Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Rider's Wednesday -- Animal Intuition

On January 21, the New York Times ran an editorial titled What the Nose Knows . It cited new scientific evidence that dogs can tell the difference between breath samples from people who have lung cancer and from people who don't. The dogs are right nearly every time.

This news will give pause to almost anyone who lives with a dog,the editorial stated. We tend to forget the extraordinary powers of the animals we live with simply because we live with them. We tend to humanize them, which means, if nothing else, that we tend to reduce them - in terms of their sensory powers - to our muddling level.

Wilson was our first dog when my husband and I got married. He was 4 -- a full-grown Dalmatian -- when we got him. He was a wonderful dog (not without his idiosyncracies, mind you, but a good dog nonetheless). And he hated a friend of ours. He hated this guy so passionately that whenever the friend visited, Wilson would start to tremble and drool and growl uncontrollably. We had to physically restrain him and shut him up in a room, or he would go after this guy in a heartbeat.

We were friends with this man and his family for years. His wife and kids could visit and Wilson was his normal self. But he became the were-Wilson anytime our friend came near him.

Then came the day our friend had a psychotic break. It took 6 armed policemen to escort him from where he worked. Within a matter of weeks, he attacked his family, tried to kill himself, spent some time in jail, and spent even more time in the psych ward of the local hospital.

And while we all shook our heads and said, "We never saw this coming. Who would have thought?" I couldn't escape the conviction that Wilson had known all along that our friend was dangerous.

Horses, dogs, birds, mice... It doesn't matter which end of the food chain a creature is on, the fact remains that animals often know things that we don't even know about ourselves. They are masters at reading body language. They can tell when we're lying, depressed, volatile, timid, miserable, scared, or playful. They don't have to ask. They just know.

When we are responsible for feeding, watering, mucking up after, vetting, and petting our animals, it is easy for us to forget that these are wild things. They don't care if the wind brings down the power or phone lines. They don't worry about what their friends will think of their hair style or their new clothes. They are much closer to nature than we are. They have an afinity with the world that we, in our sophisticated domesticity, have lost.

Though the editorial addresses only dogs, I think its point easily encompasses the entire animal kingdom. Man takes his superiority over nature as a given -- as his right. But domination or subordination does not make one species greater than or less than another. It merely widens the gap between them and encourages the "superior" being to discount what the creatures under his care know.

Then, one day, we discover that the secrets we hide so well from one another -- even things hidden from ourselves -- are plainly broadcast to those we thought were somehow beneath us...

More from the N.Y. Times:
Not that this will change the dynamic of our relations with man's best friend. For a while - remembering the cancer-sniffing dogs - some of us will wonder when we see our pets cock their heads, "What are you looking at?" But time will pass, and humans will be humans, and we will forget, at our end of the leash, that the beast we are walking with may already know things about us that we will discover only too late.