The Coyotes of New York

Interesting article about the troubles in Westchester County, where coyotes have bitten a couple of people recently. Unlike a lot of news stories, this one has real biology behind it.

"There are generally three underlying reasons for animal-human conflict: expanding animal population, expanding human population, or a change in philosophy by the people in a wildlife-populated area."

More about Our Changing View of Dog Attacks

Over on Facebook, Jay posed this question about my last blog post:

But at the same time, ``fight´´ dogs are being scrutinized as potential threats. Here in Denmark many apartments will not allow them, certain dogs must be muzzled, and owners of certain species are not allowed to continue breeding their dogs. In your research, do you find that ownership of these dogs has increased or simply the coverage?

My answer is that the coverage definitely affects ownership of the different breeds. To take only one example, we know that German shepherds became much more popular in the 1960s after viewers saw TV coverage of the race riots--specifically, they saw white cops using the dogs to attack black citizens. Of course, not everybody who bought a shepherd was a racist, but that sort of discomfort about race and violence continues to play a part in choice of breed. What shifts, really, is our cultural stereotypes of the breeds. Across decades, we’ve seen the idea of a macho dog change -- Dobermanns, Rottweilers, pit bull terriers, and others have at different times been perceived as dangerous to outsiders and therefore valuable for the safety of their owners.

That doesn't make things any simpler, because all dogs are the same species. The different breeds aren't as distinct as they seem. It’s true that fighting dogs are bred for traits that make them more dangerous; particularly, breeders try to eliminate the natural tendency to retreat when injured. An animal with a diminished sense of self-preservation can do a lot of damage. In that sense, the macho dogs of today tend to be more dangerous than the relatively healthier and more intelligent macho dogs of earlier decades. But few dogs are purebreds; and the breeds, no matter how careful the pedigree, only have tendencies, rather than predictable traits. (In fact, purebreds in general tend to be less mentally stable than mongrels, because the purity of traits comes from inbreeding.) Laws aimed at particular breeds tend not to work well, because the definition of each breed is subject to manipulation. For example, if the law says you can’t breed rottweilers, you can breed a mix of Rottie and mastiff. Or you can say you are; how is a cop responding to a complaint supposed to know the difference? In various parts of the US, this tactic allowed unscrupulous breeders to get around restrictions on wolf-dog hybrids.

Dog-fighting, and breeding dogs for fighting, is nothing new. You can find references to it in Mark Twain, for example. But the attitude toward it was very different. For one thing, there was no secret about the racial motive for owning tough dogs. White settlers would explicitly say that they obtained a particular dog because it reacted strongly to “Indians.” I don’t know how it is in Denmark, but in the US I’d argue that we still have a lot of racial tension that, rather than being openly talked about, is sublimated into issues like this dog thing. Another difference between us now and in the days of our grandfathers is that it used to be acceptable for the average citizen to shoot or poison a dog that endangered people. The owner might not like it, but if the shooter could show that the dog was threatening children or livestock, law and common opinion supported him. I realize this sounds unpleasant to the modern ear, but it’s just how things used to be. In Darwinian terms, selection worked against dogs that threatened humans inappropriately. . . at least, humans of the same race. That’s no longer the case.

Violence against dogs in general used to be far more acceptable. There have always been people who loved dogs, but I’d say the idea that they were personal property to be disposed of as one saw fit was much stronger up until a generation or two ago. In books from a century ago, I find references to boys torturing dogs to death as an ugly act, but a normal one. Nowadays, of course, the prevailing view is to see violence against pets as perverse, a symptom of incipient serial murder.

Because each person was entrusted to protect his own family and stock, there was far less emphasis on the pet-owner’s responsibility for his animal’s actions. A surprising example of this fact crops up in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” That’s the one in which mysterious murders turn out to have been perpetrated by an orangutan. Once the truth comes out, the owner doesn’t get in any trouble, because it’s clear he wasn’t in on the actual violence and didn’t train the ape to perform it. It’s just fiction, of course, but the attitude is authentic to the era (mid-1800s).

Dog Attacks: A Changing Culture

If you look through newspapers from, say, forty years ago, you'll find a few cases of "dog bite." They turn up mostly in the police reports. If you look through news reports on the web today, you'll find a lot more cases, and they won't be called "dog bites" but "dog attacks." In fact, the perpetrator may not be called a "dog" in the headline but a "pit bull" or some other specific breed.

I receive several news items like this literally every day. These abundant news reports are the reason, I assume, that people are always asking me why there are so many more animal attacks these days. Every animal is different, but the truth in most cases is that attacks probably haven't become more common. Only the reporting of them has. It used to be that a "dog bite" was considered trivial, whereas now a "dog attack" sounds serious. Then as now, a few deaths were mixed in with the minor injuries. But the spin has changed.

There are a lot of reasons for that. One of them is suggested by the frequent bulletins I get advertising the services of attorneys. By re-branding dog bites as a serious problem, some lawyers have created a new revenue stream. We Americans used to deal with a problem dog by shooting or poisoning it. Nowadays we sue its owner.

(Cartoon courtesy of James Twiggs.)

Rhinoceroses on the Rampage

In Deadly Kingdom, I talk a lot about the dangers posed by captive animals. I was delighted to find this article describing animal escapes throughout American history. The article deals with everything from boas to bulls, but it has especially interesting anecdotes about elephants and rhinoceroses. Who knew rhinos can escape their pursuers by diving?

The first exhibited rhino came to Europe in the early 1500s, and they've been popular attractions ever since. The most famous rhino in history was probably Clara, who served as a model for such artists as Oudry (top), Longhi (middle), and Albinus (below). Dont' ask me why Albinus put Clara into a drawing of human anatomy, because I don't know.

Wildlife Photographs: Wayne Allison's Raccoons

Minnesota photographer and animal lover Wayne Allison took hundreds of animal photos in the late 20th century. Used by permission of D'Arcy Allison-Teasley, who blogs at

The Day After Summer

For a lover of nature, all tasks are about the journey. Maybe that explains why my son the photographer and I were out at four in the morning to pay the gas bill. Sure, tedious details of my life could explain why I left that chore for the odd hour, but really it was the storm. We wanted to be in it.

The usual thunderstorm things happened: rain blowing in on us, which was a refreshment at first, then a call to close the windows; the asphalt no longer gray, but black as a racer snake; the sudden smudged beauty of ordinary brake lights.

All at once, just as we passed the Catholic cemetery, dozens of yellow leaves leapt out. It was like driving through a swarm of butterflies. We heard them tick hard against the windshield and the grill.

"I guess summer's over," I said.

I realized then that my friends and I have been hinting at that for days now, mentioning the early dusks and the corroded brassy look of the so-called silver maples. But this was decisive, this blast of dead leaves. And I thought of the way it was back in Oklahoma. Nothing there was final. The leavings of a blizzard might melt to a soggy seventy the next day.  There was no need to shovel snow, because winter, like everything else there at the foot of the Rockies except death, was fitful and would undo itself soon enough. Wisconsin has never ceased to amaze me with its precision: here we were on the night of September first, and summer was washing away before our eyes. I'd never quite grasped that there were places in the world where calendars made sense, had something to do with the objective world.

However, the storm wasn't through. We had to pass the cemetery again a few minutes later on our way home, and just after we did, an arthritic strand of lightning dangled from the sky. To me, it seemed as if the sky had turned a pearly blue where nothing existed except that bluer thread. Parker thought, but wasn't certain, that he saw it hit a light pole near the traffic signal we were approaching. I was too blinded to see anything of the sort. For a moment after the strike, the entire sky remained that bright and pearly blue, and then, as if a switch had been thrown, everything was dark. I'm still not sure what the moment of lingering light was; we both saw it, and it didn't feel like that sting of sensation that remains on the retina after brilliance. We saw treetops around us, and the brows of buildings; it was only the sky that seemed replaced with blue. Then the traffic signals, which had been working fine before, began to blink nothing but red.

We'd neglected to bring the camera. Late the next afternoon, however, as Parker and his mother and brothers were on the road for other errands, the weather was indecisive. No two directions seemed to match. Parker snapped away, mostly through the windows of the moving car.

Wayne Allison's Wolves

More images from Minnesota photographer Wayne Allison. Courtesy of D'Arcy Allison-Teasley at
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