One of the biggest mysteries of biology is why some animals live longer than others. Of course, we care about our own lifespans, but increasingly scientists (and others) have begun to wonder about the lifespans of our pets. Why do cats and dogs only live a dozen or so years? Why do small dogs live longer than big ones? And is there anything we can do to help our pets live longer?
One of my favorite reporting trips for my book, Citizen Canine, was my visit to New Orleans in early September of 2012. It was the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and I had come to the city to learn about how the storm had fundamentally changed the way our society views cats and dogs. Nearly half of the people who stayed behind during the disaster stayed because they refused to leave their pets, and in the aftermath of the storm Congress passed a law that impelled rescue agencies to save pets as well as their owners during natural disasters. Katrina helped turned dogs and cats into something more like people in the eyes of the law.
One of my main reasons for coming to New Orleans was to meet a woman named Charlotte Bass Lilly. Nearly everyone I spoke to before heading out told me I had to talk to her, and after spending a few minutes with her I could see why. Charlotte had lived in the city for decades, working for various animal rescue organizations. But when Katrina hit, she took her passion for animals to a whole new level. She stayed behind, wading into toxic waters to rescue cats and dogs, breaking into abandoned homes to save starving pets, and setting up hundreds of feeding stations in the months after the storm to care for the orphans of Katrina. She saved more than 500 pets on her own, and in the aftermath of the disaster, she became the leader of Animal Rescue New Orleans, a no-kill shelter that has adopted out more than 8,000 dogs and cats to date. I chronicled her story in my book and in a recent piece I wrote for BuzzFeed for the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
Cats in Madagascar (Credit: Hery Zo Rakotondramanana / flickr)
You take a fat cat, and cut its throat, and after it is dead, behead it and throw the head away, because it is not something to be eaten because it is said that those who eat the brains will lose their minds and lack judgment.
So begins a recipe in Llibre de Coch, a 15th-century Spanish cookbook and one of the oldest in Europe. Today, most people in the western world would turn away in disgust if they saw cat on the menu, regardless of whether or not they were a fan of the world’s most popular pet. But people do eat cats—millions of felines a year, in fact, and four million in Asia alone, according to a study published this month in Anthrozoös.
Why do they do it? Cats (and dogs) have long been on the menu in China—it’s considered a delicacy by some—though the government has begun to crack down on the practice as both animals have become more popular pets there. But it many places it’s not clear why people eat cats, or even how they obtain them.
To get some answers, the authors of the Anthrozoös study turned to the island nation of Madagascar, home to a rapidly growing—and impoverished—human population. The researchers speculated that given the high rates of malnutrition and the large number of pet and feral cats found across the country, that the Malagasy would turn to felines for food.
Hurricane Katrina was a transformative moment in our relationship with cats and dogs. Here’s me on PBS NewsHour discussing how the storm and its aftermath forever changed how we treat pets during natural disasters.
Nearly half the people who stayed behind during Hurricane Katrina stayed because of their pets. Helicopters and boats would come, but the rescuers largely refused to take cats and dogs. So many owners, unwilling to abandon a family member, refused to go — and many of them died. Others did leave their pets, convinced they would be able to retrieve them in a few days. But officials kept them out for weeks, leaving the animals to fend for themselves. Dogs waited on rooftops, cats clung to debris in toxic waters, and pets starved to death in barricaded homes.
Even for a nation grappling with the human tragedy of Katrina, the plight of dogs and cats struck a nerve. The public flooded Congress with letters, and in 2006 the legislature — despite being bitterly divided over war, immigration, and seemingly every other issue — passed the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act with near unanimous support. That law, which impels rescue agencies to save pets as well as people during natural disasters, and the public outcry that inspired it, marked a turning point in our relationship with cats and dogs. No longer would we see them as pets or even companion animals. They had become members of society.
For the full story of the largest animal rescue in U.S. history, and how the storm forever changed our relationship with cats and dogs–both in our homes and in the eyes of the law–check out my new article in BuzzFeed: How Hurricane Katrina Turned Pets into People
If you’re a cat lover, you probably see your feline friend as a love sponge with a wild streak. If you’re a cat hater, you probably see cats as feral and strange. It turns out that this debate has played out in scientific circles as well. Researchers, it seems, can’t agree on whether cats are a domesticated species or if they are instead only “semi-domesticated.” In my new article for Slate, I delve into the legal and scientific history of the world’s most popular pet. So are cats wild or domestic? You’ll have to decide for yourself.
In the meantime, here’s an excerpt to ponder:
Cats are descended from some of the world’s most fearsome predators. They can be aloof and mysterious, and when they go outside they blend into the savage world around them, stalking, growling, and leaping—their eyes wide, their ears back, their teeth bared. They are the kings of their backyard jungles. Yet they give it all up to be with us—a loud, erratic, and sometimes incomprehensible species. When they cross our thresholds, the beast fades away. They tame us, and they are tamed by us. Cats may have retained a bit of their wild ancestry, but they always come home.
Finally, a note about the paperback. Although I have updated the book since it was first published, the first edition of the paperback contains the original hardcover text. The updates should appear in the next version of the paperback. Here are a couple of updates and corrections worth noting:
Page 73: Marc Bekoff got his MD and PhD at Cornell University Medical College in New York City, not in Ithica.
Page 100: The Animal Legal Defense fund did not create an animal law committee in the American Bar Association. This was instead done by animal lawyer Barbara Gislason.
Page 122: After the book went to press, South Dakota became the 50th state to make animal cruelty a felony.
Page 293: Two updates to the timeline
2006: The U.S. federal government passes the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act, which impels rescue agencies to save pets as well as people during natural disasters.
2014: South Dakota becomes the 50th U.S. state to adopt a felony animal anti-cruelty law. The same year, the FBI announces it will begin tracking animal cruelty cases.
The origin of dogs is shrouded in mystery: How were they domesticated? What part of the world did they come from? How long have they been with us? Scientists are now closer to answering that last question, thanks to the discovery of a small wolf bone on a remote Siberian peninsula. Radiocarbon dating reveals that the bone is 35,000 years old, and genetic analysis suggests that this animal may have lived during a critical time in canine history: when the ancestors of today’s dogs split off from the ancestors of modern wolves. Though the find doesn’t tell us where dogs came from or even how they came to be, it does suggest that our canine pals have been around for a long time—possibly as long as 40,000 years. Scientists have long known that dogs are oldest friends; now we’re coming to appreciate just how ancient this friendship really is.
For the full story, check out my article in Science.
Dogs are one of the great unsolved mysteries of domestication. They were the first thing we ever tamed–before any plant, before any other animal. Yet, despite decades of research, scientists still can’t agree on where or even when dogs arose. Various teams have battled each other in scientific papers and in the press. Now an unprecedented collaboration of archaeologists and geneticists has brought the warring camps together for the first time. The group is analyzing thousands of bones from around the world, employing new techniques, and trying to put aside years of bad blood and bruised egos. If it succeeds, it may finally uncover the history of man’s oldest friend.
For more on this story, including everything we currently know about where dogs came from, check out my latest feature for Science, “Dawn of the Dog“. [pdf]