Sacha Zimmerman Scoblic

Sacha Zimmerman Scoblic is a Washington, D.C.-based writer/editor.

Culture: Reviews
Made for Each Other
Olmert Da Capo Press, 288 pp., 2009; $26

Your dog loves you. The regular kibble, the long walks in the park and the intense games of fetch certainly help, but at the end of the day, your dog is hardwired to love you. When early humans dared to invite wolves into their caves—or perhaps followed wolves into theirs? —an evolutionary metamorphosis was set in motion. And after thousands of generations of humans and dogs hunting, working and playing together, we have each become genetically predisposed to care for the other.

But it isn’t just dogs. We share a special bond not only with our companion animals, but also with the horses we ride, the prey we hunt and the primates from whom we descend. In her new book, Made for Each Other, Meg Daley Olmert explores humanity’s connection to the animal world by drawing on myriad branches of science, from zoology and psychology to anthropology and neuroscience. And what she discovers is that our relationship to animals—what E.O. Wilson terms biophilia—has not only been practical; it has also been good for our well-being, mostly by catalyzing the release of the hormone oxytocin in humans: “[O]ur pets almost double our flow of oxytocin. We humans simply can’t reach this oxytocin high by ourselves or with the best intentions of others.… In situations where competition and territory rule, we become vulnerable to stress related illnesses. That’s when pets can be better medicine than medicine.”

Have you ever wondered why babies are instinctively drawn to animals, why centuries of early cave paintings are almost entirely composed of animals or why we are so fascinated by dolphins? The answer to all of these questions ultimately is oxytocin. Long thought simply to be the hormone of breast-feeding mothers, new research proves that men and women are both capable of making oxytocin throughout their lives. This is significant, since oxytocin can bolster our immune systems, raise our pain threshold and lower our blood pressure.

Olmert uses this incredible new understanding of oxytocin to meticulously explain how it connects us to animals. Drawing on texts as diverse as Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize–winning exploration of human societies, Guns, Germs, and Steel, and Nicholas Evans’ popular novel The Horse Whisperer (and the real horse trainer on whom the story is based), Olmert creates a compelling case for our seemingly innate attraction to animals. She then buttresses intuition with science, painstakingly detailing studies on everything from lactating rats to the skull sizes of wolves, from the effect of pets on Alzheimer’s patients to the effect of zoo animals on children with attention deficit disorder.

In fact, in a book as fascinating as Olmert’s, the sheer volume of evidence presented could be considered a flaw. By cycling through time—from quite literally the state of nature all the way to the current moment—and back again as her case unfolds, Olmert seems eager to jam in every study or scrap of thought on the topic without curating for maximum impact. Still, Made for Each Other ultimately achieves lasting value with its emotionally gripping narrative of the very intense relationships we have built with animals who have ensured our survival as a species.

Olmert ends with a call for a renewed sense of respect for our fellow travelers on this planet. In an age in which corporate farming disengages us from our primal relationships, it is easy to take animals for granted. But, Olmert is quick to remind us, “clinically speaking, animals are a homeostatic necessity. Like breathing, they can be denied for just so long.” But then, any good dog person already knows that.

Culture: Reviews
Dogs: History, Myth, Art
Harvard University Press, 208 pp., 2008; $35

When dog lovers stroll through the halls of any major museum, it’s easy to guess where their eyes will land: the foxes in a Japanese woodblock print, the magisterial canine face of the Egyptian god Anubis, the Terrier at the foot of a beggar in a European watercolor. Imagine, then, an exhibit that—instead of lingering on the vibrant colors of the Renaissance, the ancient textiles of Babylonia, or the shadows and light in a Hopper—is assembled just for the dog enthusiast with a sense of aesthetics.

In her new book, Dogs: History,Myth, Art, Catherine Johns has done just that. A retired curator of the Romano-British collections at the British Museum, Johns time-travels, picking up a Victorian brooch here, a Peruvian ceramic vessel there—each object d’art emblazoned with a dog, a wolf, a jackal. And the collection is astonishing. Hounds endlessly pursuing hares around the circumference of a pottery jar, a precise charcoal Saluki dipping her paw into a puddle— Johns’ book is alive not just with images of dogs, but also with their spirits.

Johns takes the reader on a journey behind the cute facade to the allegorical, the symbolic and even the pragmatic. Against the richness of the book’s images, one might expect to find florid language, but Johns’ tone is that of the matter-offact museum docent: “Our first reaction to the 1831 print reproduced here, of two ‘Alpine mastiffs reanimating a Traveller,’ is to roll our eyes. But this is an interesting picture.” Using each two-page spread to contrast two works, Johns’ purpose is art history, not sentimentality. Indeed, the art lover will find the book a worthy read on its own terms and not just as a vehicle to showcase dogs.

“The dog star Sirius, in the constellation of Canis Major (the greater dog), is the brightest star in the night sky.” Is this why the dog had such import to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, who each created representations of the heavenly dog on everything from coins to flatware? Perhaps. It seems that, even in relative modernity, the dog star acts as the muse of artists, leading Robert Frost, in the poem Canis Major, to call Sirius “the great Overdog, that romps through the night.” It is fitting that an Overdog soars through the evening skies; after all, in the nether world, Hades is guarded by a three-headed dog. Whether as guards or protectors, dogs are our source of comfort during times of existential quandary. Johns captures this poignancy again and again, through centuries of great art.

With a layout as elegant as the subject matter (presented in an attractive compact format), this book could easily be slipped in among your other coffee table tomes—something to casually peek at from time to time. And while Johns’ clipped timbre may not inspire you to curl up with your dog and get lost in the prose, there is fascinating information here for the discerning amant de chien. Like the voices we often hear wafting through the museum, Johns’ book is the hushed narrative of the tour guide pointing out the best details—such as how, in ancient Mesopotamia, dogs were thought to act as children’s guides to the afterlife because they were ferocious enough to protect but playful enough to delight; how the jackals carved on Egyptian jewelry were said to protect the wearer; how dogs are often depicted sleeping because that is when they are finally still. Of course, it’s more enjoyable to listen to that knowing guide when your eyes don’t have to do the work of reading but can simply soak up the heraldry of the Pointer, the innocence of the Pug, the leonine quality of the Pekingese; barring that, however, Johns provides an excellent alternative.