News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Death by dog pack

Over a week ago,  a 49-year-old mother of five, Julia Charging Whirlwind,  was killed by a pack of dogs on the Rosebud Reservation.   In November, 8-year-old Jayla Rodriguez was killed by a dog pack on the Pine Ridge reservation.  There are a number of reports of dog pack attacks throughout the nation, some of them in crowded urban areas. 

The accounts of these attacks do not include photographs which show the injuries which  produced the deaths.  Most people could not stomach them.  If one googles "dog pack attacks,"  one will find many bits of internet advice on how to handle mass canine assaults.  Many of them are based upon theories of animal behavior.  A favorite theory is that dogs or their relatives will not attack humans unless they or their pack are threatened somehow.  However, ethologists, the scientists who study animal behavior, tend to differ. One of my first experiences with dog pack attacks introduced me to an ethologist who explained a science-based theory of why they happen.

I was the farm editor of an Illinois newspaper when I received a very early-morning call from Hank, a distant relative and friend of mine who was the county conservation officer, known in more colloquial terms as a game warden.  He said he was at the scene of the killing of more than 80 sheep by animal attacks.  I grabbed my camera and notebook and took off for the farm where the incident happened.  When I got there, many law-enforcement agents were surveying the scene and speculating on what produced this massacre of sheep.  The idea of a wolf pack which had come into the area was among the first theories raised, but Hank said that was not likely.  He said wolves left the region more than a century ago and the sighting of single wolf wandering through had not been made for 30 years.  Then the likely culprits raised were mountain lions.  Hank said there might be a few around, but they did not run in packs and did not engage in such mass slaughter.
A sheep killed by a dog pack.

Law enforcement was baffled, but at the outset Hank had his suspicions and called for the help of a well-known scientist who worked for a federal agency downstate and was often called in for cases of this kind.  He made it to the scene that morning and made a methodical survey.  Like Hank, he had a suspicion of the most likely participants in the slaughter and sorted out the evidence.  He found tracks.  They were canine tracks, but of different sizes.  He and Hank talked the sheriff's deputies and the state police into canvassing the nearby farms for dogs.  Within a very short period of time, he started receiving reports from the canvassers and visited the farms.  A number of the dogs on those farms had blood-stained muzzles, and he asked that they be gathered  together.  He also interviewed the farm families.

Some of the teenagers who were out at nights noted that the farm dogs tended to visit each other and gather into a  pack at night.  As the ethologist observed and examined the dogs when brought together, he was able to find evidence of which dogs participated in the sheep slaughter and determine which dog was the leader of the pack.  It was a German Shepherd, which identification made the owner furious.  But the ethologist was able to make a detailed reconstruction of the incident and put it in the context of hundreds of reports of such incidents his agency had gathered.

His explanation was that dogs descend from predators and retain some of the instincts involved in their survival.  Dogs which have been bred for their aggressive traits are usually the ones involved in attacks against humans.  But as dogs are social animals and tend to pack, they can revert back to predatory behavior when they get together.  Like humans who get a thrill from hunting, even though they aren't hunting for food,  dogs can take a kind of joyous delight in rampaging.  That is what happened to the 80-some sheep.  The dogs reverted to their packing and hunting instincts.

Many years later, the ethologist came to a campus where I was teaching at the invitation of a biologist who was teaching a unit on animal behavior.  It was a beautiful spring day, late in the afternoon, and the biologist, ethologist, and I were walking to the union for coffee when the ethologist had finished talking to a class.  The time was during the hippy era, and students were cavorting in an open field by the union, doing everything from flying kites, letting their children romp, romping themselves, and having a toque or two.  Some of them had very young children and the inevitable dogs with them.  The children were running and playing with the dogs, when we noticed that one dog was getting excited and playing rather roughly with a little girl. Then another dog joined in the action, and the ethologist said, "Oh, oh, that little girl is going to get hurt."  He ran over to the child just as the dogs had pushed her down and were jumping on her in what seemed like play.  The child was crying at this point.  The ethologist grabbed the child and shooed the dogs away, and the girl's mother came over.  The ethologist explained to the young mother that what seemed like play was turning into a mauling by the dogs, and the dogs needed to be controlled and their behavior needed to be discouraged.  When dogs revert to pack behavior, they can attack humans whether they are in danger or not.  They revert to behavior which is a characteristic of the species.  As the ethologist explained, the drive to hunt and the drive to attain some level of dominance within the pack combines and subverts the gentler behaviors of domestication. 

The dog attacks on the reservations are being addressed by tribal authorities.  But the problem is one that pet-owners and dog fanciers tend to dismiss.  In the domestication of dogs, the inherent instincts of social, predatory animals are modified, not changed.  One of the things that makes dogs such good companions is that they are loyal to the pack and obedient to the alpha member of the pack.  This loyalty and responsiveness is used for work such as shepherding, guiding, and guarding.  The need to fit into a pack is what makes some dogs such excellent and dependable members of a family.  But like humans, dogs are individuals.  Their temperaments vary.  They may  be great friends and guardians to a single person or family, while being dangerous to others.  Their domestic purposes dominate their personalities,  but they can revert to the tactics of predation and the struggles for dominance.  And in many cases, dogs reflect the intentions of their owners,  whether gentle or vicious.  

While we may condemn what dogs do when they form packs, we tend to place what humans do when they revert on a higher level.  The epithet that someone behaves like an animal is, as Mark Twain pointed out, a fallacy.  When it comes to depravity and viciousness, animals have yet to reach the accomplishments of humans in that regard.  Humans, too, revert to a primitive and vicious mentality, and when they pack together akin to dog packs or chicken flocks, their vicious streak dominates.  
One of the things that the social and digital media have done is make dog-packing much easier with fewer restraining influences to impede it.  Evidence of that is in comment sections on news pages and blogs.  A characteristic of most of the comments is the absence of mind and the verbal rampage characterized by hate and malevolence.  What readers are witnessed is the reptilian cortex of the human brain taking dominance over the layers of brain cortex that comprise what we might call the more humane developments in the species of mankind.  
  Mass shootings and other atrocities of the disciples of the gun and the jihadists aside, the darker and primitive side of human nature  on full display on the Internet, as people lash out like threatened snakes.  In many people and in many instances,  the reptilian cortex is triumphant.    The human legacies of thought, compassion, education, and literacy are overruled by the need for concerted hate and dominance over others.

We may note and cluck our tonques over the dog packs on the reservations but shrug our shoulders in submission over the things that characterize the antics of the South Dakota legislature and the U. S Congress,  as we witness intellectual death by the dog pack there. 

1 comment:

Jeff Barth said...

I have seen family dogs "pack up" and behave in a threatening manner.
40 years ago I worked on a lake near Minneapolis. Walking to work I took a shortcut on the frozen lake. A group of seven or eight dogs surrounded me a few hundred yards from shore. The pack included a beagle, a collie and a St. Bernard. They made a circle around me like the digits on an analog clock. The St. Bernard was getting closer and closer to my back.
I was bundled up with leather mittens and a heavy scarf on my neck. I knew I was also a big animal and could fight. As we walked along I would turn and menace the dog behind. I did not run.
I made it safely and I'm sure the dogs went home and had a treat.

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