Considering that Canis familiaris is our oldest and closest animal companion, and possibly the most popular animal too, isn't it surprising how little we have actually bothered to find out about this species? A case of familiarity breeding contempt perhaps?
I've put up several posts here about the enigma of dog behaviour and the eye-opening books by Raymond and Lorna Coppinger, Patricia B McConnell, Turid Rugaas, Stephen Budiansky and others.
If dog behaviour per se is under-researched, the behaviour of free-ranging dogs is even more so. In this post I'd like to introduce one of the few scientists in the world who study these most taken-for-granted, ignored and overlooked animals. His name is Dr Sunil Kumar Pal and he lives and works in the town of Katwa in West Bengal. This is my tribute to this remarkable and unassuming man, and to his discoveries in this strangely unfamiliar and uncharted terrain.
I first met Dr Pal in Kolkata in 2007 and I've had the privilege of corresponding with him over the past two and a half years. His work has been published in prestigious scientific journals including Elsevier and Acta Theriologica, and he has presented his papers at international conferences on ethology. Some of the papers are available online, but you would have to subscribe to the journals to read the full articles - here is the link to his paper on Parental care in free-ranging dogs. He has also published studies of dispersal, agonistic behaviour, reproductive behaviour, population ecology and urine-marking.
Things haven't always been easy but Dr Pal never abandoned his work. I have to congratulate him on the dedication and sheer interest in his subject that kept him going. I've mentioned elsewhere in this blog that many of us sincerely love dogs; but how many of us are really interested in them, or want to know everything they do and why they do it?
I've learned fascinating things about these animals through his papers and through our many conversations. Before Dr Pal's work, the only research on the behaviour of free-ranging dogs in India was done by Elizabeth and John Oppenheimer in the 1970s. One of Dr Pal's papers was co-authored by B Ghosh and S Roy. Very recently another scientist has also chosen these dogs as the subject of her research: Dr Anindita Bhadra (she was mentioned by the Telegraph, Kolkata a couple of weeks ago.)
The pictures here were taken by me during my visit to Dr Pal and his wife Dipti last week. After a delicious lunch (thank you, Dipti!) we walked down the road to meet some of the subjects of his latest study: a group including three nursing bitches and their pups. Dr Pal told me about an adult male of the group, who feeds the three mothers with regurgitated food, but never the pups. I've heard of males feeding their own pups regurgitated food (click here for an earlier post). But this dog's behaviour is entirely new to me. This male for some reason didn't mate with any of these females but actually left the group during mating time (late monsoon last year). He isn't the father of any of the pups. Yet he looks after the three females and is very close to them.
Just goes to show that nothing should be taken for granted when it comes to these animals.
Mild, friendly and familiar they may be, but the free-ranging dog is still almost a complete stranger to us, and there are many more secrets and mysteries waiting to be discovered...by those few who really want to look.
Some of my snapshots from Katwa:
Above: Only two of these pups belong to this bitch. The others belong to her mother and sister. When we saw her, the other two females were away and she was "babysitting." She doesn't like nursing pups of the other females, but she allowed all of them to suckle briefly while we were there.
Above: Here she's snapping at the pups that don't belong to her - it didn't deter them much, I must add!
Above: These two are hers