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Socializing Humans

"Wolves domesticated us in Paleolithic times, not the other way around. They learned to understand us and used that knowledge to insinuate themselves into human social groups."
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We fear what we don't understand. Fearlessness includes empathy.

Looking for an empathy-mentor? Many come with waggy tails. "Empathy is key in most mammals and birds," reports Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. "They use it to great effect in dealing with other creatures, as any pet owner knows. Sadness, happiness, fear -- somehow, the animal knows what those signals mean when they see them in somebody else. They can tell if you are grieving or happy or whatever. They will join you. Or do the appropriate thing, act in an appropriate manner.

"Wolves domesticated us in Paleolithic times, not the other way around. They learned to understand us and used that knowledge to insinuate themselves into human social groups, often becoming integral parts of the tribe. Unfortunately, humans have also exploited the relationship. Now dogs are our slaves," Ms. Thomas observes.

"We own dogs. We can kill them if we want to, without consequence to ourselves. We take their children. We sell and buy them. It's considered desirable to make a dog do whatever we want. What few laws there are to protect any animal are only protection from extreme brutality, rarely enforced, with inconsequential penalties. Dogs have no hope of freedom. If that's not a slave, I don't know what is."

That kind of absolute power carries special obligations, Ms. Thomas insists. And beware all "dog fascists" "Too many people have an overwhelming and inappropriate need to control dogs. Dogs are neither babies nor inherently bad. Consider what has happened to your dog and respect its experience, even if circumstances keep you from knowing the details. With observation, the dog may reveal it in part. Our pets are individuals. They deserve our respect. As much as we have altered dogs' appearance, they have never lost their wolfish souls."

Ms. Thomas' fame was established with The Hidden Life of Dogs and Tribe of Tiger. Her standing among the elite of anthropology -- those who study the human animal -- has now been forever cemented with the release of her long awaited masterpiece, The Old Way.

Forget sentimentality, this woman embodies fearlessness ... and empathy. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas calls 'em as she sees 'em. She also shows her own fine-tuned empathy by telling the stories of individuals often invisible to a fast-paced world -- canine, feline, avian, or the Kalahari Bushmen with whom she and her family lived in the 1950s, the first white people ever to do so.

For more, listen to the incomparable Elizabeth Marshall Thomas in Conversation with Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, at "The Paula Gordon Show" website.