Better care for old friends

A new study just published in the journal, Science, posits that dogs may have been domesticated as early as 32,100 years ago. The authors, led by Olaf Thalmann, researcher at Finland’s University of Turku, argue that man’s best friend started down the present course by befriending members of European hunter-gatherer cultures.

Interestingly, this assertion is somewhat controversial. Until now the prevailing idea was that wolves were domesticated near human agricultural settlements in the Middle East or Asia. As the older theory contends, the presence of agriculture provided a more consistent lure of food for the animals.

As Thalmann told “There were many aspects of the study we did not except.”

Apart from the European origins of modern dogs, the researchers made a number of other surprising discoveries. The fecundity of revelations likely owes to advances in the genetic test used by the team.

Researchers extracted and sequenced mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondria are structures in cells that convert food energy into usable forms. Scientists recovered DNA fragments from the genomes of 18 prehistoric dog and wolf-like carnivores and 20 modern wolves with origins in Eurasia and America. Researchers compared these mitochondrial genome sequences with those of 49 wolves, 77 modern dogs, three Chinese indigenous dogs and four coyotes.

Using the genetic similarities between the genomes as a baseline, scientists were able to detect and highlight important difference. They then binned the samples into groups they call “clades.” The more alike any two subject were genetically, the closer they would be in the clade.

Researchers separated samples into four clades, with three having sister species represented by ancient fossils from Europe, and the fourth relating to modern wolves as well. Based on these groupings, it appears that the oldest domesticated dogs were of European origin.

On this side of the globe, the history of dogs is equally remarkable. Of the four groups, one termed, “Clade A” includes representatives of modern Basenji and Dingo breeds as well as some pre-Colombian dogs that date back as far as 8,500 BCE. Thalmann and his team conclude that the ancient dogs of the Americas were already domesticated when they got there, having arrived with humans.

All of this suggests that the dog-human bond is an especially enduring and deep one. They have traveled across time and across the world with us. Recent surveys have revealed that Arkansans have a higher average number of dogs in their households than any other state. In short, we seem to get it. Dogs are an important and joyful part of our culture.

Oddly enough, you sure can’t tell it by the prevailing standards of animal welfare here in Pine Bluff. Packs of dogs roam the streets. Dogs killed in traffic dot the public roadways. You can still find a dog kept on a chain or a rope — which is illegal — but seemingly unenforced.

More tragically, Pine Bluff Animal Control kills a hundred dogs each month, because they don’t have the resources to shelter them. Yes, the preferred term is “euthanizes” but such sterilized terminology detaches us from the reality of it. Somebody sticks a needle in the paw of a discarded sentient being and it dies. That’s hardly a fitting way to treat man’s oldest and closest friend.

We’ve all heard the famous line form Mahatma Ghandi, “The measure of a country’s greatness should be based on how well it cares for its most vulnerable populations.”

What then do these standards say about our local greatness? Our oldest friends deserve better.