In the thousands of years since we tamed wolves (sort of), humans have developed astonishing, at times unusual, bonds with animals, from cats and dogs to capybaras, and from adopting them as pets to marrying them for life.
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Have you ever looked into a puppy’s eyes and felt your heart turning into hot jelly? There is real science behind that feeling: a study published by the US Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and titled Evolution of facial muscle anatomy in dogs, explains that “domestication transformed the facial muscle anatomy of dogs specifically for facial communication with humans”.
Yes, those eyebrows à la Puss in Boots are a direct product of evolution, that “increases paedomorphism – (which is when adults still have or feature juvenile traits or characters) – and resembles an expression humans produce when sad, so its production in dogs may trigger a nurturing response”.
The study, which was based on the dissection of dog and wolf heads and the collection of behavioural data, found that dogs’ eyebrows that tip sturdily and increase the intensity of the eyes only appeared once dogs were domesticated – a trait that is never found in wolves. Dogs were “shaped during the course of domestication both in their behaviour and in their anatomical features” and domestication transformed the facial muscle anatomy of dogs specifically so they could communicate with humans.
Obviously, the process didn’t happen in a day; it took thousands of years for humans to domesticate animals – and domestication didn’t start with puppies.
A paper written by Mikhail V Sablin and Gennady A Khlopachev from the Zoological Institute and Russian Academy of Sciences in 2002, titled The Earliest Ice Age Dogs, notes that “most archaeologists and palaeontologists believe that humans first tamed wolves before the end of the Pleistocene,” the time between 2,6-million and 11,700 years ago (to be precise), which was an era of repeated glaciations.
Domestication of wolves was indirect: wolves followed humans, or more precisely, they followed the scraps of food humans left behind. It seems that humans’ first known domesticated animals were goats (8,000 BC), while horses followed around 3500 BC, mainly because of agriculture and the need for transport and carriages.
Slate’s Explainer says that somewhere in between (7,000 BC) the cat graced us with its churlish presence. By then, humans “collected and stored grain,” which attracted mice; our fuzzy friends tailed behind. We tailed after our fuzzy friends.
An interesting fact about cats: those eyebrows dogs adopted through evolution to better communicate with humans? In real life, and unlike the aforementioned Puss in Boots, cats did not follow the trend. Anatomist Anne Burrows, who is based at Duquesne University, in Pittsburgh US, explains in an interview with the New York Times that “horses have facial movements similar to dogs, but cats do not. It turned out they just don’t really move their faces at all.”
Intensely tipped eyebrows or not, fast-forward to many centuries later and humans have not only formed long-lasting relationships with animals, from dogs and cats to pygmy goats, and Jessica the hippo (who has her own website and lives near Hoedspruit), we are also marrying, role-playing and cloning them.
Stories of humans marrying their pets, or rather marrying animals, first appeared in ancient myths and folktales, often depicting the relationships between animal-gods or animal-spirits and humans.
But today, humans and their pets symbolically tie the knot the world around. Although the practice isn’t legal, it doesn’t stop humans from “spiritually” getting married to their pet, some in more dramatic circumstances than others.
In 2006, Charles Tombe is “forced” to marry “Rose”, after he was caught with the goat (we’ll spare you the details) in Juba, South Sudan. The BBC first picked up the story, and the rest was a viral downpour of inappropriate content.
Three years later, on the other side of the world, 43-year-old Wilhelmina Morgan Callaghan, from Northern Ireland, marries her dog Henry, because “dogs are better than men,” she told the Independent.And in 2010, 20-year-old Joe Guiso weds his golden retriever in Australia, the groom wearing a suit, the bride-dog a veil-like cape.
More recently, in February 2019, Choupette, Karl Lagerfeld’s seven-year old Birman cat, who has an Instagram account and 283,000 followers, her own iPad, and two personal maids, Françoise and Marjorie, made the world’s celebrity gossip headlines as she inherited the designer’s fortune. The affair became a legal jigsaw for French lawmakers who did not have regulations for when cats inherit their owner’s money.
Yet, even being married to your pet may not allow you to bring it with you everywhere you go. But owning an emotional support animal (ESA) might.
There is a difference between service animals, that are trained to perform specific tasks and can follow their owner everywhere, and ESAs, that provide comfort to their owner; yet, more and more people with ESAs want their animal to follow them wherever they go, which sometimes poses issues, especially as the number of ESAs has increased drastically in the last few years.
An article in the New York Times found that the National Service Animal Registry, “a [US] for-profit company that sells official-looking vests and certificates for owners”, had “2,400 service and emotional support animals in its registry. Now the number is nearly 200,000.”
While you may well find a peacock on the seat next to you on a flight to New York or a miniature horse front row on Alaska Airlines, in South Africa, “emotional support and medical alert dogs in SA do not have this right of admission yet.
“There is no officially recognised or registered system relating to assistance dogs for these conditions and circumstantial evaluation of each instance will be needed”, says Dr Magdie van Heerden a human-animal interaction practitioner, and veterinary social worker at Pets as Therapy Worcester.
There is no doubt that pets play an important role in many humans’ lives: be it emotional, physical or simply one of companionship. In South Africa alone, the recorded number of dogs in 2018 was over nine million.
For countless people, their loss can be a troubling event. And for those who can afford it, cloning a lost pet can be a tempting solution.
In July 1996, Dolly the Sheep became the first-ever mammal to be cloned, her “creation” sparking controversy and awe. She died seven years later from arthritis and lung disease.
Since Dolly, there were other attempts (and some successes) at cloning horses, rats, rabbits and in 2005, a dog, named Snuppy, a cloned male Afghan hound. It took 1,095 eggs from 122 dogs to get the cloning right.
In 2018, Barbra Streisand confirmed she had cloned her 14-year-old Coton de Tulear, Sammie, into two new dogs.
“They have different personalities… I’m waiting for them to get older so I can see if they have her brown eyes and her seriousness,” she said in an interview with Variety. It cost her $50,000 (R733,000) to create Miss Violet and Miss Scarlett cloned from cells taken from the mouth and stomach of her late dog Samantha.
Keen to try? It will cost you more than half a million rand and some patience as the cloning process doesn’t work in over 60% of the time. Till then, as Groucho Marx once said, “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read”.
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