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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Michael Vick and the Science of Dogs

I've had dogs at different points throughout my life and never thought much about "the science" of them. They've mostly been just lovable dopes that became part of our family. Probably because we always had "mutts" I never thought much about the breeding aspect of dog ownership. That is, until my mom decided that she wanted a Basset Hound to cope with her empty nest syndrome. We won't discuss the possible implications of the fact that it was to replace me specifically when I went to college.

His name was Newton and he was an excellent beast. He had a willingness to endure all forms of good-natured physical abuse from little kids, such as being forced to wear socks or a hat. He had a sweet nature and was gentle and kind. But, damn, he was funny looking. Some human wanted him to look this way. He wasn't designed by God. He was designed by a bunch of wealthy dudes in France. They wanted him short and with droopy skin and ears to help him track scents. See, the shortness means he's closer to the ground for sniffing. The loose skin and floppy ears supposedly help fan the scent to his nose. Reading that this was what he was bred for, my brother and I quickly hatched a plan to "train him to track stuff". We tied a milk bone on a string, dragged it in a round about way around the yard and hid it. He did it the first time. No training needed. He was literally born to do it. Humans engineered him to do it.

I was reminded of Newton (who also answered to 'Boner'), as I was watching a fascinating show the other day called The Science of Dogs from National Geographic Explorer. In it, they examine the genetic impact to dogs of their many thousands of years long relationship with humans. They talk about the obvious effect of the incredible diversity of dogs as a species and how that hasn't always been beneficial to dogs. They can end up pre-disposed to deafness (Dalmatians), blindness (Briards) and even obsessive compulsive behavior (Bull Terriers). But what struck me most was an experiment they conducted comparing wolves and dogs.

They raised a group of wolves as if they were dogs. This meant, loads of human contact, walking on leashes, etc. The idea is to make the wolves as comfortable with people as dogs. Then they present the dogs and wolves with equal problems. The attached a tasty treat on the end of a towel and put the treat in a cage, with the towel hanging out. Both the dogs and the wolves were able to pull the towel to bring the treat out of the cage and eat it. Then they attached a stick to the towel so it could not be removed and brought the dogs and wolves again. The wolves worked hard to remove the treat and kept working on their own. They ignored the humans. The dogs tried and eventually gave up and looked at the humans for assistance (Dude, a little help?). They ran a couple other experiments as well (even some where dogs can pick up on human non-verbal communication - like pointing), and the results are the same. Humans are special to dogs but not to wolves. We've bred them to be this way by selecting those who respond to humans better for many years. We've bred them to look to us for help, depend on us and even love us. In exchange they serve us in amazing ways. It's like a symbiotic contract. As a result. dogs are literally (hu)man's best freind in the animal kingdom.

Which, in a bit of a non-sequitor, brings me to Michael Vick. He's pleading guilty to federal dogfighting conspiracy charges and will apparently even serve time in the penitentiary. His co-conspirators have made statements against him and that changed the case.

The co-defendants said Vick bankrolled virtually the entire "Bad Newz Kennels" operation in rural southeastern Virginia, including providing gambling funds, an act that could trigger a lifetime ban from the NFL under the league's personal conduct policy.

Two of them also said Vick participated in the brutal executions of at least eight underperforming dogs.

Facing those allegations and the prospect of a superseding indictment from a new grand jury that began meeting Monday, Vick opted to change his plea.

I'm really glad (and sadly, a bit surprised) that these grotesque acts will be punished. Here we have an entire species of animals that have been domesticated and bred with one purpose only, which is to serve humans. And yet, in a clear example of human depravity, we have a pampered NFL millionaire who will fund an operation which breeds dogs not for companionship or service but to fight each other for his pleasure. When they don't perform, he kills them. Why does he do this? Because he enjoys it. Because it makes him feel more like fucking Scarface. More Gangsta. What a fucking disgrace. All those dogs wanted, even those wild aggressive fighting dogs, is to love a person. It's all "Boner" wanted. It's all my two goofy hounds want. We know this because we've bred all dogs to want that. It's the dog's singularly unique characteristic. Michael Vick, and any other person involved in this kind of obscene activity - pampered NFL superstar or not, is a disgrace to humanity. It's perverse to use an animals genetic desire to serve to make it fight it's own kind. It's depraved and immoral. Mike Vick makes me ashamed of my species. Enjoy the pen, gangsta.