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Book Review: What It’s Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience

I am forever wondering what my dog, Galen, is thinking. Sometimes I go nose to nose with her, stare into her brown eyes, and ponder what’s happening in that little brain of hers. In those moments, I presume she thinks either, “Why have you thrust your face in mine?” or “How about you give me a cookie?” I’m embarrassed to say for how many years this ritual has persisted and how many times a day it’s repeated. But it is this longing to get into Galen’s head that attracted me to the pioneering work of neuroscientist Gregory Berns, much of whose research involves going inside a dog’s mind.

Berns, an Emory University professor and founding member of the Society for Neuroeconomics, is the scientist who, in 2011, came up with the radical notion that dogs could be trained to enter an MRI machine and remain still long enough to have their brains scanned and thus, studied. How Berns turned his controversial idea into groundbreaking science is the story at the center of his 2013 book, How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain. Now Berns is out with What It’s Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience, which picks up where How Dogs Love Us leaves off.

For those unfamiliar with Berns’ work with dogs, the introduction to What It’s Like to Be a Dog provides a condensed account of how he and his team trained a host of dogs—starting with Berns’ own rescue, Callie—to don ear muffs and “shimmy” into loud, hulking MRI machines.

Berns and his rescue, Callie.

It is an extraordinary chronicle of patience, determination, and above all, respect for the dogs that would participate in the studies. Berns writes that three principles guided the team’s research: do no harm to the dogs, do not restrain them, and give the dogs “the right of self-determination.” That meant the dogs “had the same fundamental privilege as humans participating in research: the right to refuse.” Being dogs, refuse is sometimes what they did. Fortunately, more of the time (and for treats aplenty), they did not.

Callie in the MRI machine

Berns has long been fascinated by the brain. He began studying humans’ brains, turned next to those of dogs, and as telegraphed by the subtitle of this newest work—And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience—is extending his brain imaging research into the broader animal kingdom. This is important for readers to note because those expecting What It’s Like to Be a Dog to be a wholly dog-centric read will be disappointed. (I presume the title was chosen to entice dog lovers, and I admit, it’s what initially drew me.)

At its core, What It’s Like to Be a Dog is Berns’ first-person account of his attempt to answer the question: Do animals experience emotions like people do? The science in the book—Berns provides primers on the evolution of the brain and its structure—is written for the lay reader, and it is what underlies the non-dog narratives that drive the story. These narratives revolve around Berns’ adventures tracking down and studying the brains of sea lions, dolphins, and the now-extinct thylacine, a tiger-like marsupial native to Australia.

What Berns finds, through the myriad imaging studies he performs, is that there are enough similarities in the architecture of human and animal brains to extrapolate that animals have feelings much like humans do. “Our results have shown,” he writes, “no matter which animal’s brain we examined, that if it has a cortex, the animal is very likely sentient, and that its subjective experience can be understood by degrees of similarity to ours.”

Ethical implications flow from Berns’ findings, and this is the territory in which he closes the book. If animals are indeed sentient, a rethinking of how we treat them in agriculture, in laboratories, in our homes, in our every encounter, is not simply long overdue, it is imperative.

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Book Review: Being a Dog: Following the Dog into a World of Smell

being-a-dogNo matter how quietly I screw off the cap on a jar of peanut butter, within seconds of its opening, I will feel my dog’s dark brown eyes drilling into me. I’m here, those eyes say. And I’m waiting. Waiting, that is, for a spoonful of her favorite treat.

If dogs can sniff out bombs and bedbugs, cancer and orca poop (more on that in a moment), I shouldn’t be surprised that Galen can sniff out peanut butter. And now, having just completed Alexandra Horowitz’s newest exploration of doghood, Being a Dog: Following the Dog into a World of Smell, my appreciation for a dog’s olfactory skills has grown tenfold.

Horowitz, a cognitive scientist who runs the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College and the author of Inside a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, is an exceptional guide into the science of smell as it pertains to both dogs and humans. Inspired by her work at the lab and her own rescue dogs, Finnegan and Upton, Horowitz explores not just the physiology of the canine and human olfactory systems, but how both species use their noses to experience the world. As an explorer, Horowitz is a skilled investigator; as a writer her prose is clear and often poetic.

“Have you toured the dog nose?” she asks. “Ridden on a corkscrew of air into the dark vault, bumped along its curves, caught a breeze up to the chamber where a molecule will settle into the wetlands and begin to tickle the nerves to the brain?

I have—at least near enough for my liking.”

As anyone who has walked a dog knows, most dogs prefer the casual, lots-of-time-to-sniff stroll over the fast-paced, this-is-about-exercise hustle. That’s because dogs understand the world through smell, not sight, as we, humans, do. This, of course, has everything to do with biology. “Architecturally,” Horowitz explains, “our noses are children’s block towers next to dogs’ modern architecture: made of similar stuff but in a much simpler, more brutalist formulation.”

For scientifically minded readers, the anatomical design of both species’ noses is deconstructed in detail, yielding takeaways such as the fact that dogs’ nostrils, unlike ours, work independently and ipsilaterally (odors entering the right nostril are processed by the right side of the brain; odors entering the left nostril are processed on the left) and dogs have two-hundred million to one billion olfactory receptor cells—millions more than the six million we have. What this means in practical terms, Horowitz writes, is this:

… let’s think of an aroma pleasing to our noses: cinnamon rolls cooking in a home kitchen. The average cinnamon roll has about a gram of cinnamon in it. Sure, the human nose is on it, from the moment we open the door of the house. Now imagine the smell of one trillion cinnamon rolls. That’s what the dog coming in with us smells when we enter.

It’s because of their remarkable sense of smell that dogs are being trained to sniff out explosives, drugs, malignant tumors, diabetes, truffles, mangoes—the list goes on and on, and even includes that orca poop I mentioned earlier. To discover how such specialized training is accomplished, Horowitz crisscrosses the country visiting the Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania, the Conservation Canines program at the University of Washington, and several scent-research sites in between. It’s in Seattle that she learns about Tucker, the black Labrador retriever mix who detects the “slimy scat”—or poop—left by the orcas who live in Puget Sound. That scat, like the scat of all animals, provides researchers with a gold mine of information, from the health, sex, and reproductive status of an individual animal to how large the population is and how widely it ranges. Scat-detecting dogs, as they’re called, can be trained to track up to twenty species. But what’s perhaps most amazing is that when tracking one species, the dogs ignore what Horowitz calls “the universe of nontarget scat around them.”

Horowitz infuses Being a Dog with her belief that dogs have a lot to teach us about smell. That’s because over millennia, she says, humans “unlearned how to smell.” The good news—for those interested in reversing this trend—is that we can train ourselves to reclaim our sniff. Horowitz has begun to reclaim hers by, among other things, getting down on all-fours and smelling her New York City neighborhood as her dogs do. Fortunately for readers, that’s not her only suggestion. But the meaning behind it couldn’t be any more clear:

The world abounds with aromas,” says Horowitz, “but we are spectacle-less. The dog can serve as our spectacles.”

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Zoologies

Zoologies, On Animals and the Human Spirit (Milkweed Editions)

By Alison Hawthorne Deming

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Every day, as I walk from house to barn, or go up the driveway to get the mail, I am closely monitored by the resident crows who glide from oak to oak, loudly discussing my movements amongst themselves. In a cacophony of caws and clacks, I understand the gist of their conversation: Look, look. There she is! Here she comes! Is she carrying food? Are her barking things with her? Look, look. She’s going back to her nest! She’s gone.

Crows are intelligent animals with the leisure time, like humans, to gossip and conjecture, and so I am an endless source of amusement for them. Likewise, they are for me. I even count crows, searching for meaning in their numbers. One for sorrow, two for mirth, Three for a wedding, four for a birth, and so on, an old nursery rhyme I used to read to my children, a nudge for them to pay attention to the natural world. This interaction between humans and non-human animals is the driving force of Zoologies, a collection of essays by poet Alison Hawthorne Deming. Armed with a gorgeous palate of words and images (Of a backyard bobcat: “The sharp indifferent eyes, the ears like cups to fill with sound, the leather cushions of the lobed paws.”) Deming contemplates our relationships with creatures as small as microbes to as large as mammoths. She does not just gaze at her navel for answers, but searches for revelations with the help of scientists, getting to the bare bones of behavior. In “Crow,” she interviews Kevin McGowan of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology about the mourning habits of the black bird with feathers that “shine like obsidian.” She is touched to find out that during the West Nile epidemic, no crow died alone. When one was dying, either its mate or some member of its family would sit by its side to the end. In a similar vein, Deming writes about her brother’s death in “Liberating the Lobster,” and how she incorporated his love of lobsters into a compensating ritual. Humans and crows alike, we connect and we grieve.

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We share a great many traits with a wide range of animals, not all so endearing. In “Murray Springs Mammoth,” Deming visits Paul Martin at the Desert Laboratory near Tucson, where they ponder an activity known as “surplus killing,” often seen in hyenas. Martin believes that the extinction of North American megafauna, like mammoths and giant sloths, was brought about by over-hunting by the human arrivistes from the Bering land bridge. Martin points out that killing, like sex and eating, must have some innate pleasure so that humans won’t starve, a joy that makes us kill beyond what is necessary to survival. “The hunters were skilled and took pleasure in their skill,” writes Deming, and so say good-bye to the giant sloth. The buffalo. The passenger pigeon.

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Greed plays no small part in human behavior, and like surplus killing, it can be over ridden by the forebrain. But will it? In “Elephant Watching,” Deming visited Africa and writes about the horrors of poaching which will certainly lead to the extinction of the species. Zoologies often reads as a eulogy to what is being lost on our watch. In “Chimera,” she writes, “For most of human history, the ability to read animals with acuity was a matter of life and death … In modern life its focus has less to do with supper than it does with an intangible sense that our lives are enriched by animal presence and our empathy is educated by their diminishment.”

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We lose species not just though hunting and greed, but inadvertently by our own cleverness, such as with the invention of plastic, which might very well be the death of our own species. Deming notes that it is possible that nature might evolve microbes—the most basic of animals—to dissolve the immortal building blocks of plastic, but it will be too late for us. “Culture is fast,” she writes, “biology slow.” Unless we start acting from our higher selves with a common purpose, humans might have already had their brief day in the sun, and the crows left high in the oaks, wondering where we all went.

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Book Review: The Soul of All Living Creatures by Vint Virga

Vint Virga’s The Soul of All Living Creatures: What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human opens with a quote from Hippocrates: “The soul is the same in all living creatures, although the body of each is different.”

Following next is an author’s note in which Virga explains why he uses the pronouns “he” and “she” when referring to animals, rather than the often-used “it,” which, as he writes, “draws a distinction between them and us and reinforces viewing them as objects rather than fellow human beings.”

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From these lovely beginnings, the book goes on to recount stories from Virga’s work in veterinary and zoological medicine, highlighting the many ways in which we humans can—and should—be more sensitive, aware, and empathetic to the animals in our care. This compassionate look at how animals tick is a great read for all animal lovers, particularly those with pets.

Virga uses both allegories and case studies to show how human compassion can help animals lead happier lives. Because many of the allegories are familiar, I’d have loved to see more case studies instead—these, to me, were most fascinating. Many of us, at some point in our lives, have lived with an animal with a few quirks (if not more serious behavioral issues), and Virga’s advice is invaluable; even if it’s specific to a particular animal, he teaches us to see the world from our pet’s point of view in order to help him or her overcome the behavior.

Virga consults with zoos as part of his work to better the lives of animals, and probably the saddest aspect of this book is that there is little to be done for animals in captivity. In one chapter, Virga writes about Sakari, a leopard living alone in a zoo. She has an entirely bald tail, which Virga attributes to stress. “In the wild, [leopards] avoid stress by retreating deeper into the jungle or climbing up into the canopy above…In captivity, however, they have nowhere to escape.”

Virga notes the importance of providing enrichment for zoo animals (“…it’s not surprising that Sakari licks her tail for hours. What else has she to do? What can she look forward to?”), and provides a case study later in the chapter that about a family who adopted successful enrichment exercises for their two wildly playful kittens. Yet, as he notes later, the “cats adjusted well to their home. Sakari did not to her habitat…Regardless of her keepers’ efforts, the limits set by Sakari’s enclosure were just too oppressive for her to overcome. It failed to meet her most basic needs.”

It’s heartening to see how much good humans can do for their pets with a little effort, yet heartbreaking to know that most zoos will never be able to provide anything like home.

There is a passing mention of animals as food—Virga writes, “When I watch others eat, I find it so curious how absently most people cut at their steak, tear off a chicken wing, or gnaw at a bone, without a thought to their prey, the abbatoir, the life that passed” — a brief but important moment in a book about the souls of all living creatures.

As Virga notes in his introduction, “this book is as much about people as animals,” and it’s one that will enlighten even the most passionate animal lovers, as well as confirm the bonds we all share.