150 Years Of The Atlantic June 2007

The Animal Kingdom

This is the 16th in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine’s 150th anniversary. For the full text of these articles, visit www.theatlantic.com/ideastour.
The Truth About Dogs
July 1999

by Stephen Budiansky

Atlantic correspondent Stephen Budiansky unearthed some dismaying facts about man’s best friend.

Dogs belong to that select group of con artists at the very top of the profession, the ones who pick our pockets clean and leave us smiling about it. Dogs take from the rich, they take from the poor, and they keep it all. They lie on top of the air-conditioning vent in the summer; they curl up by the fireplace in the winter; they commit outrages against our property too varied and unspeakable to name. They decide when we may go to bed at night and when we must rise in the morning, where we may go on vacation and for how long, whom we may invite over to dinner, and how we should decorate our living rooms. They steal the very bread from our plates (I’m thinking here of a collie I used to have whose specialty actually was toast). If we had roommates who behaved like this, we’d be calling a lawyer, or the police …

Our very cleverness is the start of our undoing when we’re up against an evolutionary sharpshooter like the dog. We are primed to seize on what are, in truth, fundamental, programmed behaviors in dogs and read into them extravagant tales of love and fidelity …

Consider the countless stories about dogs that have “saved” people. In fact dogs have no particular instinct to save people and no particular understanding that that is what they are doing even when they do it …

If you shout at a dog, it cringes. Does this mean the dog feels sorry for peeing on your Oriental rug? The fact is that it doesn’t matter, as far as the dog is concerned, whether he feels sorry or not. The cringe is a successful technique for deflecting aggression … Just as we are genetically programmed to seek signs of love and loyalty, dogs are genetically programmed to exploit this foible of ours.

Vol. 284, No. 1, pp. 39–53

Oliver's Travels
October 2003

by James Shreeve

James Shreeve told the extraordinary story of a chimpanzee named Oliver, whose upright bearing and fondness for human companionship briefly earned him celebrity status as a possible missing link between apes and humans.

Oliver became a celebrity in January of 1976, when he was approximately sixteen years old. There is no question that he was odd. His head was bald and abnormally small in proportion to his body, with a cranium more rounded than a typical chimp’s. His lower face lacked the usual pronounced forward jut. His ears were high and pointed, his skin pale and freckled, and his aspect unusually gentle and intelligent … He walked on two legs all the time. When he lived under the care of Frank and Janet Burger, the animal trainers who raised him, Oliver occasionally fed the dogs and did other chores, relaxing afterward with a cup of coffee. In the evening he might sit and watch TV with the couple, sometimes preparing a nightcap for Frank and himself of whiskey and 7UP. He did not get along with other chimps, and separation from his human companions was said to bring him to tears. When he reached sexual maturity, he was interested only in human females …

“I’ve had forty chimps in my day,” [Janet Burger] told me. “But Oliver, he was altogether different. A real oddball. This guy walked all over the place. He lived out in the barn with the others, but as soon as it was morning, he’d want to come in the house. He’d sit around watching television, maybe have a jelly sandwich. That made him happy. He loved TV. But he didn’t like the violence. If he saw two men fighting, he’d go over and punch the screen. He was peaceful. Kind of a loner.” …

A thirty-three-year-old Manhattan appellate lawyer named Michael Miller … found himself so obsessed with the notion of an upright-walking ape that he tracked the Burgers down at their place in New Jersey and asked if he could meet Oliver in person …

“It was a transforming experience,” Miller told me recently. “I thought I was seeing the missing link. I was seeing Australopithecus. And I felt a terrible sense that if this creature was so important to science, he shouldn’t be with a carnival guy.”

Miller decided on the spot that Oliver should be with a Manhattan appellate lawyer instead … [The Burgers] offered to sell Oliver for eight thousand dollars. They wrote out the agreement on a piece of paper on the hood of the car.

“In my heart, I felt destiny was pointing,” Miller told me. “Here I was, Michael Miller, just a guy, with the opportunity to present to the world this extraordinary creature. I felt I was the fisherman who finds the coelacanth in his net, or the shepherd who discovers the Dead Sea scrolls. The earth has many secrets, and I was privileged to find a living one. My life was moved off the rails that night. I couldn’t go back to practicing law.”

Vol. 292, No. 3, pp. 94–102

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