstraction (or stances) with respect to behavior. These are the physical, design and intentional stances.  The physical stance is the level at which we are concerned with properties like mass, energy, velocity, and chemical composition.  The design stance focuses on purpose, function and design. The intentional stance is the level where we consider things in terms of beliefs, thinking and (of course) intent.

As with Pavlov’s dog and all other examples of associative learning, the bacteria in the model learn to build stronger associations between the two stimuli the more they occur together. The Canadian neuropsychologist Donald Hebb established an underlying explanation back in 1945. Now called Hebbian learning, it’s often expressed as a situation in which “neurons that fire together wire together.” In the hungry dog’s case, nerve cells triggered by the smell of food started to make physical links with the nerve cells simultaneously triggered by the sound of a bell. According to Hebb’s theory, the more often the two stimuli are applied at the same time, the greater the link or “synaptic weight” between them.

Bacteria, of course, don’t have synapses or nerve cells. Nonetheless, there are indications that single-celled organisms can learn. In the 1970s, Todd Hennessey claimed that paramecia, the single-celled pond dweller, could be conditioned in the lab. He electrocuted them and associated this with a buzzer. Following the simultaneous exposure to the buzzer and to electric currents, he claimed that the paramecia swam away from the buzzer when they had not done so before. The finding was never properly reproduced, but it raised the intriguing possibility that some sort of associated learning was possible for single-cell life forms.

“Mind” blowing.

Eva Jablonka, a theoretical biologist at Tel-Aviv University and a leading researcher in the field, agrees. “This is conceptually a bit difficult,” she says, “but if you look at the definition of learning–because of something happening, you have some kind of physical traces, and this changes the threshold of the response in the future–then this is what you have here.” She adds, “I think that it is a good and potentially very useful paper, and I think they do demonstrate associative learning.”

Think that’s cool?  There’s even more.  If you or your dog learn something – or even if you develop a conditioned association to a stimulus, that specific bit of “knowledge” is yours and yours alone.  But… it seems that bacteria may be capable of passing their associative learning on to their offspring (probably because they reproduce by binary fission instead of that messy sexual reproduction).

Significantly, Fernando estimates that the changes induced in the bacteria could easily persist for the 30-minute life cycle of an E. coli bacterium. This would make the changes, or “learning,” heritable. This is an especially important point when it comes to medical applications for trained bacterium. “After all, diseases or drug doses are going to last longer than 30 minutes,” notes Jablonka.

The trick would be to train bacteria to recognize chemical processes in the body that are associated with danger. This might be an adverse and dangerous reaction to a drug, or to the presence of tumor cells, indicating that a medicine in the system needs to be activated in certain tissues.

Smart bacteria and inheritable learning. Do you suppose we can develop a bacterium that will inoculate us to forgetfulness?

October 24, 2008 at 3:45 am 1 comment

Robots to Replace Service Dogs?

The latest on technology from MIT Technology Review:

Service dogs that open doors, switch on lights, and perform other useful tasks offer a much needed lifeline to people with disabilities. Now researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology are developing robots that mimic the relationship between humans and their canine helpers.

Robotics researchers have long sought to create robots that can help out around the home. But while robots are good at carrying out preprogrammed tasks and following a clear trajectory, navigating a complex home environment and interacting with real people remains a formidable challenge.

Relationship is the key word here. I’ve met several people who had service or assistance dogs and helped training a few of them. Service dogs don’t just help their partners complete the tasks of day-to-day life, they’re also often vitally important companions and links to society.  An incredible bond develops between an assistance dog and it’s partner.

But I know there are some folks out there that, for various reasons, would prefer not to have a canine partner. If they don’t like monkeys or miniature horses either, I suppose a robot would be a good option. And – in fact – a capuchin monkey provided the inspiration for the Georgia Tech project called El-E.

The latest version of El-E has been upgraded so that, in addition to responding to a laser pointer, it understands voice commands and can perform a wider range of tasks. The robot can be commanded the same way as a service dog–to grab hold of a towel attached to a door, drawer, or cupboard when given the right vocal command. As with service dogs, towels help the robot with both perception and physical interaction. “[El-E] doesn’t know anything about the specific drawer or doors: it’s able to generalize with these commands,” says Kemp. “A towel is actually easy to grasp because you can be at many locations on it and still get a good grip.”

Here’s another important difference between a service dog and a robot.  After he’s lived with you for a while, the dog does know more than a little about which drawer is which and what’s in that drawer.  Along with a wonderfully sensitive nose, he’s got eyes, ears — and a brain, that help him in his work. With time, the dog can use those tools to do many tasks when they’re needed without needing to be told exactly when and how to do them. And, especially in the case of seeing-eye dogs, being capable of intelligent disobedience is an important safety factor. Dogs can learn to use Intelligent disobedience (which means that the dog learns not only when to obey his master’s commands, but also how to figure out when to disobey commands that might put them in danger), and I’m not sure that robot technology has come that far yet.

The article notes that along with being a viable option for people who have allergies – or who just don’t like dogs, EI-E may also be a more cost-effective solution than service dogs:

Kemp notes that a robotic service assistant would not require the same training and care as a service dog, potentially offering help to many more people. “A lot of people who would like a service dog are unable to have one because they are costly and there’s a long waiting list,” he says.

Hmmmm.  Maybe.  But won’t the robot require energy to operate?  What happens if you need it during that inevitable recharge cycle? You can roust a dog out a nap – or even out of his food bowl if you need him to fetch the phone to you after you’ve broken your hip, but a robot with a dead battery is just, well… dead.  And – I suspect that manufacturing processes have a way to go before a high-tech machine capable of following dozens of verbal commands in a range of environments and circumstances becomes more cost-effective than training a dog.

Either way – if and when the time comes when I need help to get through the day – I’ll choose to find it in my four-legged companions.  The bond one develops with a dog that works with you, a dog that knows he holds a vital place in your life, is a wonderful thing – and it’s one I’m quite sure I could not share with a robot.

Besides – I suck at computer programming but I can train a dog to do new tasks as I need them.

Audie: Getting the phone, sweeping the garage (with Zip’s help), cleaning (not drinking from!) the toilet and pulling clothes out of the dryer.  I *heart* my dog.

October 23, 2008 at 11:01 pm 4 comments

You Gotta Love Philosophers

I had to look twice to make sure that this didn’t come from the Onion.  Nope, it didn’t. So, from this month’s issue of Philosophy Now we have:

Findings reported at the first Canine Science Forum in Budapest suggest that selective breeding over the 10,000 years that humans have kept dogs has created dogs able to tell right from wrong, according to New Scientist. Studies presented by scientists demonstrate that the rarity of rough-and-tumble dog-play escalating into full-blown fighting shows that dogs abide by certain rules and expect other dogs to do the same. Other experiments found a negative reaction if one dog was given treat and another denied it. Dog owners worldwide failed to express any shock at these findings.

October 22, 2008 at 8:17 pm 1 comment

Ecosystems and Economies

A Poverty trap is a self-perpetuating condition where an economy, financial or otherwise, gets caught in one or more maladaptive feedback loops.  Once started, it becomes a self-perpetuating process possibly suggesting that the long run performance of an economy is greatly affected the initial conditions it is created in.

To avoid the pratfalls of poverty, humans sometimes form cooperative ventures.  This allows us to pool resources, reduce exposure to risks and increase potential gains. Other animals who live cooperatively,  like wolves and bonobos, employ similar tactics.

From ScienceDaily:

Over a 20-year period, Gregory Rasmussen, currently at Lady Margaret Hall Oxford, intensively studied every move of African wild dogs in Zimbabwe to the extent of “living with packs” for periods of up to a month in order to work out how much energy they were spending eating, sleeping, and running. He came to the conclusion that “whilst to date we have seen poverty traps as being something intrinsically human, they are not!”

Nature’s currency is energy, and in theory, keeping the cost of living low leaves more in the “piggy bank” for reproduction. However, staying in nature’s fast lane isn’t easy, and necessitates that evolution comes up with a “business plan” to bank energy (nature’s surrogate for wealth!) to survive. In the face of bigger competitors like lions and hyenas, whose larger stomachs cater for irregular meals, and which maximize returns by having low foraging costs, the dogs’ evolved a unique plan. Now highly endangered, the African wild dog opted for extreme metabolic adaptations to running, thus ensuring they caught a regular supply of food, and by forming packs, had many runners to reduce capture costs and stomachs to maximize on the returns.

This great strategy, however, has an Achilles heel as packs fewer than five are less effective hunters, and thus have to undertake energetically expensive extra hunts to secure their prey. The results from this study highlighted a weakness in the business plan, for when the financial energetic annual accounts were done, the benefits of having fewer individuals to feed in a smaller packs was outweighed by the greater costs of running. To chase their prey, wild dogs need to be lithe and athletic, a design that ensures their stomachs can’t be too big, which in turn limits the amount they can gorge in a sitting: a physical limitation on their gluttony which biologist call “a morphological constraint.”

Yikes – while the lions and hyenas evolved to play it safe – maintaining a safety net in the cash energy stowed away in their savings accounts bellies and fat deposits – wild dogs are adaptively forced into living from paycheck to paycheck. They manage to get along well enough until they get sick and don’t get paid can’t make a kill, have unexpected bills to pay need to feed a large litter of pups or experience other economic setback.  According to Rasmussen:

In the same way that Size Zero women can struggle to have children, and bouncing babies, this study highlighted an Achilles heel where energetic poverty translated into reproductive poverty, and a vicious circle whereby small packs have fewer pups, leading to even smaller packs, and driving them into an extinctive vortex.

From a conservation standpoint, these results demonstrate how evolutionary strength gained by sociality can be undermined by an Achilles heel that can push species into extinction. Professor David Macdonald, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, known as the WildCRU, which specializes in the science to underpin practical solution to conservation problems, said “This study, unique in its detail, shows the power of energetic theory to enable us to not only understand the evolution of packing power, and facets that dictate the survival of this stunningly beautiful species, but better understand how to conserve other social species of which we are one.”

From an article on

The poverty trap really starts to bite as pack sizes fall below five and their low hunt success rate means that the dogs have to undertake energy-expensive extra hunts, leaving even less energy for reproduction.’

Economically speaking – when you’re a wild dog living in a small pack, you’re going to have to hold down a second job just to get by. And that second job isn’t going to leave you much time for dating or other hanky-panky.

‘This study shows the extraordinary power of cooperation in animal societies,’ said co-author Professor David Macdonald, Director of the WildCRU. ‘Understanding the relationship between energy and cooperation is not only important to the survival of these stunningly beautiful, yet highly endangered, wild dogs but understanding the value of ‘pack power’ helps us better appreciate the principles that have driven the evolution of our own social lives.’

The stability of wild dog populations is strongly affected by habitat fragmentation. Persecution by humans and adverse affects from adjacent domestic dog populations (predation, disease transmission, competition for resources) also impact them directly. Because of their sensitivity to these factors, wild dogs are considered to be an important indicator species of the sub-Saharan Serengeti and Kalahari ecosystems.

(Maybe we should be studing them as an indicator species for our financial environment?)

The IUCN/SSC Canid Specialist Group’s African Wild Dog Status Survey and Action Plan discusses the factors that could cause the few remaining viable populations of wild dogs to decline or disappear.  They include:

Habitat fragmentation, persecution and loss of prey – considered to be the primary causes for the decline in wild dog populations.  Likely represent the principal threat to them today.

Competition with larger carnivores – limits both population (through predation and competition for resources) and available territory. These pressures mean that many wild dog packs now exist as small, fragmented groups. 

Contact with human activity– found to be responsible for more than 60% of recorded adult mortality through a combination of road kill and hunting.  Wild dogs that live in wildlife preserves range during hunting activies so they are often not adequately protected within these artificial territorial borders.

Disease– is a serious threat to modern wild dogs because domestic dogs that share their habitat are a vector for canine parasites and diseases.

Any one of these factors can disturb a population.  Add one or more of them together, and the adverse effects can quickly reach a threshold where the results are catastrophic. Once the population within a pack drops below the tipping point, a place where the emergent factors of these processes take over – the budget energy balance quickly falls into a series of maladaptive feedback loops and the stockmarket population crashes. It’s a poverty trap.

Like us, wild dogs live in a wide range of environments.  Different stressors affect each pack in a different way. This has made efforts to improve their survival extremely difficult – and to date, researchers have had little success.  Not only have they found that management techniques that work for one pack can prove to be disastrous for another – but in some cases, intervention by scientists appeared to hasten or cause population crashes.

In the lives of wild dogs and in our human economy, there are a lot of factors that function together in an incredibly complex way to produce a poverty trap. There are hundreds of traps out there to fall into, and when we intervene in an attempt to pull the wild dogs or our economy out of one trap – we all too often find that what we’ve done has just pushed it into another.

There aren’t any simple answers to our problems with wild dogs or with the economy. Economies and ecosystems are complex systems with emergent qualities. Healthy ones tend to be resiliant – when perturbed, they return to a stable state on their own – without an external control. But when we try to solve problems associated with these complex processes with simple fixes, unintended consequences are not only possible – they are likely to occur.

October 22, 2008 at 5:17 am Leave a comment

Is Renting the New Buying?

We covet the cool things other people have – and we live the age of instant gratification.  Deficit spending, whether we’re talking about credit cards or the national budget, has become the norm rather than the exception. 

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that renting is increasing in popularity.

Renting used to be limited to real estate, appliances, cars, furniture and tuxedos.  But the market has expanded to include a mind-boggling array of goods.

Today we can test-drive luxury by renting the latest in designer handbags, sunglasses and jewelry.  Some high-end stores allow customers to rent high-end runway and vintage fashions instead of buying them.  Galleries let patrons rent works of art for special events or lease them by the month.  Vacation rental and fractional-ownership businesses offer everything from destination vacations to yachts, jets and collectible cars. And its not just hard goods, now we can rent pets and even grandparents

Jodi Watson, chief marketing officer of the high-end fashion rental business Bag Borrow or Steal was interviewed earlier this year by the Washington Post:

“Renting is the new buying,” says Watson. “You can experience everything you want without having to make the commitment.”  “It allows people to enjoy a seasonal or trendy item without having to clutter their closet or explain it to their husband,” she says.

Where does this lust for possession – even if it’s temporary – come from?  Barry Schwartz, who wrote The Paradox of Choice was interviewed by

Schwartz argues that the expanding number of choices places a cognitive burden on us. It’s stressful making choices.  We arbitrarily narrow our choices, with each narrowing requiring cognitive effort. The more choices we have, the more narrowing and effort required. And if the decision is about something of minimal importance, such as the picking of the best salad dressing from the store shelf, the amount of effort required outweighs the potential benefit. We evaluate the amount of cognitive effort we put into decisions based on the benefit, or expected utility, we would get out of the decision. If we’re forced to put too much effort into a decision for too little return, we walk away.

We need ways to reduce the cognitive load, bringing it in line with our expected utility from the decision.   We need choice. We prefer options, even if we never choose them.  But, as we start to consider our choices, there are finite numbers that we can cognitively consider at a time. One is too few, and dozens are too many.

Everyone agrees that having choice is better than not having choice. It seems evident that if choice is good, then more choice is better. The paradox is that this “obvious” truth isn’t true. It turns out that a point can be reached where, with more choice, people are worse off.

People can’t ignore options – they have to pay attention to them. If they make a choice, is there another choice would have been better? There’s more effort put into making decisions, and less in enjoying them. What’s nagging is the possibility that, if they had chosen differently, they could have gotten something better. 

Analysis Paralysis

In modern, affluent societies, it is nearly impossible to find an area (except, of course, for politics) where the amount of choice available to us isn’t overwhelming. Because of the insane number of choices available to us, we are choosing more often just to opt out – either because we’re worn out from the effort involved or because we think that postponing the decision means that more options will be available to us.

And when we do suck it up and make a decision, we tend to be less satisfied with our choices. When we are forced to make a final decision on something utterly irreversible (like euthanasia) even if it’s a terrible thing, we feel some sense of relief. Our stress is decreased because when we make a decision we can’t take back, the thing is done, our mind finds a way to cope with it and eventually, we move on.

But the choices we can indefinitely postpone – or worse yet, those we can take back – are a lot more problematic. After settling on a decision such as which of two suitors to date or where to go on vacation – we often expend an enormous amount of effort wondering if we really did do the right thing. Because of this, these decisions have a tendency to make us feel unsettled. They add to our stress instead of decreasing it. And in today’s world, we are inundated in these kinds of decisions. They have come to dominate our decision-making processes.

Three Dog Life writes:

In the 1930’s there was an enormous economic crisis in this country.  Today we’re dealing with a new crisis… a poverty of consumerism… meaning we never have enough.  As one writer put it, we’re “thirsty in the rain”.  We have overestimated the benefits of stress-free lives, and oversold the positive effects of smooth, non-challenging childhoods.  We reward our offspring’s mediocre accomplishment, instead of challenging them to do better, all in an attempt to build self-esteem.   We buy all the latest material goods for our children to make up for time not spent with them, instead of giving them a sense of purpose by allowing them to work and save for what they want.

Of course we don’t live “stress-free” lives. In fact, the chronic, undifferentiated stress we experience today is far more damaging than the periodic episodes of acute, focused stress we are evolutionarily adapted to cope with.

Wondering if we bought the right car. Or if we should lease instead of buying. Deciding which route to take through city traffic. Having to decide which items, out of an endless array of goods, we’ll take home and have for dinner. Though on the surface they seem minor, these decisions expose us to enormous amounts of chronic stress because not only are we forced to expend the effort to make hundreds (if not thousands) of these types of decisions each day – but the decisions we make regarding these issues rarely give us any sense of resolution.

Escaping an attacking dog might, on the surface, seem to be a more stressful situation than those described above – but once our coping decisions have been made, the attack has been thwarted and Cujo safely restrained, we feel a great sense of relief. Or even elation. The issue is resolved. It’s over. We avoided injury (and hopefully insult) and not only lived to do it again, but hopefully learned new ways of coping along the way.

Not so with those pesky reversible decisions. After competing in an obedience trial we wonder: Should I have worked harder on the finish? Did I use the wrong collar? Would an outdoor trial have been a better choice? Ironically, though my life and health were never at risk, I’m exposed to far more stress from a trial I win than from an attack I avoid.

Maybe I should have rented…

October 21, 2008 at 4:49 am 2 comments

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