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It's Nelly's World


alec vanderboom

The most arresting thing the great Jean Donaldson said in all seven hours of speaking at a seminar I attended yesterday at the Albany Obedience Club was not about Nelly and her ilk. it was about me.

In a fascinating overview of evolution, genetics, and how they affect behavior in general and canine behavior in particular, she told us about the Medawar effect: what happens to an organism after its reproductive period is over is invisible to evolution. It just doesn't give a hoot what illnesses you gather unto your bosom. You don't matter anymore.

Oh, the tragedy. I am about to vanish!

We were a group of about forty (though maybe it was seventy, or thirty: I can't estimate to save my life), sitting in our folding chairs in the large space that on other days echoes back the bark of dogs in agility practice, or the bark of people giving obedience commands--or so my prejudice against competitive obedience imagines it. (When I was a girl, and dreaming of having my first dog, I knew I wouldn't TRAIN it. I would have a NATURAL dog, not a robot who existed to do my bidding. That was the dichotomy, as my fervid little brain had it. Ha-ha-ha. Oh-ho.)

Needless to say, the audience was almost entirely female. This has been the case at every dog conference and seminar I've attended. Anyone want to hazard a guess why? Maybe because women are charged with--and wired for--nurturing and educating offspring? Thus we would illustrate another example of animal biology that Donaldson put forth: a slight "misfire" of an instinctual behavior, which happens to all sorts of creatures. In this case, our instinct to mother is triggered by the wrong species, by a dependent who is not genetically ours.

In person, Donaldson was far less prickly than she is in print. She was extremely generous in not offending (though her message was always clear, if you knew how to hear between the lines). The only time she allowed any righteous anger to boil over was in talking about breeders who allow or encourage the reproduction of spooky, fearful, or aloof traits, the kind of thing that's described as a breed characteristic, as in, say, "cautious" or "not easily socialized to strangers." Think Akitas, for instance. This she viewed as nothing less than criminal. She said, about those breeders, "I'm gunning for you," her voice tight with barely suppressed rage. "I've been cleaning up your messes for thirty years." The deliberate breeding of such an animal (sixty or more pounds of reactivity, armed with tearing teeth) is akin to selling a Beretta to any member of the general public who has a notion to buy one.

At the same time, given the fact that there are probably some 40 million dogs in this country, there are at most 12 to 20 killings by dogs per year. The incidence of bites is in fact decreasing, even as the dog population keeps rising and we live in ever closer proximity to them. So why the hysteria about a "dog bite epidemic"?

This is what gets dogs killed by the thousand, even though parrots and horses bite people all the time and are never euthanized for it. I suddenly saw where Donaldson was going when she asked why. What a mind. What an answer. A fear this unfounded, this primitive, she believes, could only be inborn: a residual fear of wolves, fanged predators, left over from the last evolutionary bottleneck for humans 100,000 years ago. We have not changed essentially in that long. It's too bad we can probably not count on a time that distant in the future, when we will have established a more reasonable fear of things with wheels or of bathtubs, since both of them kill exponentially more people than do dogs.

I love going to these seminars. I love seeing women (because that is what most of them are) who are barreling into science and the truth, armed with big questions. That's because the answers to them are required by the well-being of the creatures we care for. Who says we're not animals?

I drove home and picked up some Mexican takeout on the way. We ate out on the stone patio on a lovely summer evening. We wandered down to the garden to see if anything had escaped the cutworms and the teeth of the deer. I glanced up to see Nelly taking a little stroll on top of the dining table. She had just eaten an entire package of sweets. Pistachio-sesame-toffee-white-chocolate. They had looked quite good from the picture on front.