The 80-plus-year-old writer Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has a new book, A Million Years with You: A Memoir of Life Observed. We had the opportunity to ask her a few questions about her amazing life and her observations of the natural world.
Bark: What first drew you to dogs?
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas: Our family always had dogs. I grew up with dogs, and one of them, a Newfoundland named Mishka, was our nanny.
Bark: In this book, you write that the Bushmen regarded and respected lions, and were rarely attacked by them, unlike their pastoralist neighbors, who attacked lions and, in turn, were attacked by them. Do you think the same dynamic may have existed between early humans and wolves (and protodogs)?
Thomas: A study was done in the 1970s that found no attacks on people by wild wolves except for a man who dressed himself as a bear cub and rolled around on the ground as if he were injured or ill. Wolves attacked him, but that should come as no surprise —they thought he was an injured bear cub. I [once] spent a summer alone in a small cave on Baffin Island next to a pack of denning wolves. They could have had me for lunch, but they never as much as threatened me. They did tear up my [anti-mosquito] head-net and a sweater, but I had carelessly left these at my lookout post on top of a hill. Those wolves worked very hard to find enough to eat, and I would have been easy prey if they had decided to attack me. Now and then, they would come to my cave to look things over, but always when I was asleep. I felt no fear of them whatever. They, on the other hand, felt cautious of me but tolerated my presence very well. If they were worried about me, they would have taken their pups and moved to another den. But no, they stayed. I don’t think it’s known why wolves seldom, if ever, attack people.
Bark: The Hidden Life of Dogs was perhaps the first best-selling dog book; have you been surprised by how many have followed? And do you still believe that dogs “want” other dogs?
Thomas: I don’t have an answer for the popularity of dog books, but I do think that dogs enjoy the company of other dogs because, like wolves, they are highly social animals. We, their owners, could almost be called surrogate dogs, usually in the role of pack leaders, but not always.
Bark: What do you think inspires our ongoing fascination with dogs?
Thomas: One reason might be that dogs represent something “other.” They are perfectly comfortable with people, but they are not people. Dogs fascinate me because they are windows to the natural world—they have thoughts, dreams and emotions; they make plans just as we do. What this tells us is that human beings are not the only creatures to have such abilities and do such things. To a great extent, dogs show us the “one-ness” of the animal kingdom.