Canis lupus familiaris – the dog – was genetically classified as a subspecies of Canis lupus or the grey wolf in 1982. Although the wolf has always been demonized by human beings, the dog is considered as their best friend. 7,000-year-old archaeological evidence from ancient human civilizations emphasizes the mutualistic relationship between dogs and human beings. This evidence also acknowledges how human beings have historically learnt to differentiate between themselves and nature. Some scholars contradict the taxonomical views of categorizing the dog as a subspecies of the wolf, while also emphasizing a rethinking of the relationship between human beings and dogs (Coppinger & Coppinger, 2016). Coppinger and Coppinger propose that the dog should be a separate species, just like the jackal, the coyote or the fox. Pointing out to the similarities in shape and size of street/village dogs around the world, they are able to separate them from the pure breed pet dogs. Owing to their morphology, and the availability of human-generated waste, these ‘other’ dogs are able to perfectly adapt to a unique niche – human settlements. Nevertheless, this does not clarify anything about the historical evolution of dogs.
It is quite fascinating to know how some species have co-evolved with human beings despite a propounding epoch of the mass extinction and climate change. Interestingly, the examples of co-evolution and the success ‘stories’ of certain species can be linked to the manner in which they are portrayed in popular media. For example, there are several species that are used as characters in animated movies or depicted on children’s apparels. These are the species that either holds cultural significance or that which are critically endangered. The lively illustrations of these species are programmed in such a way that they look cute. These cosmopolitan identities of animals, then, have to constantly compete with each other to attract human attention, since it is this attention that gives certain species precedence over the others in modern ecosystems.
The varied portrayal of animals in popular media leads to the creation of a hierarchy in the cognitive human mind, wherein, right from childhood, human beings hierarchize animals based on ‘importance’. For instance, while the tiger is quite popular among kids in India, focusing all attention on the tiger puts a blanket on other species such as wolves and hyenas that are also found in the country. As a result, this conditioned portrayal of the popular animal often helps in running the conservationist’s or economist’s propaganda while ignoring other species that may also be on the verge of extinction. This, in some ways, denounces the existence of these other species in the Anthropocene.
Coming back to dogs, they are human beings’ best buddies and are also often considered to be cute. This representation of the dog augments the ability of human beings to domesticate and control the species. However, it is important to mention here that domestication may also be seen as one of the survival strategies that dogs adapt. Domestication has ensured that dogs receive sufficient food supply with minimal or no costs and risks. By adapting themselves to live within the confines of people’s houses, dogs in cities have learnt the unique skill of harnessing surplus resources, thereby taking advantage of a potential niche for themselves. This seems like the best possible strategy for a dog to survive in a highly fragmented yet well-connected world. Unfortunately, most of the other canids have failed to do so.
In addition, dogs have acquired many other biological adaptations which enable them to thrive in the ‘global village’. Some of these adaptations are notable. Firstly, dogs are r-selected species, producing many offspring in a single reproductive effort. The nursing period in dogs lasts for only 3-4 weeks and the weaning period lasts for a similar time period. The pups get no parental care after weaning and soon become independent. These sub-adults must either have a niche to fit into (depending on the availability of one) or appear cute and piteous to human beings (thus learning to form an agency). Adult dogs can reach sexual maturity much faster than their counterparts living in the wild.
Secondly, many scholars of genetics and conservation biology express their concerns over hybridization between dogs and other wild canids (Hennelly et al., 2015). However, there are other scholars who suggest that hybridization is a means of adaptation, and although risky, altering genetic composition in response to the changing environment is an attempt by species to successfully adapt (Arnold, 1997; Nicholas, 1996). For example, some reports in the United States suggest that a new species called coy-wolf has emerged as a result of hybridization between coyotes and wolves, and according to reports, the species is thriving and expanding its geographical range (Mech et al., 2014). This example also suggests how certain species do a cost-benefit analysis and respond in accordance with that (Ingold, Nature & Society).
The story of the Australian dingo (Canis lupus dingo) is another case in point while talking about adaptation strategies. The dingo was originally a domestic dog species that was introduced by Asians in the region. To begin with, the aboriginals of Australia domesticated the dingo. But soon, the species learnt to adjust on its own in its new ecosystem and became completely ‘wild’ (independent) over several generations. It can be hypothesized that most of the changing behavioural patterns in dingoes was influenced by the absence (extinction) of a native competitor – the Tasmanian tiger (Documentary film: Wild Dogs at War). At present, the dingo exists as the only keystone species in the vast sub-arid lands of the Australian continent.
Unlike dogs, there are other species which also share the same habitat with human beings, but which are treated differently. For example, ‘house’-flies are considered pests and are neither domesticated nor wild. Yet they have to learn to live with humans. They are pests because they spread diseases. Likewise, non-vaccinated dogs should also be labelled as pests since they have the potential to serve as vectors of the deadly rabies virus. Yet they are generally not considered as pests or vermin because they are valued differently within different human communities. This makes the dog’s adaptation strategy more nuanced. For example, a street dog can be a rag picker’s friend but can also wreak havoc for passersby at night. Hence, the status of ‘street’, ‘village’, or ‘urban’ dog is absurd. In Delhi, if dogs are a menace in any locality, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) catches them, sterilizes them, and releases them back into the same locality from where they were picked. However, there are many dogs which evade sterilization and are able to continue to reproduce and multiply quickly. Thus, the dogs have learnt to live with humans diplomatically.
At the Dheerpur Wetland Park (DWP), the past one year has witnessed a situation akin to the ‘the Planet of the Apes’ movie. But contrastingly, the DWP has many ‘Caesar(s)’ [the protagonist(s) and alpha in the movie] nowadays. One plausible reason for their occupation of the park in large numbers could be the opening up of a new niche for them. Wetlands in cities are known to attract numerous avian species that not only forage in these wetlands but also use them as breeding grounds (McKinney et al., 2011). From an observation of the dog’s faecal matter in the wetland park, it was noticed that the dogs are predating on birds inhabiting the wetlands. Packs of dogs can be seen very often resting in the area, or even getting into territorial clashes with rival packs. These dogs are further encouraged when people visiting the park compliment them with biscuits and other foodstuffs. In many ways, the wetland park has become a paradise for the dogs and has made them the apex predator of this urban jungle.
The wetland park is waiting for the installation of gates and the completion of the boundary wall, both of which have been long pending. The resultant immigration and multiplication of dogs in the wetland have led to a rapid rise in their population. Dogs predating on wetland birds can be seen as predation taking place naturally. Yet, many ecologists squabble over the idea of considering a dog a natural predator, since dogs are a product of artificial selection by human beings. Further, in the process of understanding what is natural and what is artificial, how should the issue of human safety be looked at? There are several incidents where feral dogs have attacked humans and have spread deadly disease like rabies (e.g. the dog menace in Leh, Jammu & Kashmir). These incidents cause human beings to title such dogs as ‘bad-dogs’, much like the shift in the portrayal of the ‘Japanese wolf’ from a deity to a demon (John Knight, The Lost Wolves of Japan).
These retracting titles given on the basis of idiosyncrasies of dogs jeopardizes human beings’ daily interactions with their best friend. This may be because human beings still find it difficult to answer some very basic yet fundamental questions about themselves and their surroundings, or it may be possible that finding the ultimate answers may not just be the sole purpose of human questioning. This realization has facilitated the evolution of some new discourses (like urban ecology) which empower human beings to constantly probe and ask more specific questions. Without a doubt, the deeper human beings understand something, the more they realize how less they know. It is perhaps time to ask questions like how Coppinger and Coppinger (2016) have so honestly and genuinely asked, “What is a Dog?”
- Coppinger, Raymond, Lorna Coppinger, and Alan M. Beck. What is a Dog? Chicago: University of Chicago, 2017. Print.
- Walker, Brett L., and William Cronon. Lost Wolves of Japan. University of Washington, 2009. Print.
- Descola, Philippe, and Gisli Palsson. Nature and Society: Anthropological Perspectives. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, 2013. Print.
Featured Image by Amit Kaushik