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The Great (Unknown) Pet Massacre

The title of this book almost begs incredulity.

The Great Cat & Dog Massacre?

When I first saw the book cover I struggled to imagine what the book was about exactly. One of the pictures features men in helmets carrying animals, so I initially assumed the massacre was the result of bombings.

But, no. This massacre — and it was indeed a massacre — was entirely self inflicted. 

During the earliest days of the war, British citizens killed their pets. Not because the government asked them to. Not because veterinarians asked them to. But because, for lack of a better word, they panicked.

It was September 1939. The bombing was still many months away. But, the people could not know this. They knew only that war was imminent, that bombs would eventually fall, that Germans could wash ashore at any moment. And many people thought it wiser to put their companion animals to death than risk the great unknown that awaited. And, given human nature, a stampede soon developed.

In less than a week approximately 400,000 cats and dogs, bunnies and birds were put to death. The run on shelters was so great that one shelter saw a line of people and their pets a half-mile long. Shelters ran out of chloroform and animals were buried in mass graves. Vets pleaded with people to rethink their decisions but a mania of sorts spread through communities rich and poor. In the end, roughly 26% of all London cats and dogs were put to death.

This book clearly illustrates how the widely accepted narrative of Brits keeping calm and carrying on was not all that it was cracked up to be.

Author Hilda Kean does a thorough job of collecting anecdotes, letters, news clippings that collectively shed light on the many experiences of pet owners, their children, vets, animal rescuers, politicians, and the animals themselves. Because this was not a phenomenon that was widely publicized and, after the war, was quickly forgotten, this book provides an important historical record.

I particularly appreciated the focus on the animals themselves — how their lives were so often an afterthought. How animals became just another element of the virtual war with the Germans, a war that was as much about “civilization” as anything else. At the time, the Germans were vilified for their poor treatment of animals, so it became incumbent upon the English to rise above. How should a civilized people treat its animal companions? This is a question that was debated then — and is still rightfully being debated today.

There are many sad stories in this book. Such as the accounts of children who lost their pets, often for reasons not at all made clear by their parents. And there are stories of parents who took a hands-on approach to killing their pets, which was equally traumatic on not only the children but, in some cases, the parents as well.

Now it is likely that a number of these animals would have died during the years of German bombings. More than 60,000 citizens died during that six-year span. But how much more difficult were those years for the people who so quickly sacrificed their companions? This was a tragedy during a time of so many tragedies. And this book does a service to those animals who gave their lives before their time.

The Great Cat and Dog Massacre: The Real Story of World War Two’s Unknown Tragedy (Animal Lives)

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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: Just Life

When I read a New York Times story about a New York City neighborhood grappling with a rare animal-borne disease that killed one resident and left at least two others seriously ill, it was, for me, a tragic case of life imitating art. You see, I’d recently finished Neil Abramson’s Just Life, a fast-paced fictional tale in which a mysterious and deadly zoonotic disease is spreading through a neighborhood on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In the Times’ story, medical officials concluded the disease—leptospirosis—was being spread by rats. In the novel, Abramson challenges readers by asking this: What if an animal-borne disease isn’t transmitted by rats or squirrels or birds or raccoons? What if the carrier is the family dog?

Dogs are the whole of veterinarian Samantha Lewis’s life. Her mother is dead, she’s estranged from her father, and she has little time for friends, lovers, or her shrink, whose diagnosis—that Sam has undealt-with-anger issues—she terms a “load of crap.” Sam devotes all her energy to running her New York City shelter for abandoned and abused dogs. It’s thankless work that keeps her questioning the humanity of her fellow humans, keeps “her expecting the people out there to care and being disappointed when they didn’t, of the flow of the unwanted and the rejected, of all the goddamn cages[.]”

Now the city is threatening to shut down Sam’s shelter—whether or not she can find homes for her dogs. And she doesn’t know why.

It’s during Sam’s campaign to save the shelter that an unidentified virus begins taking the lives of children in Riverside, the Manhattan neighborhood in which Sam’s shelter is located. When tests point to dogs as carriers of the deadly virus, New York’s politically-ambitious governor orders the NYPD and the National Guard to quarantine the neighborhood. Sam fears the quarantine is just the beginning. She knows that government-imposed responses to zoonotic-based diseases always follow the same trajectory: Quarantine. Cull. Kill.

Sam’s mission is now not only to save her dogs, but all the dogs in Riverside, and to uncover what’s making the local dogs sick. Sam gets help from a motley crew of fellow dog lovers, all of whom, like Sam and her shelter dogs, are seeking sanctuary from their own troubled pasts. There’s the local police officer mourning the tragic death of his K-9 partner, the homeless teen emancipated from the city’s foster-care system, the elderly priest fighting the onset of dementia, and the psychologist whose drug addiction ended her career.

While Just Life offers readers a page-turner of a plot, the novel’s strength lies in Abramson’s depictions of the human-canine relationship at its most beautiful and enduring, and also at its most ugly—in the abuse and abandonment of hundreds of thousands of dogs each year, in their euthanization in crowded shelters, and in their callous treatment as subjects in research experiments.

It’s through mining this ugliness that Abramson brings forth the novel’s heartfelt message: that too often “…we refuse to acknowledge—[humans and animals] are all the same in the most material ways; we are all just life.”

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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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Book Review: The Dog Merchants

The Dog MerchantsMost dog lovers consider their canines loyal companions, best friends, or beloved family members. (Count me in that last category.) The American legal system considers them property. Journalist Kim Kavin, in her new book, The Dog Merchants: Inside the Big Business of Breeders, Pet Stores, and Rescuers, suggests that we view dogs in a more provocative way—as products, not unlike the chicken and steak, veal and pork, that line “that big case of meat in the supermarket.” After all, she tells readers, some thirty million dogs are bought and sold each year, in what is estimated to be an $11 billion-a-year global marketplace.

The Dog Merchants is not Kavin’s first foray into the business of dogs. She began digging into the issue for the book Little Boy Blue, which focuses on America’s taxpayer-funded animal shelters and the burgeoning rescue movement. What she learned doing that research inspired her to look beyond shelter dogs to the myriad ways dogs are sold worldwide, be it by breeders, pet stores, animal shelters, rescue groups, or dog auctions. In all of these transactions—whether they are called purchases or adoptions—dogs are exchanged for dollars. And all those dogs exchanged for all those dollars add up to an industry the scope of which is larger than most dog lovers realize and that goes virtually unregulated—too often to the detriment of the dogs.

In researching The Dog Merchants, Kavin’s mantra was follow the money, so among the places she takes readers is the largest dog auction in the United States, where both breeders and rescues bid on purebreds. The breeders, of course, bid for dogs they want to breed and sell. The rescues bid for dogs they want to keep from being bred. In the end, their bidding drives up the cost of each dog.

Kavin also goes behind the scenes of the 138th Annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, where Sky, the winning Wire Fox Terrier, is “a dog in whom wealthy people owned shares, like a corporation.”

In the introduction, Kavin says she’s not on the side of the breeders or the rescuers—“I’m on the side of the dogs”—but breeders and buyers of dogs bred for shows like Westminster, where judging focuses solely on appearance, receive Kavin’s harshest scrutiny. That scrutiny, however, is well deserved. Modern dog breeds, which date to 19th century England, were bred for looks not temperament. The ramifications of that kind of breeding, which continues today via the breed standards propagated by kennel clubs, leaves dogs at risk for birth defects and genetically inherited health problems. Indeed, Kavin reports that a British study found inbreeding in ten popular breeds, including Boxers, German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, and Labrador Retrievers. And then there’s this striking factoid: The 2003 winner of Britain’s version of the Westminster dog show, a Pekingese named Danny, suffered so badly from a breathing problem common to dogs bred to have flat snouts that he’d undergone surgery to help him breathe and to cool himself. Kavin writes, “Anyone who looks closely at some of [Danny’s] winning photos … will see that he had to be placed on an ice pack while posing next to the trophy, so he wouldn’t overheat before the photographers were done making him a star, one who would now be in demand worldwide as a stud to breed more dogs just like him.”

The idea of dogs as products—and dog owners as consumers—may strike some as objectionable, but Kavin, herself a long-time dog-lover and dog owner, says it shouldn’t. Rather, she argues that viewing dogs through an economic lens gives dog lovers the clout to force the multi-billion-dollar industry to raise standards. “I believe that no matter how much all of us love our pups, thinking of them as products—just like so many of the sellers do—is the only way we can truly change the dog industry for the better.”

To help consumers make smart decisions about future pets, Kavin includes questions want-to-be-dog-owners should ask before buying from a breeder or adopting from a shelter or rescue. She’s also created a companion website, dogmerchants.com, where dog owners can research and review breeders and rescues.

Kavin’s bottom line is this: Dog lovers don’t need to be involved in dog rescue to make a difference in dogs’ lives. (Though, of course, if you have time to volunteer, shelters and rescues are always looking for the extra help.) What dog lovers need to be is smart shoppers, because only through the collective power of our purchases can we begin to demand the kind of treatment all dogs deserve.

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