This is Part 1 of a new exchange of letters between myself and two friends of mine. Paul McCarney who is a great friend of mine, living in Labrador. He has a PhD in Environmental Studies and is an avid hunter and angler. Eric Lede is a friend of Paul’s from Australia. He has worked with communities in Arctic Canada, Papua New Guinea, and Australia. Both have a wealth of insightful perspectives that interweave with one another in thought-provoking ways and an inspiring desire for meaningful discourse.
Paul and Eric,
I address this letter to old friends and new ones.
It’s morning now, the weather is cold and rainy. I sit here with Charlie-girl tucked under my right arm, as I type, and Gus across the room on his chair. I imagine our routine will stay the same and in the afternoon, whether it is still raining or not, we will be out training.
I find that I am often awe-struck by the sheer beauty in watching my two hunting dogs work. Untrained feats and characteristics that are bred into their individual lineage; giving each of them a unique set of instinctual skills in the hunting world.
Before I had acquired my two, furry pack members I remember reading an article describing something called The Silver Fox Domestication Experiment conducted by a Russian geneticist by the name of Dmitry Belyayev. His findings allowed me to understand, on a smaller scale, just how my hunting partners, Gus and Charlie, maneuvered through evolution to arrive at where we are today.
Gus is a 10-month-old, Spinone Italiano. He is a classic, versatile hunting dog with the inherent ability to point and retrieve small game. Charlie is a 4-month-old, Black Labrador Retriever. Her retrieving ability is extremely impressive for a dog of her age, but not unexpected with her pedigree.
Our mutually advantageous relationship with Canids is traced back to the late Pleistocene. Cave paintings depict our prosocial cohabitation with dogs. Our respect for one another is indicated by the finding and excavation of the Bonn-Oberkassel dog, in which pieces of 14,000-year-old skeletal Canid remains were found buried amongst humans.
The history we have, as hunter-gatherers, is eclipsed by the partnership we shared with our four-legged friends. Our abilities as hunters, today, are greatly increased due to the use of this relationship leaving me with a questionable position of ethics. I stand on the side of conservation when it comes to where my morals lay whilst choosing to utilize their capabilities to my benefit during hunting season.
All of this research along with my evident bias would put me on the side of believing that there is still more of a place for these relationships between man and dog to go further in the hunting world.
Do you believe that the advantages given by using our dogs for hunting lend unfaithfulness to the pursuit of a fair hunt?
What are your points of view on the subject and where do you stand as to where you see the human-dog hunting relationship going in the future?
Jon and Eric,
This is an interesting topic and one that has important implications for modern wildlife conservation. The specific question of human relationships with dogs in hunting is an interesting point of departure for a larger discussion around evolutionary, ethical, and personal considerations related to human-animal relationships.
I have hunted with dogs only a few times, primarily while waterfowl hunting. I have also brought my own dog squirrel hunting. In every case, I was amazed by the instinct and joy in these dogs, and I certainly share the sentiment with you that there is a powerful connection between humans and dogs while hunting.
You brought up the question of ethics, which is something I am always deeply interested in exploring. I find myself coming back to two broad issues that touch on ethics.
First, I have my own personal observations and experiences being in the field with dogs and am drawn to the evolutionary history of the human-dog relationship. At the same time, I find myself coming back to the point that just because something is old and traditional, does not necessarily make it right in a modern context.
Second, I come back to the current challenges around wildlife conservation and the complexities of the social-ecological landscape of management. I always consider an issue through the lens of what is best for wildlife and how we can advance our practice around successful conservation.
I think about both of these questions in the broader context of human-animal relationships and what it means for animals to have been domesticated for human use. You brought up the use of dogs for hunting. We can also consider comparable questions around the history of horse domestication and the ethical implications of this history for current challenges around wild horse management in North America. Consider the story of bison in North America. After a long and complex history of interactions with humans, wild bison populations have recovered in many places and now more frequently than not have domestic cattle introgression in their genes.
I’m not entirely sure about whether hunting with dogs gives us an unfair advantage or undermines fair chase. I think we need to go back a bit to consider the broader history of human-animal relationships and the many stories that have led to domestication in particular species. I think that in order to understand the ethics around these issues, we need to reconcile our understanding of the concept of domestication and what it means in a contemporary context for conservation and our relationship with wildlife.
I don’t have an answer for how to reconcile a 14,000-year history of domestication with contemporary global anthropogenic conservation challenges and wildlife management. But I do think it’s an important place to start. What obligation do we have to explore modern ethics in the conceptual context of our own actions to domesticate wildlife?
Jon and Paul,
I find myself enthralled with a specific point within Jon’s story of human-animal relationships and Paul’s hanging question about our obligation to explore modern ethics.
I agreed when Paul noted that Jon’s epiphany was an important point of departure for larger ethical discussions. Particularly because it reminded me of the array of intersecting discourses in the human-animal ethics space through time.
Jon noted that our relationships with Canids have persevered – for the most part unchanged – since the late Pleistocene. Despite the rise and fall of the societies and landscapes in which these relationships have been nurtured, the relationships themselves have persevered – and this is nothing short of astounding.
Jon’s vivid illustration of his Charlie-girl and Gus (in which I took the liberty of imagining a small fire crackling away in the corner), could have taken place any time over the last few thousand years. This uninterrupted relationship seems to be stubbornly agnostic to other rapidly progressing discourses such as recent scientific advances in our understanding of Canids. For example, it was only within the last decade, on 7 July 2012, that leading experts in neurobiology and the cognitive sciences signed the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which recognized that non-humans possess the ‘substrates’ to be conscious, but stopped short of saying that non-humans are conscious.
I’m sure to Jon it may sound absurd that world-leading scientists are still having the discussion of whether Charlie-girl and Gus are conscious. Notwithstanding, this was a major scientific development. Indeed, only four hundred years ago, the father of modern philosophy, René Descartes, maintained that only humans feel and crave, and other animals are just mindless automata. This doctrine had brutal implications, as seventeenth-century doctors and scholars dissected live dogs and observed the working of their internal organs without anesthetics. They didn’t see anything wrong with this as their ‘modern’ dogma dictated that dogs don’t feel.
When contrasting this history with Jon’s age-enduring story of human-animal relationships, I’m struck by Paul’s ironic adage that just because something is old and traditional, it does not necessarily make it right in a modern context. I’m struck because the slow-moving narrative of which Jon is an active participant seems to have embraced understandings of Canids that science has still yet to catch up with.
This discourse dissonance leaves me stumped by Paul’s question about our obligation to explore modern ethics. I’m left pondering: if modern ethics is a close reflection on modern science that has yet to withstand the test of time (nor has given us evidence to show that it can), where and when do we anchor our ethical examination on issues such as the domestication of animals? Do we start on the fringe of modern scientific advances, or do we begin 14,000 years ago in the late Pleistocene cave where the ancestors of Jon, Charlie-girl, and Gus are sharing the warmth of a fire crackling in the corner with a meal that was hunted hand-in-paw?
Throughout the 19th century, hunters, trappers, and mountain men would emerge from the mountains each spring to meet for an annual rendezvous. They would trade, sell their furs, restock supplies, exchange news, and engage in general frivolity. The last rendezvous took place in 1840 in Wyoming.
In the spirit of meeting with like-minded people to trade, this series presents discussions I have with friends about topics related to hunting and conservation. It is a kind of virtual rendezvous that presents largely unedited written exchanges with dear friends of mine. As with the rocky mountain rendezvous, it brings together diverse people who spend most of their time far apart but share an important set of motivations and ethics.