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Tamed/Untamed

Our pets have lives beyond the one with us

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We couldn’t figure it out. Many nights a week — sometimes at midnight, sometimes 2 or 4 a.m. — our border collie, Sally, who slept all night in our bed with us, suddenly erupted into explosive barking. Since she slept with her head on our pillow, her voice was directly in our ears. Naturally we longed to discern the cause of her excitement. But her voice was so loud we couldn’t hear anything else.

One cold night, I got up and went outside to look around. There was a fox standing in the street, looking up at our bedroom window and screaming.

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Now I understood. This was a dispute about the Smell Lane.

The Smell Lane is what I call the route of Sally’s and my morning walk together. It runs through a neighbor’s back yard, crossing a footbridge over Moose Brook, though a woods of ferns and hemlocks before going over a second footbridge and circling back toward home. Lots of animals use this route, and I always look for signs: the pawprints and tail drags of mice, the scales of pine cones left by red squirrels, the half-moons of deer hooves, the dino-prints and black and white scats of turkeys (you can even tell the sex of the individual who left it — the males’ are J-shaped).

But it’s Sally who knows them all. A dog’s sense of smell has been estimated to be 10,000 to 200,000 times as acute as our own. Experts have likened dogs’ scenting superpowers to being able to taste a half teaspoon of sugar in an Olympic swimming pool of water (Barnard College dog researcher Alexandra Horowitz), or being able to see an object 3,000 miles away (James Walker, formerly of the Sensory Research Institute). Sally stops many dozens of times on our half-hour walk to carefully smell who was there. How I wish she could tell me what she knows!

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All dogs are interested in smelling the world, and some — coon hounds, search and rescue dogs — are professionals. But I had never met an amateur who was as interested as Sally, especially a female. It may have had to do with her past. Before she came to us, we were told, Sally came from a “bad neighborhood.” Did this mean she came from a town known for crime or drug use? Low test scores in the schools? No, we were told: the neighborhood was bad because it was full of coyotes. We learned Sally had often run away from her previous owners. But she was lucky to return, because there were so many coyotes where she lived that not only cats, but also dogs, were known to have fallen prey to these wild canids — actually crosses between western coyotes and northern wolves, combining the adaptability and smarts of the coyote with the strength and group culture of the wolf.

For Sally, knowing all the individuals of different species in her old neighborhood may have been a matter of life and death. Hence, perhaps, her unusual preoccupation with the comings of the goings along the Smell Lane. The fox screaming beneath our window was surely somebody she knew. And who knew her. Though they had never met, they had been carrying on a meaningful correspondence.

Foxes, who like wolves and dogs are canids, hold territories (100 acres or more). In the summer, they may be protecting their dens, and in the winter, when their diet changes from mainly berries and insects to birds and small mammals, they are probably posting “keep out” on their hunting grounds. They mark the boundaries of their territory by spraying urine on prominent rocks and trees, and less frequently, leaving piles of their small-dog-like feces. The scent of fox urine is so strong even I could detect the sweet, skunky scent along our walk. And I had noticed that Sally made a point of marking over these “keep out” signs. (She marks more than any female of any species I have ever known.)

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So this, I suspect, is what brought the fox to scream at our dog from under our bedroom window those nights: Sally had been wrecking the fox’s keep out signs, and the fox was having none of it.

Our domestic animals can straddle two worlds: those of their human families, and those of their animal neighbors. Sometimes, they can tell us about the larger, wilder world outside our walls and windows. Once, avian intelligence researcher Irene Pepperberg, now of Harvard, took her famous talking African grey parrot, Alex, home with her from the lab. Alex had been taught to speak English meaningfully, and knew hundreds of words. From his trainer’s picture window, Alex looked out and saw, for the first time in his life, an owl. He began to scream, “Want to go back! Want to go back!”

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Alex knew, from instincts stretching back millions of years, to the ancestors of parrots and the ancestors of owls, that owls are dangerous predators. He was telling his trainer about his ancient, instinctual knowledge in a human language he learned in a 21st century university laboratory.

And this is one of the many miracles of living with even the most common of pets. Once in a while, they can give us a glimpse of the unseen lives of our unknown neighbors — wild animals who near at hand but, at least by humans, are little understood.

As for our Sally, foxes no longer wake her in the night; she’s gone deaf with old age, not uncommon with border collies. But she doesn’t miss much. Every morning she and I still walk the Smell Lane, where, with her exquisite nose, she reads the morning mail.


Sy Montgomery is a naturalist and the author of many books. Submit your questions about animals to syandlizletters@gmail.com.