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FROM THE EDITOR

by: ERIC NORBERG - Ms. Drew, making one of her personal appearances at a benefit street dinner outside Jakes Famous Crawfish, downtown, in the summer of 2011.They say that the very first “domesticated animal” was the dog: The wolf, who decided to befriend the bipeds that also roamed the land. In those days, the dog was a wolf, and the bipeds included Neanderthals…or perhaps even-more-distant ancestors of ours.

Archeologists and geneticists have been trying to pin down the time, 12,000 to 25,000 years ago or so, when wolves began hanging around with humankind. But, in a fascinating, provocative, and well-documented book called “How the Dog Became the Dog”, author Mark Derr offers reason to believe it could have happened far earlier than researchers have been thinking: Maybe a hundred thousand years ago. Maybe a million. What is certain is that this long association has led to dogs which, while remaining members of the same species as wolves, have learned to read and understand us so well that when we point, they look. (Even monkeys don’t do that.) When we make an imperceptible signal, they respond. And when we talk to them, to a greater or lesser extent, they know what we said.

Yet, we tend to think of them as less intelligent than we are. In fact, we think of everything as being less intelligent than we are! For example, the ability to have and use language is a human trait, so that is what we humans consider the hallmark of the top intelligence on earth. For us, that is innate – we are born with the equipment and the instinct to communicate that way. The lack of a larynx in other animals is NOT a measure of intelligence, however – it is a matter of factory equipment. Intelligence is what goes on in the mind. And what provoked this little essay is our fourteen years as companion to Ms. Drew – a long-haired German Shepherd who entered our family as a puppy in the summer of 1999, and who – after successfully battling degenerative neuropathy (only recently diagnosed) for the past five years – suffered a herniated disc in her spine just before Thanksgiving and lost the use of her back legs entirely.

The choice we were given, of this dog whose hindquarters were suddenly paralyzed, was to “put her down” – or do spinal surgery which she “might not survive”. The choice we made surprised the surgeon, but was natural for us, since Drew has been and still is as important a part of our family, as is this married couple to each other.

We apply the “Uncle Harry” test. If we wouldn’t do it to Uncle Harry, whoever he may be, we wouldn’t do it to Drew. So, three hours of expensive spinal surgery followed, and now Mr. and Mrs. BEE are committed to provide constant companionship and care to her for the rest of her life.

Why would we do this? She is only a dog.

Well, after charming us with her complex and already-very-mature personality from the nine-weeks-old age at which we adopted her, she began our education about the creatures we share this world with, starting with herself.

It took her much less time to learn our language than it took us to realize that she had – that the comically-stunning unbroken string of coincidences in which she responded instantly and accurately to whatever we said simply meant that she understood every word we said. Even now, we still keep forgetting, when we talk to each other, that she is listening to what we are saying and she does understand what we’ve said. After all, people are supposed to be the Top Minds around here.

This language ability of hers may seem incredible to you – it did to us, since we had always understood that a dog simply could not do this, at best perhaps learning a list of words – but we have subsequently found plenty of evidence this the ability to learn language (whatever language is spoken in the home) is pretty common among German Shepherds, though some of their humans never do realize it. Humbling: They understand us; we don’t really understand them. Of course, not all dogs are as adept at it. Humans breed some types of dogs to be mentally uncomplicated, because some people feel a lot more comfortable with a canine companion that is pretty much a living toy, rather than one which might be their intellectual equal. After all, we humans have difficulty thinking ANYTHING could be smarter than us!

But, here, in one sentence, is what we have learned from Drew that we would like to share with you: “Everything is smarter than we think it is.”

Everything, that is, but us. We are probably not quite as smart as we think we are, because we rig the test – by defining ourselves as the pinnacle of intelligence, which means only we can ace the test. But it really does make sense that every creature has something to think with, no matter how rudimentary, and that every creature thinks with it.

That’s because every creature – even a tiny insect – moves freely and randomly in a dangerous world. Creatures not able to respond to unexpected dangers and hazards, as they present themselves, do not survive. So the ones that do survive are the ones who have some smarts!

All creatures do have a brain of some sort, and they would not survive unless they could use it – which also answers the question of self-awareness, which scientists have also struggled with. If there is a brain, there has to be self-awareness, or the creature could not USE the brain to protect ITSELF from unexpected dangers. That discovery of self-awareness in all creatures might be a little unsettling to some of us in this beast-eat-beast world. The brain is the organ of self-preservation and survival. And everything that has one – everything! – is smarter than we humans think it is, even if it still is far less smart than we happen to be. As for our own furry savant, Ms. Drew, she is resting comfortably. She may or may not regain any use of her back legs, but the front part of the pooch works fine, and when she has recovered enough from the spinal surgery, we expect to outfit her with wheels for walks, and you may see her wandering the streets again in Westmoreland with one of her humans at her side. She is a survivor, and is still enjoying life. She carries with her the concern and the well-wishes of a surprising number of people locally, and even around the world – since she and her personal story have been online since 2000. If you are wondering what sort of pooch might inspire such an expensive and laborious personal commitment for a 14-year-old “just a dog”, you can visit her on the WorldWideWeb at: www.thenorbergfamily.com/

Now here is the point of this essay: We hope, with this insight, that you will now appreciate even more your own companion, of whatever species – a little bit more than you have. Life is a journey, and it is priceless to have a loyal companion with you along the way. The best of the Holidays to you and yours from THE BEE.