|Brisbin is a senior ecologist on the sprawling Savannah
River Site, a huge nuclear reservation carved out of the local farmland
in the 195os by the federal government, which built reactors there for
the defense program. The reactors are shut down now, and the Savannah
site-3io square miles of mostly forest and wetlands-is a National Environmental
Research Park. Fenced off with barbed wire and closed to the
public, it is a fertile haven for wildlife despite some areas
with residual radioactivity.
Brisbin, a trim man in his late
50s with bottomless energy, is a polymath with professional interests that
range from alligators and box turtles to wood storks and furbearers.
His graduate work on the bioenergetics of reptiles and birds first led
him to study red junglefowl, the ancestors of modern chickens. And
that sparked a curiosity about the process of domestication in animals,
which in turn meshed neatly with his lifelong passion for dogs and dog
And that led him,
eventually, to Horace and Marion. Horace was a stray, white with brown
markings, found wandering in the late '70s on the boundary of the Savannah
River Site. There wasn't anything terribly special about him- he
seemed just a typical rural mutt of the sort you'd find chained to back
porches and doghouses from the Carolinas to Texas. Brisbin, whose
specialty at the time was training American Staffordshire terriers and
bloodhounds, added Horace to his kennel of show dogs, and for several years
didn't spare him much more thought.
Which is a little
odd, because Brisbin was beginning to think about feral dogs. Early
in his research on domestication, he became fascinated by the origins of
truly wild dogs, like the dingo in Australia (P- 54), a honey-gold dog
believed to have come to the island continent with humans about 4,000 years
ago. He wondered whether
Little Sister (top), a
alpha female of a captive
Carolina dog pack, rears
over tall grass to spot
before being joined by
Sam (below, in the background)
during a hunt.
|the dogs that came to North America with humans
might have been similar to dingoes, and he studied the archaeological and
anthropological evidence. And he spent his spare time learning about
the so-called pariah dogs of the Old World, which share traits with dingoes.
In many corners of Europe, Asia and
Africa, on the margins of human civilization, there are dogs lurking in
the shadows-not pampered house pets, but untamed, often malnour ished animals
scavenging for scraps and garbage, avoiding people, surviving on the edge
between wild and tame. Regardless of the setting-Afghanistan, Korea,
Malaysia, the Papua New Guinea highlands-they frequently share common attributes:
shorthaired coats that may be multi-colored but are often ginger, curled
tails, erect ears and foxlike faces. In India these animals are called
pariahs, after the low-ranking social caste, and that name has come to
be applied to such populations elsewhere. In fact,
Brisbin has defined a "pariah niche,"
a pervasive canine lifestyle that revolves around scavenging garbage near
human settlements. One winter day several years after Horace arrived,
Brisbin had him out f'or a run with his other, pedigreed dogs. That
day, for some reason, Brisbin looked beyond Horace's piebald coat to his
shape and proportions, and it struck him that the dog looked just like
a dingo, like the pariahs halfway around the world. "At that moment
everything just fell into place," he says now, 20years later.
Brisbin realized that he'd been seeing
dogs that looked like dingoes for years, roaming the woods of the Savannah
River Site, often turning up in the traps he'd set as part of his regular
forbearer surveys. On a hunch, he drove that day to an animal shelter
just to see if they had more of these dingo-like dogs.