Minding their steps

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Here are some dingo tracks (and my anthropology association membership card for scale) running roughly north to south along a forest road beside the property where I’m doing my observations. In three weeks I haven’t spotted a single dingo but I know they’re around because there are fresh tracks like these. Some are easier to see than others and these ones stand out like dog’s er… tracks. It looks to me like this particular individual was running.

I am definitely not an accomplished tracker so I figure that for an expert these tracks are the equivalent of breakfast in bed. The soil is powdery but holds impressions well and over time there’s a steady rain of plant matter falling on the road which gives a good indication of how long it’s been since these tracks were made. In fact there was a bit of rain fell between these and some older ones nearby which tells me without doubt who went past first. But a little further down the road the surface hardens, the tracks disappear and for all I know the dingo was abducted by aliens. I’m just not that good a tracker. But like an armchair expert on football, I know enough about tracking to be able to say it’s not always as easy as this and it’s definitely not always about what’s on the ground. It’s as much about what’s in the animal’s head.

In Liz Marshall Thomas’ The Harmless People there’s an account of a Bushman named Short Kwi who was bitten by a puff adder and eventually lost his leg. I remember being perplexed by this account because among the Bushmen, Short Kwi was a considered crackerjack hunter. I thought, if Short Kwi was such a skilled hunter, and Bushmen are/were famous for their skills at tracking, then how on earth could Short Kwi miss such a thing as a deadly puff adder in his path? Hmm, maybe he wasn’t hunting and the puff adder came into the camp while he was sleeping and bit him on the leg? Could be, but there’s another explanation that allows Short Kwi to maintain his reputation.

The thing about decent trackers is that they only rarely glance at the ground. Normally they are looking up ahead of themselves and only occasionally stopping to look down. Now while for a hack like me that sounds counterintuitive, it is in fact best-practice tracking; it’s highly intuitive and involves a distinctly human social skill: imagining the mind of another. By looking up ahead, trackers look at the landscape through the eyes of their quarry, imagining where they would choose to go, were they a poisoned eland, or wounded buffalo. This is how they can follow tracks across bare rock: they don’t follow the physical traces of the animal, they follow the mental traces in their own minds. So easily Short Kwi could have stepped on a puff adder while hunting as he would have been focused on the pathways up ahead that he was imagining his quarry was taking. Only later would his friends have examined the ground to see a replay of what happened.

So how are your tracking skills? Can you glean any information about this dingo from these few tracks?

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Do dingoes care about us?

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This is Dawa the dingo. His name means ‘little brother’ in Gumbaynggirr and he lives with a lovely lady in the hills to the west of here. Dawa is emblematic of the scourge of livestock farming in the area and a lot of farmers would like to see him, and his friends, disappear. But to me he’s fascinating. Apparently he was rescued as a pup after his mother was killed and now he lives on a remote property with another dingo, a dog-dingo, and a couple of horses. I found him fascinating because he’s so different from a domestic dog. When I went in the enclosure with him, he was wary of me but otherwise not interested in me in the way a domestic dog would normally be. He didn’t wag his tail or fold down his ears or even come to sniff me. In this way he’s like a traumatised dog except without the psychological issues; he’s just not that interested in people other than as potential threats. In fact he reminds me a lot of a hyena in the way he’s so self-contained. But he also responds to a bit of human guidance. Looking at him taking some instructions from his human carer and at the same time  maintaining his independence made me feel like I was looking through a window through time at the early stages of dog domestication. Nobody knows when or how this process happened but a few folks speculate that it was helped along by humans taking young pups from the wild and habituating them to human society.  At it’s core though must have been some level of understanding that allowed people and dogs to get in each others’ heads. Some people say that their dogs know what they’re thinking even before they know it themselves. Watching Dawa, I suspect that the dogs from way back in the early stages of domestication first had to actually care to know.

 

Horse selfies

It’s one thing to set up a bunch of camera traps, it’s yet another to filter your results. the camera traps detect movement so anything that passes in front of them will trigger a burst from the camera and a series of images to be included in the set that we have to sift through at a later date. As I said in the previous post, wild dogs like to use paths that humans and livestock use so it’s a given that there will be lots of pictures of farm vehicles and passing cows to wade through before we find any of dogs. There will also be a bunch of me and my vehicle passing through every morning, and some of me standing in front of the camera with a line trimmer. See, I need to keep the grass in front of the cameras trimmed so that it doesn’t wave about in the wind and trigger bursts of photos of, well, grass growing.

On Saturday the cows were in a different paddock so I drove down to the place where the westernmost of our traps is set up on a gate. The cows were on the far side so no chance of them triggering the cameras, but the three horses, Moxie, Marya, and Faye were in the same paddock as me. After coming over to me to investigate they wandered down to the gate, on the other side of which the cows were grazing. Right on cue, the camera picked up the horses’ movements and I watched the flash fire as it took a burst of photos. Of course this piqued the horses’ curiosity, especially that of Moxie. She was fascinated by the little camouflaged box and proceeded to sniff at it. Another series of flashes and Moxie was sold. She stood for what seemed an eternity in front of the camera as it fired burst upon burst of photos, filling the memory card with images of her nose. And she didn’t even bother to trim the grass in front of the camera while she was there!

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Converging on dog trails

One of the things I need to do at the property where I’m doing my study is to understand what the local wild dogs are doing. Unlike my hyena study, I don’t have a year up my sleeve to habituate these dogs and follow them around the bush, seeing what they do with their time. So here comes technology. It’s my good fortune to be working in collaboration with Paul Meek of the Department of Primary Industries in Coffs Harbour. Not only is Paul a great guy but he’s also an expert on camera traps. In fact, Paul wrote the book on camera traps, literally wrote it, and his doctoral thesis is all about how wild dogs react to camera traps (they do react). So I went out to the field site with Paul and he applied his expertise to setting up seven cameras around the property. The thing that struck me most is how the cameras will photograph my movements as much as the dogs. This is because the dogs  parallel human lines of travel, relying on 4WD tracks, roads and even passing through gates. In our case we set up four cameras on gates, two on trailside fence-posts and one on a tree on a forested ridge above the farm. Funny thing was, when I spoke later to farmer Stan, I asked him to indicate the paths that he’d seen the dogs using. He described how they came along the ridgeline and up into the forest, before dropping down into the paddock and heading west. Essentially he described a path that would take them past six of our seven cameras. I’m looking forward to seeing some pics of these dogs.

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The very knowledgeable Paul of the DPI, setting up camera trap number 2 on a gate post just below the forest

The wisdom of snakes

I went out today to my new fieldsite. It’s a farm just 20 minutes from here and pretty idyllic, perched in the hills above the sea and surrounded by state forest. While I was walking about the farm and getting my bearings I went along a ridge-line and along a path among some trees. I was looking across to the forest where I expected the local wild dogs were resting up when I suddenly found myself in mid-air, looking down between my hanging feet at a shiny, scaly body, uncoiling and making an s-bend beneath me. I spread my legs as far as I could on my way down and thankfully landed my feed either side of the blue and yellow snake who was by that time making off from between my legs and into some scrub beside the trail. It was a harmless tree snake, but boy was my heart racing!

I’m always fascinated by my encounters with snakes. Usually I see them when I’m bike riding but sometimes when I’m walking and occasionally when I’m swimming. They always get a reaction from me – whether a sideways jump, involuntary expletive, heart kicker or all of the above – and after the encounter is done I always feel very smug. This is because my reactions conform to a theory.

In 1971 a guy called Martin Seligman came up with what he called ‘Preparedness Theory.’ He noted with interest that humans develop fears of biologically relevant stimuli, such as spiders and snakes, more readily than we develop fears of things which might be far more dangerous in the modern world (such as overloaded power outlets). This, he argued, is because we’re biologically prepared to fear the biologically relevant dangers. The ancestral humans who didn’t readily fear snakes didn’t do so well in terms of survival and reproduction while our ancestors who did, ended up with fear-ready descendants such as us. I did a lit review of all this in my honours thesis and I find preparedness theory pretty convincing. I’ve even gone so far to suggest that there are templates for fear-relevant stimuli grown in a primitive corner of our brains called the thalamus. This little kidney-bean of a brain-part waits for a real-life encounter with a biologically relevant danger. When the owner of the brain encounters a snake, the thalamus short-circuits consciousness and sends a message straight to the amygdala which initiates a fear response, such as increase heart-rate, jump, swear, void bowels.

This is what we might call human wisdom in evolutionary terms. It’s an adaptive skillset that we don’t even need to learn. We might build on it (or reduce it) with real-life encounters with fear-relevant stimuli but in terms of adaptiveness we come with a snake response-package right off the shelf and ready to run. This is what I reflected on after my encounter. I was airborne before I was even conscious of the snake beneath my feet and in that eternity that I was in the air, I took stock of what was happening and even recognised the species of snake. But my heart wasn’t listening to my conscious brain, it was only taking orders from my amygdala and was racing by that time. It underlines the pre-conscious nature of the fear response in humans and how much it is primed to respond to snakes. So is it any wonder that snakes represent wisdom in so many cultures? They trigger something deep in the human psyche; something primal. They know how to get into our heads and bodies.

Have you ever encountered a snake? Did you respond according to the theory or did you carry on without even a quickened heartbeat?

 

Photo from whatsnakeisthat.com.au

The ethics gap

I’m a happy chappy this week because my ethics clearance came through and I can go ahead with my research. If you don’t happen to work in research, ethics clearances are things we get from our various institutions after we satisfy them that in the course of our research we won’t transgress the ethical guidelines relevant to what we’re investigating. Of course ethics are never objective, and  this is especially evident to me because I have to apply for separate human and animal ethics clearances. And boy is there a difference.

The ethical guidelines that guide human research emphasize choice and respect for persons. It’s a given that any humans involved won’t be captured, harmed or retrained without their informed consent, and there are a lot of protections in place, especially for children and intellectually impaired humans. As far as research on animals goes, well, er, you know the story. Animals can be captured, restrained, euthanized and anything else as long as you can justify it to an ethics committee. The key to ethical animal research is minimization of harm, but this in itself implies that harm is a given and the main objective is to minimize it.

So what kinds of values does this ethics gap reflect? If you were an alien just arrived on Earth you might think this is pretty straight forward: humans are valued differently to animals. And the difference is definitely rooted in species because it’s the least ‘rational’ humans – the ones not in a position to make an informed choice – who are most protected. Moreover if you looked into the kinds of research where animals are subject to suffering in order to find treatments (or cosmetics) that benefit humans, then you would justifiably conclude that humans are valued, not just differently to, but over animals.

But then you go and hover over a suburban household and observe a dog-owner feeding a tiny tin of expensive gourmet dog food to her silky terrier while blithely watching on TV the suffering of so much human detritus in the ‘developing’ world.  Ok, so you’re a little confused as it looks for all the world like that dog is valued pretty highly to the exclusion of a large number of humans. But then you might have just seen a similar silky terrier in a research facility having a chemical injected into his eyeballs to better understand its toxicity to humans. You’re confused.

Well, alien, don’t throw your numerous hands in the air and write us off as indecipherable just yet. You see, ethical consideration depends in large part on who you are, and in the case of animals, the species to which you belong and the humans with which you’re associated. It’s political all the way down and if I were you, I’d be very concerned about which category we humans choose to put you in. As a non-human you might just end up on the wrong side of the gap. And having so many eyeballs makes you an ideal research subject.

So what do you think? Is the ethics gap justifiable if it benefits humans? Do you think the gap is narrowing?

 

Welcome

Welcome to Among Animals. I’ve set up this blog because I’m expanding my research to include animals other than hyenas. This is not to say I’m excluding hyenas because they still have a hold on me and I’m going to be revisiting them in Ethiopia some time this year. But now I’m making space for others including leopards, dingoes, horses, goats, donkeys and whoever else walks in front of me while I’m holding a notebook.

At the moment I’m interested in domestication, how it happened, how it’s happening and where it’s going. A lot of theorists talk about domestication as a process of humans taking control over other animals’ movements, breeding, and feeding. According to this model the animals role in the process was wholly passive while the humans are/were the prime movers. But I have a hunch that it’s not as clear-cut as that.

My plan is to compare domestication processes in rural Australia and rural Ethiopia. One of these places is hyper-modern with as much technology thrown at farming as possible while the other is hyper-traditional, albeit with the recent introduction of chemical fertilisers. I’m interested in how much of a chance the respective farmers give their animals to look after themselves, how much decision making on the part of the farm animals plays into the domestication process, and how much of an influence predation has on these farmer/livestock relations. I think the results will be surprising so I hope you can come along on this journey be as amazed as me at what we find.

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Horses, donkeys, cows, and I think a goat, in Wonchi Crater, Ethiopia