When I began to think about how to educate new officers, I had a lot of wild ideas and Burgwin was pretty tolerant about just letting me try them out. Sometimes the people over his head didn’t think I was conventional enough, but he believed experiments were worth while. One of his best was rotating new people through every job to keep them from getting hierachical, thinking officers were better. Officers mucked out kennels, shelter attendants rode along in the field a couple of times, everyone filed dog license records alphabetically. That’s the job everyone hated most. It was surprising how many didn’t know their alphabet and had to have a cheater alongside.
One of my best ideas -- though it bugged some people -- came from evening classes I was taking towards a clinical psychology degree, though it wasn’t turning out to be what I thought it was. I took a class called “Motivation” -- that oughta be good useful stuff, right? But it was about why rats get hungry or thirsty -- what part of their brains were involved, what the chemical metabolic sequences were and how we know. Nevertheless, I learned how behavioral psychologists sat and observed animals -- such as monkeys in a zoo -- with a clipboard holding charts where they made a hashmark every time the animal did something specific. Made a noise, swung by an arm, swatted a neighbor, ate something, threw something -- etc. Someone remarked to me offhand how fond of the observed animal the observer became.
So I asked each new hire to take a chair out to the kennels, pick a dog, and record everything it did on a chart I made. They had to stay out there continuously watching and making marks for a half-hour. Then they were supposed to come back and write a short report about what kind of a personality the dog had, where they thought it had come from, what might have shaped it, and so on. Nine times out of ten they wanted to adopt the dog. Of course, most of the dog’s behavior was courting the attention of the person! “Love me, love me! And I’ll love you forever!” That’s how dogs make their living.
That tenth person was worrisome. And if they picked an unlikeable dog to say negative things about, that was worrisome. And, of course, at that point we found out whether they could organize a decent report with readable handwriting and conventional spelling.
Attachment seems to be natural mammal behavior in many species, but not all. Leopards, for instance, are only attached -- even to their cubs -- long enough to raise them. But for most people and most dogs, to be in close physical contact with another living being, especially when sharing food or sleep, is to fall in love. An urge to protect, to praise, to guide is as natural as it is for a parent with a child. This appears to be hard-wired, but supported by life-experiences. It’s healthy. Old people, single people, lonesome people, ill people, are all helped by relationships with animals. They smile; their blood pressure goes down. In an old-folks’ nursing home in Montana where I worked briefly, the head nurse -- who also was a rancher -- would bring a couple of calves to put in the enclosed courtyard so that the patients, many of them also ranchers, could enjoy their antics. There were fewer arguments on those days.
Human beings can attach to other species and animals can attach, too. Race horses often acquire a buddy: a cat who sleeps on their back, a chicken who perches on their stall door, a goat who sleeps with them. The most extreme case I ever heard of was a lioness who insisted on adopting a baby antelope, though she couldn’t suckle it. She cleaned it and curled warmly around it. I knew a lady who had a black lab that brought home ducklings, herding them along in front of her. The lady had to feed them, but the dog snuggled them at night. It’s got to be chemicals and wiring -- hormones and neurons -- but for humans there’s often a kind of symbolic level in which animals mean more than just themselves.
Unfortunately for cats, this is two-edged: on the one hand they are like babies, small and cuddley, but on the other hand they are devils with fiery eyes and sharp claws. Some people can hardly keep their hands off any cat, wanting to smooth and praise their little soft round heads. Other people want only to shoot them, seeing them as predators who kill birds. This is reflected in the laws about cats, which sometimes define them as an agricultural good that eliminates rodents and other times define them as feral, predatory, no better than weasels, legal to kill. When a person kills a demon cat that happens to be someone’s angel baby, the emotional collision is huge. Collars with bells and so on might help and might not. I always remember the man in hunting season who went out and painted “C-O-W” on the side of his prized Jersey in dayglo red paint. It was shot in the middle of the O.
It’s hard to know whether deliberate killing of animals is increasing or not. When I was in elementary school there was a boy who tortured cats, but we weren’t supposed to talk about it. Now many tragic things are put in the newspaper. Recently at a campground in Montana a man blew up because a chocolate lab pup kept coming over to his camp. He shot it, chainsawed the head off and threw the head into the camp of the family whose pet it was. It was a felony. He is serving his jail time now. We read about kids who get bored with paint ball vandalism and switch over to shooting sheep or horses along the roads. It’s worse when the animals aren’t killed outright but die slowly. Are they physiologically and emotionally unable to attach to other living things? Or is there some kind of internal storm that destroys their ability to understand what they’re doing? Or is it just that they can afford guns and cars in a world where no one checks to see what they are doing? Damaged kids now simply have the means to do more than kick dogs.
One of my other ploys for education was to get other entities that dealt with animals to come talk to us. I had a hard time persuading the Primate Center to come and they certainly didn’t want us to go there. It’s very hard to even hear about their experiments with head injuries or starvation of babies, though they are meant to produce information that will help with treatment of trauma victims or with recovery strategies for starved human babies. They came in full of self-protective arrogance, but were surprised when we listened. Their attachments to their animals were far more difficult to handle than ours, and they WERE there. On both sides, we sat with folded arms, battling our preconceptions with varying success.
Maybe we should have had clipboards and charts to make hashmarks on.