Inter-Species Friendships and Combat with Dogs, Sheep, Fighting Cocks, Monkeys, Kangaroos, Water Buffalos and Elephants

Yoshi, my neighbor on the wild western side of Kauai where I was helping an art professor friend build a house during the summer of 1981, posed that question to me. Yoshi had cock fights every Friday night where locals would bet on the outcome of his rooster wars. He would barbeque a Labrador retriever (supposedly black dogs taste superior to all others) and feed the meat to his betting customers as they drank cases of beer and shouted encouragement to their favored birds as they watched the bloody fray.

Our neighbor on the other side of the jungle property was Bernie Leadon, the original lead guitar player for the band The Eagles. As he was follically challenged even at that early age, the locals called him “The Bald Eagle.”

The term “Haole” is pronounced “how-ly” and is now a general term for white people in Hawaii. It literally means “without breath” in Hawaiian and came to be a term used to describe Captain Cook and his sailors in the late 1700’s by the native people, as they did not speak Hawaiian.

I did not take up Yoshi up on his offer to eat one black dog.

Black Dog • Tortola, BVI • Photo by MMB

A California Highway Patrol officer who was investigating a burglary at Rob Willson’s house in East Palo Alto said this after being knocked to the ground from behind by Baby Bob, Rob’s vicious and unpredictable ram who lived and roamed freely in his 2 acre backyard. I always carried a 6 foot long 2” x 4” or a baseball bat whenever I walked in that area to be able to subdue Baby Bob if he decided to charge me.

Michael and Baby Bob when he was still a gentle lamb • Photo by MMB

My aunt Betty and her partner Audrey were sitting in a yurt in Mongolia on the edge of the Gobi desert, drinking fermented mare’s milk with a group of roaming herding people out on the vast grasslands. Their hosts were singing song after song about their nomadic way of life out on the steppes, an immense nearly flat area too dry to support a forest but too green, wet and watered to be a desert, perfect for sheep, goats and camels. After singing several of their traditional anthems about their ancient way of life wandering with their livestock, they asked Betty and Audrey to sing them a song about the life of nomadic herding people in America. After a moment’s thought, they sang them “Home on the Range.”

Home on the Range is the official song of the state of Kansas. It was written by Brewster Higley in 1872 when Higley was a homesteader living in a small cabin near West Beaver Creek in Kansas. His friend Daniel Kelly wrote the melody on his guitar. The song was eventually adopted by ranchers, cowboys, and other western settlers. Over the years it has become the unofficial anthem of the American West. Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Connie Francis, Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, Gene Autry, Steve Lawrence, Tori Amos and Neil Young have recorded it, among many others. 

It has been featured in movies, video games and on the Simpsons, and has been sung in cartoons by both Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig. It became more widely known when it was published in 1910 in “Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads” by the folklorist and song catcher John Lomax, who said that he learned it from a black saloon-keeper in Texas.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show

This loud denial of Darwin’s theory of evolution was shouted at me by an angry Muslim man I was trying to have a science based conversation with at a party in California.

Kazuenokami Kato Kiyomasa • Observing a Monkey with a Writing Brush

These sad and angry cries came from our new neighbor’s young daughters. It was the spring of my junior year at Stanford University and my friends, Marcia Black, David Moir, his Siberian Husky Anna, Brad Baldwin and I had just moved into a huge, angular mid-century modern house in Los Altos Hills. The house belonged to professor Almond, who was away teaching at a European campus for a quarter and we had found the rental through the campus housing office. The house had four bedrooms, a large garden and a swimming pool – by far the most luxurious accommodations of my entire university career. The rent was $400 a month which included pool and gardening services. Unbeknownst to us, our neighbor had a couple of pet ducks that were accustomed to swimming in the pool every day.

Anna was a beautiful dog, fiercely intelligent with searing eyes that looked like a million mile deep azure arctic sky was contained inside of them, just like her master David’s orbs. She also had an unstoppable instinct to kill any creature lower in status on the food chain than her, which was pretty much every other living thing that was not human. The first morning that we were there she caught and killed one of the neighbor’s pet ducks as it emerged from our new swimming pool. David told the neighbors what had happened and we began to hear the grief stricken wails of anguish from their daughters. David buried the deceased duck in our back yard and hoped that relations with the neighbor would improve going forward. This was not to be. While we were away at our classes the next day, Anna dug up the duck and deposited it on the neighbor’s front door mat. When their kids found it, more anguished screams filled the neighborhood. From that point onward, Anna lived on a chain in our front yard out by the carport. We called it “The Chain Gang.” Later that summer I was hiking in the Sierras with David and Anna. We were finishing our breakfast of granola in Sierra cups when Anna appeared carrying part of a bloody deer leg in her mouth – her contribution to our meagre vegetarian and freeze dried provisions.

Siberian Husky

In downtown New York, In the 1950’s during the Holiday Season, anything was possible. My mother led me by the hand to Rockefeller Center where we watched people ice dance beneath a golden statue of Prometheus. Nearby, in the large storefront window at the high end toy store, FAO Schwartz, a kangaroo was boxing with a man in colorful holiday attire, much to my amazement and delight. I was familiar with inter species friendships, as we had cats, Java Temple Birds, guppies and a waterless aquarium full of mice in our Manhattan apartment, but I had never before seen inter species combat in a festive, Christmas decorated toy store window.

Inter-species combat

Ice skating at Rockefeller Center

My grandfather, James Claude Thomson, was traveling down a narrow road in the jungle in French-Indo China (now Vietnam) when he saw a herd of angry elephants running up the road towards his car. The road was too narrow for a turn around and a quick reversal of fortune, so he and his companion jumped out of the car and climbed a nearby tree, from which they saw the elephants crush their car while bellowing wildly. When the elephants had exhausted their rage against the machine and charged back into the forest, my grandfather and his companion descended from the tree and walked to a nearby village.

Savage beasts were not yet done with him. A few years later he was chased into a ditch by a water buffalo in China and as he fell he hit his head so hard that he suffered a detached retina which eventually led to blindness in one eye and having to have the eye removed. He had a glass eye which I sometimes saw resting in a glass of water next to his bed when I would bid him good night when he visited us in our summer home in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts when I was a child.

My grandfather was not deterred by wild beasts and got a theology degree in his youth and for a short time was an ordained minister in the Dutch Reformed Church. He later went back to school, always more interested in real science than spiritual speculation and magical thinking, and got a PhD in Chemistry at Columbia University and later a Master’s degree in public health at Johns Hopkins University. He was Dean of Sciences at the University of Nanking and later worked for the World Health Organization at the United Nations just before he retired after a lifetime of public service.

Angry Elephant

Car crushed by an elephant

Mike and I had been sitting on top of a mountain high above Calistoga on the eastern edge of the Napa Valley, watching the sun set. It was Thanksgiving weekend of 1971 and we were staying in a cabin far below the ridge top that his friend Noah was living in. Noah was a hippie high school friend of Mike’s who made his living baking, bagging and selling his own personal brand of granola to health food stores which he called “Noah’s Famous Crunch.” Noah was away at his parent’s house in Tiburon for Thanksgiving and had loaned his cabin to us for the long weekend, but had left his large black Labrador retriever Hunter at the hillside hideaway for us to take care of.

There was no trail up the mountain and we had climbed through thick pine and oak forests for a couple of hours, ascending with Hunter following right behind us. As we got higher we bushwhacked through high desert manzanita and mesquite until we finally came to a rocky outcropping at the peak that we scrambled to the top of. We sat there admiring the vast view below us of rocky, undulating, thickly forested ridges and ravines and golden hills, tapering down far below to thousands of acres of wine grapes on the flat valley dotted with wineries. We watched the half moon rise and saw the twinkle of electric diamond lights begin to glitter on the valley floor, miles below us. In the fading twilight and gathering gloom we quickly realized that we had no flashlights, no trail to lead us back to the cabin and no idea how to return to our little cabin. 

The moon cast very little light on our tangled predicament. We briefly considered spending the night on the mountaintop and waiting until sunrise to make our way down the mountain when Hunter got up and looked at us quizzically, at which point Mike said  “Just follow the dog – He’ll lead us back to the cabin.” Hunter led us and waited patiently for us many times as we stumbled through the tangle of desert scrub on the higher flanks of the peak. We slowly made our way into the dark arms of the forest, and a couple of hours later Hunter barked when we came upon a dirt road that led us back to the cabin where we made a special Thanksgiving feast for our intrepid saviour and new best friend.

Mountain Dog

Napa Valley and Calistoga

This mini insight came to me as I was watching two large American men slowly and methodically bait hooks, lower them into the ocean and patiently wait for a strike while sucking down endless cans of beer on the Santa Cruz, California wharf a few years ago. Fishing is basically doing very little, very slowly and methodically; with a distant, questionable, unpredictable payoff or reward, activities which otherwise would be frowned on by our frenetic frantic culture, if the word “Fishing” was not included in the description of activities for the day.

Fishing in 1900

This twist on the age old saying “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness” came from my friend, the poet and writer, David Brennan, back when he was a smoker. I first met David when we hired him in 1971 to help us dismantle a 3 story, 19th century barn in western Massachusetts and transport it up a mountain to be rebuilt and repurposed as a vacation home for a photographer. David had a wry wit and a sardonic sense of humor, an ironic twinkle in his eyes and a way with words, as befits a poet.

One of my favorite aspects of New York City life when I was a child was seeing the Camel Cigarettes billboard in Times Square which featured the enormous face of a man with a fedora blowing endless smoke rings, made of steam. Camels were the world’s first packaged cigarettes and in their first year 425 million packs were sold. That’s a lot of smoke rings and lung cancer! I always loved the artwork on the front of the package of a camel standing in the desert with palm trees and two pyramids.

Camel billboard • Times Square

It Is Better To Light A Camel Than To Curse The Sahara

Jesse Winchester singing about his Black Dog:

Stevie Wonder singing about riding his Camel:

The Beatles singing about the honesty of Monkeys:

Howlin’ Wolf singing about his Little Red Rooster: