April 5, 2013
Dogs will remain firmly entrenched as property in Texas, according to an opinion handed down today by the state’s supreme court. In a case closely followed by organizations on all sides of the animal personhood debate, the court ruled that although people form close bonds with their companion animals, they are not entitled to recover emotional damages when that pet is killed. Such damages, the court said, would place pets on the same legal level as spouses, parents, and children.
The case has its origins in 2009, when Kathryn and Jeremy Medlen’s mixed-breed dog Avery escaped from their backyard and was collared by Fort Worthanimal control. Jeremy tried to recover the canine, but he didn’t have enough money to pay the fees. The shelter said it would hold the dog until he came back, but one of its workers, Carla Strickland, accidentally placed Avery on the euthanasia list, and the dog was put down. The Medlens sued Strickland for sentimental damages (since, as a mixed-breed the dog had no market value), winning in a Texas court of appeals in 2011. “The special value of ‘man’s best friend’ should be protected,” it ruled. The opinion caused a paradigm shift, reversing an 1891 state supreme court decision that held that when a dog was killed, owners could only collect for the pet’s “market value” and “special or pecuniary value”. In that case, three Newfoundlands were poisoned, and the court allowed $5 for the market value of each dog and an additional $20 each because the dogs had special training that allowed them to communicate the gender of approaching individuals.
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February 26, 2013
When it comes to studying the animal mind, dogs have traditionally been ignored. For much of the 20th century, researchers considered them too tainted by domestication and human contact. But over the past 15 years, the field of canine cognition has exploded as scientists have shown that dogs can outsmart chimpanzees in some tests and can even shed light on the evolution of our own intellect. What surprising new things are we learning about the canine mind? Are some breeds smarter than others? And did we really domesticate dogs—or was it the other way around?
Join me for a live chat at 3 p.m. EST on Thursday, 28 February, on this page. With me will be two experts in the field of dog cognition, Brian Hare, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the canine mind and the author of the new book The Genius of Dogs, and Laurie Santos, who has just opened a dog lab at Yale University. You can leave your questions in the comment box below before the chat starts. The full text of the chat will be archived on this page.
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January 28, 2013
And we're off! Pit Bulls on Parade gets started. (Credit: Ashley Wiestner)
Love them or fear them, Baltimore has been ground zero for pit bulls since 2007. That year, a 10-year old boy from Towson, about eight miles north of the city, was nearly killed by one of the dogs while playing with some friends. The attack set off a series of legislative proposals and court cases that culminated in a 2012 decision by Maryland’s Court of Appeals known as Tracey v. Solesky. The judges ruled that pit bulls and pit bull mixes were “inherently dangerous”, and that anyone harboring them was liable for their actions, even if the dog had never been aggressive before. Since then, the canines have become canis non grata in apartments and neighborhoods throughout the city. But pit bull advocates have been fighting back, hoping to convince the public that these are good dogs that have just gotten a bad rap.
The day before Martin Luther King Day, I drove down to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor to witness one of these efforts, a monthly march of local dogs known as Pit Bulls on Parade. The event was organized by Pauline Houliaras, the president and co-founder of B-More Dog, a pit bull advocacy group. She met me at a marina near the harbor just a few minutes before it began. With her was Ruby, a five-year-old yellow pit bull with white splotches on her feet and a purple Baltimore Ravens bandanna around her neck. (Purple would turn out to be the color of the day;Baltimore’s home team was about to challenge the New England Patriots for a spot in the Super Bowl.) “We wanted to improve the image of pit bulls, and show people what the average dog owner looks like,” she said. “What you see on TV is not reality.”
Soon, more dogs began showing up. About 20-odd owners and their pit bulls began gathering around Houliaras. Ruby was whining and whipping her tail, anxious to join the others. “I know, it’s very exciting,” Houliaras cooed to her. “Just relax. This isn’t a play date.”
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October 31, 2012
Sizing up the competition. Jezebel checks out the newborns.
For nearly three years, I have been researching and writing a book on the changing status of dogs and cats in society. The book’s central premise is that pets are becoming people, not only in our homes but also in the eyes of the law. Couples, especially when they don’t have their own kids, are ever more likely to turn their pets into surrogate children. They send them to doggy day camp, spend thousands on food and veterinary care, and create legal trusts to care for them should they themselves die. But what happens when real children enter the picture? Do we stop treating our pets like offspring when we finally have offspring of our own?
For me, the question has been a purely hypothetical one—until now. Last week, my wife gave birth to twin girls. The newborns join a family that already has two babies: our cats, Jasper and Jezebel. Like many couples, we spoil our pets. We buy them premium food, the latest toys, and take them for hour-long walks every day. (Yes, you can walk a cat. More on that, perhaps, in a future post.) Six years ago, when Jasper went into kidney failure, we rushed him to the pet emergency clinic and spent more than $3,000 on tests and medication. We cried. We lost sleep. We took a few days off work. Would we do the same thing today?
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July 15, 2012
This isn't Blackie... but perhaps he's talking. (Credit: Tom Adriaenssen, Flickr.com)
Carl Miles credited his psychic ability with his decision to adopt a jet black cat one day in 1975. Unemployed in his mid 20’s, and staying at a Columbia, South Carolina rooming house, he initially said no when a girl cradling a box of three kittens came to the porch, asking if he wanted one. Then a premonition struck. As a boy, Miles claimed he could see things before they happened—things people were about to say, or about to do. He had that feeling again on the porch. “As she was walking away, something told me in my mind, ‘Take the black cat’,” he later told The Charlotte Observer. “And I called her back.”
One afternoon, when the kitten—now named Blackie—was about five months old, Miles had him on his lap, playing with him and talking to him. A premonition struck again. A voice inside his head said, “The cat is trying to talk to you.” At that moment, Miles resolved to teach Blackie to speak. He spent the next year and a half taping the noises the kitten made, and he’d play him back the ones that sounded most like English. By his second birthday, Blackie was able to say “I love you” and “I want my momma.” The cat was ready for prime time.
Miles and his wife paraded Blackie down the streets of Columbia, the cat in a harness and draped over the man’s shoulder. When passers-by would inquire about the feline, Miles offered to make him speak, usually for a quarter or two. He’d squeeze Blackie’s rump, and if people used a bit of imagination, they’d swear they just heard a cat talk. (Listen for yourself here at the 25-second mark.) “Blackie the Talking Cat” became famous. He was interviewed on radio shows, appeared on TV’s “That’s Incredible!”, and even cut a 45 rpm record: “A Special Christmas featuring Blackie the Cat that Talked.”
By 1982, Miles and his wife had taken their act to Augusta, Georgia. And that’s where they ran into trouble.
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May 3, 2012
Knaan with her three dogs, Ziggy, Spice, and Elmo (Credit: Elizabeth Gindroz)
Deborah Knaan’s office is cluttered with animal pictures. Framed photos of small, scruffy white dogs on her desk. A holiday card featuring a Sheltie mix on Santa’s lap. Walls plastered with mutts posing next to superheroes and police officers, extolling the virtues of shelter adoption and railing against the injustices of animal cruelty. It’s an appropriate setting for a woman who oversees the prosecution of the vast majority of animal crimes in Los Angeles County. Knaan and her army of 28 prosecutors handle nearly every beating, burning, and killing of cats, dogs, and other creatures that result in arrests in this 4000-square-mile area of nearly 10 million people. She’s won accolades from the Humane Society of the United States and the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and her efforts have inspired other prosecutors nationwide. And yet, by Knaan’s own admission, she “didn’t give a rat’s behind” about animals until 13 years ago.
That’s when she met Ziggy. In 1999, Knaan and her husband purchased the Jack Russell Terrier puppy from a backyard breeder. “That’s how little I knew about animals at the time,” she told me. “I had no clue about shelters, or rescues, or pet overpopulation.” Still, that didn’t stop Ziggy from changing her life. “I guess,” she paused, thinking back to the day she first held the dog in her arms, “it’s a feeling that most women have when they have a child.” From that moment on, Knaan decided that she would dedicate herself to helping animals. She became a vegetarian. She educated herself about animal cruelty. And she began visiting local shelters, looking for the most hard-luck cases she could find: 14-year-olds with heart conditions, mutts missing most of their teeth, blind dogs with arthritis that were about to be euthanized. Knaan took them back to her place, cared for them, and found them homes. But it wasn’t enough. “There were tens of thousands of dogs I wasn’t helping,” she said. “I was essentially sticking my finger in a dyke.”
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March 19, 2012
The three Henrys: Bergh, Bliss, and Ford. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
On September 13, 1899, a dour-looking Manhattan real estate salesman named Henry Bliss stepped off a streetcar near Central Park. As he turned back to the trolley to help his female companion disembark, an electric taxicab struck him. The carriage-like vehicle knocked Bliss to the pavement and ran over his head and body, crushing both. When he died the next morning, he became America’s first pedestrian killed by an automobile.
Bliss’s death signaled a new era for New York. The city’s streets had once been fluid with horses. Hundreds of thousands of the animals towed railroad cars and fire wagons, barges and slaughter carts. The metropolis ran on its horses—and it worked them to death. The animals were so plentiful that it was cheaper to buy new ones than to properly care for them. And so drivers starved them, whipped them bloody, and left them to die on the side of the road when they collapsed. Too heavy to move, their bodies were allowed to rot until they had decomposed enough for wagons (drawn by horses) to pick them up and dump them in the river—or ship them to factories that turned them into glue, grease, and fertilizer. Horses can live for more than 30 years; in mid-nineteenth-century New York, they were lucky to reach their second birthday.
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February 7, 2012
A peek inside Cell Block B. (Credit: Sheriff Joe Pelle)
I never imagined that writing a book about cats and dogs would land me in the Boulder County Jail. But there I was on a Friday afternoon in late September, surrounded by 15 inmates in the middle of Cell Block B—and looking for the exit.
At that moment, I was more cold than afraid. The guards had cranked up the AC, and I stood shivering, my arms crossed tightly against my chest. The cell block was large and sterile, with a drab gray floor, chalky cinderblock walls, and round, convex mirrors hinged to every corner. The only color came from thirty dark orange doors that framed the room, each branded with a large white number and harboring two narrow glass slits for windows. At a signal from a guard a few moments earlier, the doors had swung open, and the prisoners emerged from their closet-sized cells, pouring into the middle of the space in which I was standing. One—heavily-tattooed with a bald head, tan skin, and a long, ragged goatee—headed straight for me. He had something in his hand.
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January 20, 2012
Dog tombstone from a Victorian-era pet cemetery. (Credit: Philip Howell)
In October of 1859, a white Maltese mix named Nero was run over by a cart on a West London street. The dog suffered for months before his owner, the notable Scottish letter writer Jane Welsh Carlyle, could bring herself to have him put to sleep. “I grieve for him as if he had been my little human child,” she wrote a friend. In her note, Carlyle spoke of her “belief in the immortality of animal life” and of her desire to know if she would see Nero again in the hereafter. “What is become of that little beautiful, graceful Life?”
That’s a question a lot of pet owners were beginning to ask at the time. For only if dogs and cats had souls could they evolve from mere companions to family members—a transformation that would eventually set them on the road to personhood.
Carlyle lived in the Victorian era, a period that marked a dramatic rebound in the status of cats and dogs. Though both pets had once been highly revered—cats in Ancient Egypt, dogs in Ancient Rome—the Middle Ages had taken its toll. Back then, the animals were blamed for spreading death and disease, and thousands were slaughtered. Cats in particular were vilified. In 1233, Pope Gregory IX issued his Vox in Rama proclamation, which linked felines with the devil, and for centuries cats were thrown into bonfires and tortured as allies of witches and incarnations of Satan. Dogs fared slightly better, though in the seventeenth century they became popular subjects of vivisection. Early practitioners, including the famed French philosopher Rene Descartes, had no compunction about dissecting them alive. Animals were mere machines, he said, devoid of thought and emotion. Once revered as gods, dogs and cats had been robbed of their souls.
By the mid 1800s, however, thanks to the Victorian era’s ideals of kindness and sentimentality, cats and dogs had clawed their way back into the human heart. More attention and love was lavished on them than ever before. In paintings and books, they featured as an indispensable part of domestic life. It’s perhaps no surprise then that people like Jane Welsh Carlyle began to wonder if they would see their pets again in heaven—speculation that set up a battle with the Bible.
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October 25, 2011
When I began writing the chapter in my book about how new scientific discoveries are blurring the line between pet and person, I knew it was going to be tough to find anyone studying the feline mind. As the owner of two cats, I’m aware that they probably don’t make the best research subjects. But even I was surprised by how few researchers study them. A canine revolution has been taking place in labs around the world for the past 15 years, but cats have been largely left in the dark.
After a few weeks of hunting, and more than a dozen e-mails, I finally found a researcher who studies cat cognition: Christian Agrillo of the University of Padova in Italy. When I got him on the phone, he confirmed my suspicions about why there aren’t more scientists like him out there. “I can assure you that it’s easier to work with fish than cats,” he laughed. “It’s incredible.”
Agrillo studies something called numerical competence. That’s essentially the ability to distinguish a small quantity from a larger one. To figure out how and when the skill evolved, he’s studied it in a number of animals, including monkeys, birds, and inch-long mosquitofish. And yes, he’s also looked at cats.
The test Agrillo uses is fairly simple. He places three black dots over a desirable object (like a plate of food or a door that fish can swim out to be with other fish), and two dots over an undesirable object (like an empty plate or a door that leads to an empty part of a fish tank). Agrillo and colleagues then look to see if, over multiple trials, the animals can distinguish between the two quantities. He’s published ten papers on fish, but only one on cats. Here’s why:
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