by Gavin Ehringer
Pegasus Books, distributed by W.W. Norton & Co.
364 pages. $27.95 hardcover. In stores December 5, 2017.
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
Remember the most gripping and informative few books you ever read about dogs, cats, cows, and/or horses, by authors as thorough as the multi-time best sellers Desmond Morris, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Stanley Coren, and/or the lesser known Sonia Faruqi, whose 2015 opus Project Animal Farm set a new standard for expository journalism about farmed animals?
Combine those works into just one tightly edited volume exploring how humans have transformed dogs, cats, cows, and horses through domestication, and you might imagine the scope and depth of Leaving The Wild, by Gavin Ehringer.
“Cowboy, horseman, dog trainer”
Ehringer describes himself as “a former cowboy, a horseman, and a dog trainer,” who has “written for a wide range of animal publications,” including 18 years as columnist and feature writer for Western Horseman, and has produced four previous animal-related books over the past 30 years.
The self-description leaves out that Ehringer is restlessly, relentlessly curious, always eager to further research and rethink any topic that interests him.
We at ANIMALS 24-7 have been kibitzing with Ehringer about Leaving The Wild and often introducing him to sources since 2009, soon after he produced the first conceptual outline for a book exploring the human-directed evolution of dogs, cats, cattle, and horses, including the cultural evolution of each species’ status and uses among humans.
What was in it for the animals?
Explains Ehringer’s back cover blurb, “The domestication of animals changed the course of human history. But what about the animals who abandoned their wild existence in exchange for our care and protection? Domestication has proven to be a wildly successful survival strategy. But this success has not been without its drawbacks.
“Human values and choices determine an animal’s lot in life even before he or she is born. Just as a sculptor’s hands shape clay, so human values shape our animals––for good and for ill. The little-examined, yet omnipresent act of breeding lies at the core of this eye-opening book.
“Is this what the animals bargained for all those millennia ago, when they first joined us by the fire?”
Unlike many authors, who start out with preconceived answers to their focal questions, Ehringer set out in search of answers to questions which had increasingly perplexed him in his lifetime spent around animals, to which he had found no satisfactory answers.
Understanding how “survival of the fittest” drives evolution in the wild, as outlined in the 19th century by Charles Darwin, and how profitability and utility drive the evolution of domesticated species to the extent that humans are able to control it, Ehringer perceived an unexplained gap in explaining how animals came to be induced to give up control of their reproductive choices. This occurred for many species, beginning with dogs, even before slaughter at an early age came to be the common fate of most domesticated animals.
In close to 50 years of providing similar help to hundreds of authors, while committing journalism on topics that others eventually turned into books, some of those books award-winning and hugely successful, we have yet to meet another author who put more effort into running down every angle and detail of complex themes than Ehringer, who visited every source of more than just a few quotes in person no matter how much driving it took.
While Ehringer eventually answered some of his initial questions to his satisfaction, he ended up with even more questions, chiefly about the directions of future evolution.
How cats took over
The evolution of Ehringer’s own ideas about dogs, cats, cattle, and horses while writing Leaving The Wild are an integral part of the story.
Ehringer started out, for instance, anticipating that he might find relatively little to say about cats, since cats appear to have changed least among humans from their fully wild pre-human ancestors.
As Ehringer learned more about cats and cat-related controversies, however, his section on cats grew to match in length his section on cows, including much that even the most dedicated cat enthusiasts may not have previously encountered.
For example, how many of us knew that Walt Disney pioneered neuter/return on a grand scale at Disneyland, more than 40 years before the technique went mainstream?
Tweety & Sylvester
Ehringer includes two oft-cited quasi-statistics pertaining to cats, but both with attribution making clear that the numbers are not his own.
One is the claim that there may be “tens of millions” of feral cats at large in the United States. Actuality, as ANIMALS 24-7 has explored in depth, is that there is no recent or credible basis in field studies, roadkill counts, or shelter intake data to put the U.S. feral cat population even as high as 10 million.
To Ehringer’s credit, he goes on to investigate in detail, and largely refute, the frequent claims of birders that cats whose existence cannot be verified are killing millions of birds whose existence also is not verifiable from extensive available data on bird populations.
The other claim, attributed to the Greek historian Herodotus, who lived from circa 484 to 425 B.C., is that “more than 700,000 people people took part in the orgiastic party each year” undertaken in honor of feline fertility at the Temple of Bastet in ancient Egypt.
Indeed, “more than 700,000 people” across Egypt may have participated each year in celebrating feline fertility, but inasmuch as the entire population of ancient Egypt rose gradually over several hundred years from only about one million to two million, including children and slaves, it is unlikely that all of them assembled at a single temple at a time when no city in the world even distantly approached half that many residents.
This matters only because, in repeated readings, Herodotus’ goof is the most questionable number we were able to find in Leaving The Wild, attesting to Ehringer’s thoroughness in research, and as Ehringer responded when we mentioned it, Herodotus––called by the Roman writer Cicero “the father of history”––did not have the advantage of being able to use photography to verify crowd counts.
The Leaving The Wild sections on cats and cows both grew to rival in length the section on dogs, which Ehringer anticipated from the beginning would be the longest, both because dogs are by far the species longest domesticated, and because dogs are also by far the most varied in body size, shape, and diversity of uses.
Each Leaving The Wild section begins with a detailed overview of when and how each of the four focal species came to live with humans, and how integration of the species into human society influenced the direction of human history and culture.
This is considerable: a case could be made that human civilization itself was made possible only because of the combined contributions of dogs, cats, cattle, and horses. The domestication of dogs facilitated the growth of early hunter/gatherer societies, but successful grain storage required the contributions of cats as well. Domesticating cattle made a key contribution to the evolution of commerce and government. Horses facilitated relatively rapid long-distance transportation, invasion, conquest, and communication.
Directed evolution by different paths
Ehringer then delves more specifically into the directed evolution of each species for increasingly specialized human purposes.
In the case of cats, directed evolution has occurred chiefly through efforts to determine which cats shall not breed, mostly via spay/neuter and especially via neuter/return.
Both spay/neuter generally and neuter/return in specific strike directly against the sort of promiscuous random breeding that over the centuries has helped cats to be among the most widely distributed species among us, and yet among the least varied from their wild ancestors.
At the opposite extreme, directed evolution among cattle has occurred mainly through human management of which cattle shall breed, to maximize production of milk and meat.
Just a few dozen selected bulls’ sperm impregnates most of the cows in North America. Only a few dozen more represent the entire male half of bovine lineage in Europe.
The outcome for either cats or cattle is that the broad gene pool of approximately 100 years ago and earlier is becoming constricted. The male side of the cattle gene pool is now narrower than that of some species that have been red-listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as at imminent risk of extinction. Yet cattle now occupy more of the earth’s living biomass than any other nonhuman species.
The evolution of domestic dogs has been guided both by restrictions, as with cats, and by deliberate encouragement of lines with specific desired traits, as with cattle.
Pit bulls & dogfighting
The Leaving The Wild section on dogs includes an extensive chapter on the evolution of pit bulls and dogfighting, and the effects of this history on the dog population and the humane community today.
Ehringer concludes, as ANIMALS 24-7 has, that “Public education, free spay/neuter clinics, and in some cases breed-specific laws that mandate the sterilization of fighting dog breeds should be intensified to end this animal welfare crisis.”
But Ehringer’s perspective on pit bulls came to parallel our own only after he had immersed himself for many months among the pit bull fancy and in animal sheltering.
The Leaving The Wild chapter following Ehringer’s study of pit bull evolution explores the very different lives and breeding of show dogs, with emphasis on how the show ring has transformed many Australian shepherds from closely resembling their working ancestors to being a different type of dog entirely, despite parallel appearance.
Ehringer, while not opposed to conscientious dog breeding, takes a deeply critical view of how dog show standards tend to erode the health and well-being of breeds that have the misfortune to rise rapidly in popularity, encouraging high-volume inbreeding.
Mongols & Arabians
Somewhat surprisingly, since Ehringer has spent the greater portion of his adult life writing about horses, his section on horses is the shortest, but helps to wrap up his summation of how human-directed evolution has influenced our most familiar animals both to the advantage and disadvantage of the animals themselves.
Included in the horse section are detailed discussion of the transformation of horses from the widely varied equine species of North America before the Ice Ages to the relatively narrow range remaining among us today; how Mongol domestication of horses eventually transformed human culture throughout Europe and Asia, contributing much more of a positive nature to modern civilization than is usually attributed to Mongol influence; and how the Arabian horses cultivated by Bedouin nomads came to be among the most influential ancestors of horse breeds from the thoroughbreds of England to the mustangs of the U.S west.
The horse section concludes with an investigative exploration of how speculation in horses stimulated by tax breaks during the first six years of Ronald Reagan’s tenure as U.S. President produced not only a boom-and-bust cycle in horse breeding, but also boosted the horse slaughter industry, and––most harmful to horses in the long run––led to extensive inbreeding among both show and competition horses that distributed susceptibility to several debilitating hereditary diseases far and wide.
Ehringer also explains why the horse industry has not yet even seriously attempted to remove the carriers of these hereditary diseases from the breeding population.
Not “anti-breeding”––with conditions
Ehringer wraps up Leaving The Wild with a few pages explaining that while he is intensely critical of many common breeding practices, he is not opposed to continuing to selectively breed dogs, cats, cattle, and horses to accentuate useful and healthy traits. Ehringer offers a 13-point list of what animal breeders should and should not do. The list can be consolidated into a single sentence: do not mass-produce animals as commodities, and do not let them breed helter-skelter to produce a problematic surplus, either.
Many of Ehringer’s recommendations, unfortunately, are commonly ignored, including by animal advocates whose attempts to legislate remedies tend to produce bigger problems than they solve.
Preventing pet stores from selling any but “rescued” dogs, for instance, has already produced booms in fake “rescues,” clandestinely bought from breeders whose identities cannot be traced in event of problems; pet theft, to “flip” dogs of popular breed; and backyard breeding, inaccessible to inspection and regulation.
But Ehringer stops short of making recommendations to animal advocates. Leaving The Wild is diagnostic, rather than prescriptive, focused on how we came to have the animals and animal issues that we do, leaving finding solutions mostly to the creative intelligence of readers.
We hope there will be a sequel, providing a similar in-depth examination of the human-directed evolution of poultry of all sorts, sheep, goats, and salmon.