BIO BITES: Pondering the wolf on my sofa

PHOTO BY R. GARY RAHAM Zoe: A shrunken, furry-haired descendant of the wolf

Bio Bites

By R. Gary Raham

A biologist-artist’s ruminations about our roles in a science-inspired world

Science tells us that humans and dogs have been discussing their relationship now for millennia while glaciers spread and receded over our mutual hunting grounds, confounding our prey and making our livings difficult. Our ancestors undoubtedly looked into the steely eyes of some near-wolf that might mistake them for food at any moment and somehow brokered a pact: Let’s hunt together, help protect each other and hang out. Near-wolf: “I’ll try to look like a warm, furry almost child and sniff out game”. Homo saps: “We’ll pretend to lead the show and share some mammoth entrails with you. “

I gaze into the black button eyes of a curly haired, shrunken descendant of that wolf that resembles a furry marshmallow with four legs. She’s a Bichon named Zoe. My wife and I “rescued her” and now she owns us. Pact? What pact?

Zoe’s disguise of domesticity is almost complete. Due to some congenital defect, she barks like a cat with a hairball. She resembles a mop without a handle. She curries favor with complete strangers—any one of whom might be robbers, serial rapists, or worse.

On the other hand, Zoe has given hints of her predatory heritage. She will gnaw on our hands and mostly not break the skin. She loves chase games and will catch our heels if we are a bit too slow. She’ll entice a rabbit to make a few quick moves before giving up pursuit in favor of a tail wag and intense stare. And never try to steal a carrot from her once she has claimed possession.

But one summer day Zoe spent a lot of time by the juniper bush while I mowed the lawn. I assumed she was disturbing the afternoon nap of yet another rabbit. I mowed several more rows, but Zoe’s attention never faltered. Finally, I checked out the situation. I feared she might have cornered a skunk, precipitating disastrous consequences.

As I nosed around in the juniper, Zoe lunged expertly—a blink of white within green. She pulled her head out of the foliage and turned to look at me with a large black “X” slashed across her pale face. It took awhile for my brain to process the scene. The black and white pattern said, “skunk” at first or maybe “severe injury.” The one eventuality meant hours of cleanup; the other portended big medical bills or worse. But it was neither. The black X was a broken starling or grackle that Zoe had expertly nabbed—with my bumbling and inexpert assistance.

My domesticated wolf had captured an avian dinosaur for her urban caveman.

Well, not really.

Shocked, I ran toward her shouting “Leave it! Leave it!” She ran merrily around the yard, clearly pleased with her deed. Zoe was not inclined to share. Finally I enlisted my mate in a two-pronged assault and the dog reluctantly dropped her prize. I deposited the black bird corpse in a garbage bag and disposed of the evidence while Zoe watched me in cocked head bewilderment.

One part of me worried about 21st century political correctness. Did I share my home with an ecologically irresponsible creature? Rude and ignorant cats kill birds, not foo foo dogs.

But then a northern breeze ruffled my hair. Perhaps it carried a whiff of fossil tundra dust and mammoth dung. Another part of me said, “Hey, not bad, Zoe. “ For just an instant her black button eyes grew hard and I could almost imagine a conspiratorial wink.

Zoe still does her best to look endearing, offering her belly willingly for further attention. She curls up next to me on the sofa. I’m not fooled now, though. I’ve seen her inner wolf. Zoe’s pack and our simian tribe, we have an understanding that goes way back—forged by ice and time and long nights telling war stories over a campfire.

Dog owners (and human owners) take note: what ice ages have joined together, let no man—or canine—put asunder. Sometimes our inner hunters simply cannot be denied.

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