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A Dog’s Life

The Hidden Life of Dogs

by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
Houghton Mifflin, 148 pp., $18.95

Particularly Cats…and Rufus

by Doris Lessing
Knopf, 129 pp., $20.00

Although they may not always be aware of it, pet animals are caught between worlds—members of the family, in an emotional sense, but only in very rare cases having any of the responsibilities or rights of their human companions. However comfortable, or even privileged, their lives may seem, they are always vulnerable—not only to the caprice of their owners, but, if they are allowed to spend part of their time at liberty out of doors, to the random cruelty, spite, and greed of other people. If sold or abandoned, they may find relations with humankind abruptly altered, so that they end their days in a laboratory or a cage in a pound, not on a sofa. And their status is often equivocal. An accountant once advised me (incorrectly, as it turned out) that although the costs of moving books, furniture, and close relatives were tax deductible, the cost of moving cats was not.

Conversely, if pet cats and dogs are not quite human, they are not quite animals either. They have lost their wildness, and the reciprocal intensity of their relationships with people distinguishes them from most farmyard beasts. Of course some pets turn out to be capable of independent lives if their human support system disappears, and both cats and dogs can still interbreed with their nearest wild relatives. But many thousands of years of adaptation to the exigencies and opportunities of human companionship have produced psychological alterations perhaps as profound, if not as striking, as the physical differences between the chihuahua and the wolf.

Few people would bar a labrador retriever or a siamese cat from their homes, at least on grounds of temperamental unsuitability; and even fewer would admit a wolf or a European wild cat to similar intimacy. But this obvious reaction begs several more difficult questions. Domestic cats and dogs are complicated organisms, and their actions are far from merely instinctive or automatic. What qualities of temperament or personality account for their relatively accommodating dispositions? What explains the reciprocity of the relationships that many people enjoy with their cats and dogs? Has their protracted and intense experience of domestication made pets more intelligent and adaptive than their wild relatives, or less so? Do they have minds, and, if so, what is on them?

The answers to these questions depend very much on whom one asks. Since pet keeping has been widespread in the United States and other Western cultures for the last two centuries, a huge amount of information about the mental and emotional characteristics of cats and dogs has accumulated, based on the experience of their owners and keepers. This extensive but often unsystematic record of observation has been routinely disparaged or ignored by rival experts, usually biologists or comparative psychologists, whose authority derives from their scientific training. Almost without exception, people who have lived and worked with domestic animals assume that they possess minds and personalities that resemble those of human beings in some general sense, if not in specific detail, and that we can understand much of what they think and feel.

Most but not all scientists have traditionally made the opposite assumption: that pets, along with other non-human animals, lack our intellectual and emotional capacities, and that any claims they may have to intellectual or emotional affinities with human beings require elaborate evidence to justify them. Thus, for example, Henry Gleitman, the author of a widely used college psychology text, bases his analysis of human social behavior upon this assumed dichotomy. He admits that “both animals and humans compete in aggressive encounters, court and mate, provide for their young, and have a repertoire of built-in expressive displays,” but he emphasizes that “the social behavior of animals is relatively rigid and inflexible.” *

It is, of course, difficult to gather evidence that will persuade committed skeptics, just as it would be (and occasionally has been) with respect to fellow human beings if we were unable to talk to them. Thus scientists have tended to insist, for their own reasons, on the radical separation between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom that has long been asserted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. In particular, they have denied that animals have the kinds of self-consciousness that human beings have. They have borrowed the term “anthropomorphism” from theology to brand the conflation of human and animal attributes as an intellectual, if not a moral failing.

Both Elizabeth Marshall Thomas and Doris Lessing confront the challenge implicitly posed by this terminology. Although in The Hidden Life of Dogs Thomas writes about herself (somewhat vaguely and misleadingly) as someone who simply happens to have many dogs, as well as the time and inclination to follow them on their rambles through Cambridge, Massachusetts, and neighboring towns, she is also an experienced anthropologist, the author of books about several African peoples as well as two novels of Siberian pre-history. In addition, she is a practiced observer of wild animal behavior, as a chapter on the wolves of Baffin Island, somewhat mysteriously inserted into the middle of her narrative, demonstrates. So she is well equipped to recognize and rebut the assumptions of her fellow-scientists, and she loses no time in doing so. The first sentence of her introduction proclaims, “This is a book about dog consciousness.”

She starts by characterizing as “astonishing” and “a holdover from Christian creationism” the fact that “in the past even scientists have been led to believe that only human beings have thoughts or emotions.” Then, using a tactic also employed by nineteenth-century admirers of “animal sagacity,” she offers several instances of thoughtful dog behavior. For example, her husband’s dog quickly fathomed and adopted the human custom of sharing an ice cream cone by taking alternate licks, without ever having seen it done by anyone else. Her husband merely licked the cone delicately, and then offered it to the dog, who helped himself to a similarly modest portion. They finished the cone in leisurely sequence.

Diverting and persuasive as such examples may be, however, Thomas also recognizes that the interpretation of animal behavior, whether anthropomorphic or otherwise, is not necessarily easy or straightforward. Observers, whatever their theoretical point of view, have to avoid the pitfalls of ignorant or sentimental projection; they must use common sense and have a sound knowledge of human and animal behavior. Thomas mentions a psychiatrist neighbor who saw a bird swoop down to carry off another that had flown into a picture window. He assumed that he had seen a loving mate come to the rescue; but, according to Thomas, if he had been better acquainted with bird behavior, he would have recognized this as an act of predation.

Most of The Hidden Life of Dogs chronicles the activities of eleven dogs, five males and six females, who lived with Thomas and her family for more than a decade. (None of the dogs was present for the entire period.) Untroubled by the need to provide themselves with food and shelter, they could concentrate on cultivating relationships with one another. Thomas describes their mostly unremarkable day-to-day activities in precise and loving detail, so that, combined with the distinctness with which she evokes each animal’s personality, her chronicle assumes some of the interest of a family saga.

On the whole, her engaging and sympathetic account of their loves and losses, triumphs and disappointments, makes a persuasive case for informed anthropomorphism. Near the end of her account Thomas asks, “What do dogs want?” and answers, “They want each other.” Their relationships within the group, and to some extent with dogs outside the group, are, she shows, the most important part of her dogs’ experience. Thus, after long months spent following one of her dogs, on bicycle and on foot, as he purposefully roamed Cambridge and nearby towns, Thomas concluded that the goal of his wanderings was simply to establish relationships with other dogs—either in person, by sniffing and circling them, or symbolically, by urinating over marks they had left behind.

Among the dogs of the Thomas household, bonds of alliance, hierarchy, and affection provoked still more intense feelings. Thomas recounts at length the upheavals set off by the entry of Maria, a beautiful young husky, into a canine community which then consisted only of two pugs: Bingo and his adoring mate, Violet. To Violet’s distress, Bingo was smitten with Maria, but Maria never responded to his advances with more than civility, just as she neither challenged nor acquiesced in his assumption of dominance. Finally Maria found true love with another husky, Misha.

In order to emphasize the significance of these relationships, and to force her readers to understand and evaluate them, Thomas calls them by the names of their human analogues. Puppies are “children,” and older offspring are “daughters” and “sons.” Mates are “wives” (even “loyal wives”) and “husbands,” and the relationship between them is “marriage.”

This terminology is arresting—even distracting—but offers a salutary reminder that, however widespread the anthropomorphic impulse may be among pet owners, we are less likely to understand the mental lives of cats or dogs as analogous to our own when they are interacting exclusively with one another—whether they are squabbling or playing games. Still, Thomas’s use of human terms for the relationships between parents and offspring helps her make a plausible argument for the similarity of mother love from one species to another, and it simultaneously raises questions about the customary methods of dispersing litters of puppies and kittens. As for paternal devotion, she tells of one husky father who, on his introduction to the litter he had sired, approached the puppies and their mother cautiously, then lowered his head and vomited, thus, in Thomas’s interpretation, simultaneously promising to treat them gently and, atavistically, to provide them with food.

Thomas’s use of terms relating to marriage seems less persuasive. Of course the relationship between mother and infant, of whatever mammalian kind, is grounded firmly in reproductive biology, although Thomas also finds that the metaphorical relationship of “adopted daughter” can be found among dogs. But marriage is a rather local legal construction, very differently understood in different human societies, and the legal relationship may do little to explain the behavior of human beings who voluntarily assume its constraints and obligations. Just what Thomas means when she writes of the marriage of the huskies Misha and Maria, or of the pugs Bingo and Violet, is therefore unclear. She evidently wishes to imply that the range of canine behavior includes the highest kind of mutual devotion and fidelity, and her descriptions of both Maria’s and Violet’s responses when they are deprived of their “husbands” suggest that she may well be correct. When Misha’s owners gave him away, and Maria realized that he would not return, “she lost her radiance and became depressed…moved more slowly, was less responsive, and got angry rather easily at things that before she would have overlooked.” She was ultimately reconciled to sex, but only for businesslike procreative purposes; she never again experienced a grand passion. Violet was still more severely stricken by the death of the inconstant Bingo, making a place for herself beneath the hall table from which she moved only for eating and excretion. After a year of this hopeless vigil, she died of heart failure.

  1. *

    Henry Gleitman, Psychology, second edition (Norton, 1986), p. 366.

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