A Nose for News

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Do animals have feelings?

The New York Times discussed the subject the other day. Some scientists think animals are capable of primitive emotional life. Some scientists think not. Please.

Fred has been sulking ever since the report appeared. Freddie is a hound of many moods. Now he flattens himself with his jowl-flaps splayed on his little Aladdin's mat under the kitchen table. He will not rouse himself even when a horde of crows appears like Visigoths on the grass outside, an outrage that usually stirs him to a storm of indignant imprecation.

Feelings? Fred is as moody as Rudolph Valentino. His life has the exaggerated theatrical emotionalism of a silent movie.

Some animal behaviorists believe that a character like Fred is motivated only by the hope of the next snack. This is unjust. When I return home, particularly after an absence of more than a day, Fred levitates with chaotic excitement and happiness. He springs into the air on all four legs at once, his tail thrashing, his body performing twists like a high-diver's — an astonishing sight, a mid-air electricity of vibrating honey-colored fur. When he comes to earth, he trombones his neck and howls out a conversational WOOO-WOOOO-WOOOO! There is no cynical quid pro quo food reward in prospect. He feels elated that I am back. I would be more flattered by this if gregarious Fred — the perfect host, the perfect guest, the dog at ease in any situation — did not stage the same welcome for virtually everyone.

Well, not everyone. Goofball or not, Fred is a discerning judge of people and will not warm to some. Fred has his expertise and his elaborate instruments. He knows the sound of my car half a mile down the road. That much is easy. He also possesses the mysterious dog's foreknowledge of when I will be back, even an hour or two before I arrive.

It is said that at the moment when Franklin Roosevelt died in Georgia in April of 1945, his dog Fala ran headlong through the screen door of the Cottage — burst through the wire screening itself — and vanished howling into the woods. He was found a couple of days later on a nearby mountain.

I would not call Fred a rational dog. What he possesses, and lives by, are precisely feelings. He inhabits a universe of polychromatic drama filled with absolutely nothing, as far as I can tell, except emotions (ecstasies, disappoinments, depressions, moments of astonishing solicitude and tenderness if the humans are feeling low). And, of course, smells.

The essayist Edward Hoagland, in a splendid piece called "Dogs and the Tug of Life," mentions that the dog's sense of smell is at least a hundred times as keen as a man's. He goes on to become somewhat personal: "The way in which a dog presents his anus and genitals for inspection indicates the hierarchical position that he aspires to, and other dogs who sniff his genitals are apprised of his sexual condition. From his urine they can undoubtedly distinguish age, build, state of sexual activity and general health, even hours after he's passed by."

A dog, in other words, is a journalist.