Winter 2016

Animal Behavior

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Walking the dog has been my daily ritual for the better part of 20 years. Our current mutt — a pint-sized rat terrier/blue healer mix named Roo — loyally defends her home turf and isn’t kind to strangers. When neighbor kids ask if they can pet the cute dog with the inquisitive face, I thank them for checking with me and warn them away. And when an untended and out-of-control member of her kind bounds toward her, Roo becomes all teeth and snarls.

I keep her on a short leash and take her out at night. An animal behaviorist told us that she is “fear aggressive” and prescribed Prozac — for the dog, not for the owners.

At home, Roo amuses us and keeps the rodents under control, but a reasonable person might say the world would be better off without an animal like this. After all, there are plenty of other dogs — meek, mild and friendly to a tongue-lapping fault — that die unwanted in shelters. There’s the risk that, in a moment of the owners’ inattention, Roo could inflict harm. Just to go on vacation, we train our pet sitters.

Of course, our relationship to animals is not that simple. It carries caveats and conditions. Our own safety and welfare come first, but these creatures rely on us and deserve kindness and respect. For many people, pets take the edges off a rough day. They provide warmth and companionship. They are nothing less than family members.

If you step outside that circle and consider how we interact with animals in other circumstances — scientists and research subjects, hunters and prey, ranchers and livestock — these relationships become more complex. Our decisions carry implications for health, livelihoods, communities and the environment as well as for the well-being of the animals. Ethical principles — whether codified in law or community practice — guide decisions in each of these arenas and evolve with social norms. Our ancestors earned bounties for killing wolves and other wildlife. Now we are restoring predators to parts of their historical habitats. The Oregon Wolf Conservation and Management Plan walks a line between ranchers’ needs and the intrinsic value of a key species.

This issue of Terra explores these relationships through studies of predators, grazing and rangeland vegetation and through the literary lens of an Oregon State essayist. We hope you enjoy the journey as much as we did.

Nick Houtman