Inexplicable Behavior Explained
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
At three months Greta was already an intense and extremely keen creature. A full-blooded German Shepherd, she displayed all the characteristics that come with such a pedigree, and more. She was highly intelligent, sensitive, aggressive, and not very far removed from her wild cousin, Canis lupus.
Her black coat and silver markings gave her a distinctive look, a wild look, though not as an impression-able three-month old pup, when a peculiar incident took place that spoke volumes not just about Greta but about all sentient creatures.
In our basement, when I was just a pup myself, an alligator suitcase (probably imitation) somehow fell to the floor, as if by its own free will. The suitcase had sat atop some other firm object, ten feet away, two or three feet above the concrete slab that spanned the room. How or why it fell, all by itself, was totally mysterious. I never did figure out how that was possible, and neither did Greta.
The moment it fell, she reacted almost uncontrollably, fixed on the object and barking like it was a coiled rattlesnake ready to strike. Her reaction was one of fear. She was for some reason thoroughly spooked, even as I consoled her and then set the suitcase upright to show her that it was nothing to be afraid of.
Life went on. She was an incredibly valiant dog that attained mythic status in our neighborhood, not always in a good way. She was feared, admired and respected like no other dog we knew, and God help the trashman, mailman or salesman who chanced upon her as he crossed onto our property. Yet she was gentle as a kitten to the 5 kids and 2 adults she watched over like a guardian spirit. She so earned the respect of my prudent, cautious and security conscious father that he only intermittently locked our doors at night. “I’d pity the poor guy who would break into this house,” he would say, looking over at her, so serene and content to be amongst us, yet bristling with deadly potential. Had you ever been in her presence when the fur rose on her neck, as she growled and bore her fangs, you would get what my dad meant—sheer terror, and she was super fast, a wolf really, whose raison d’etre besides eating Alpo, cottage cheese, and toy poodles, was protecting our family. Needless to say, runt that I was, I had no problem with bullies, not when my intrepid canine bene-factor was a shout away.
Here’s the kicker. Several years after that incident in the basement, when Greta was full grown, we happened to be down there again, Greta and I, when I shoved that same alligator suitcase across the concrete floor while trying to get at something behind it. The suitcase made a noise, as its brass runners scraped cement. Greta immediately reacted just as she had when she was a pup, coiled and fearful, barking intense-ly, her focused bright eyes drilling into the suitcase like a power tool.
The original incident had obviously never left her. It was embedded not necessarily in her memory, but in her subconscious. I could not understand how the suitcase ever fell in the first place, nor why Greta was so spooked by it. After all, had a dead limb fallen from a tree in the forest, would she have perceived it in the same way? I think not. It was as if she had seen a ghost (of an an imitation alligator). Remarkably, this highly intelligent and sensitive animal held on to that psychological trauma her whole life. It never left her, and she forever associated noise or movement involving that suitcase in the same way. Had I not been there to witness the initial event, her later behavior would have seemed entirely inexplicable.
This is not the only incident of such a lifelong association I have witnessed in a dog resulting from physical and therefore emotional trauma when the creature was young, innocent, and impressionable (it’s sad), the laboratory that is life having revealed that animals develop much as humans do, starting out as blank slates, tabula rasa, unconditioned in mind and heart until experiences shape them (not to discount genetic propensities) and then surface as deeply rooted reactions later in life when similar stimuli appear. It would be a mistake to view all extreme behavior this way (in people, and therefore to excuse it) but suffice it to say that harmony, compassion and love during infancy and childhood are prerequisites to a better world—for people and the pets they keep.
Enter the marauding grizzly (see cover story) and her “inexplicable” behavior. It is a sobering story with human victims deserving of our respect and sincere condolences. It is hard to imagine the horror, or the grief of loved ones, and it would be a difficult story to publish in the immediate aftermath for those reasons (over 2 years have now passed). The bear in question acted in a way almost unknown to wildlife experts, not according to the usual motives and circumstances that propel bear-on-human attacks. Perhaps, though, the conditioning that shapes people, creating psychopaths and saints, operates as well within all evolved sentient life and can yield behavior that surfaces subsequently.
Greta proved the point.