History: Animals have feelings, skills, emotions, language, and, according to Roger Caras' new book, they have made us what we are today. The Truth About Cats And Dogs

November 05, 1996|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

FREELAND, Md. -- It's a typical misty morning on Thistle Hill Farm: intensely pastoral, but hardly quiet. Roger Caras, one of America's best known animal advocates, is relishing a breakfast of scrambled eggs and smoked salmon with his wife, Jill, four greyhounds, a cat named Ginger and Topi, a slender golden whippet.

At the moment, however, Bizou, the blue and yellow macaw, is doing all the squawking.

"Give her a little piece of salmon, dear," Caras suggests to his wife, who's already reaching for it.

"We have the typical American household here," he explains. "Eleven dogs, nine cats, a llama, two Alpacas, a steer, five horses, a miniature horse, two donkeys. Who am I leaving out, Jill? At any rate, we have 38 animals all together, and they form a very happy community."

Most of the residents of their farm in northern Baltimore County are "orphans of the storm," creatures rescued from the kind of neglect and abuse Caras has fought to prevent most of his life. As president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Manhattan, the oldest humane organization in the Western Hemisphere, he has become one of the most visible animal welfare crusaders in the country.

At 68, he has also distinguished himself as a writer and broadcast journalist. Recently featured as "Person of the Week" on ABC Evening News, Caras served the network for 17 years as an Emmy Award-winning special correspondent for animals and the environment.

This morning, however, he is talking about his latest book -- which means, roughly speaking, his 70th.

"A Perfect Harmony: The Intertwining Lives of Animals and Humans Throughout History" (Simon & Schuster, $23) details his belief that human cultural advances depended upon the domestication of animals for food, clothing and transportation.

Combining his considerable knowledge of anthropology, zoology and history with personal experience, Caras suggests those cultures that learned to raise and use animals found themselves in a productive partnership that eventually led to symphony orchestras and space shuttles.

Those cultures that did not domesticate animals -- such as the Native Americans and Australian Aborigines -- did not advance past a certain level.

Changes within

His book explains how wandering tribes were able to develop agriculture through management of goats and sheep, how caravans made cultural exchanges possible, how the water buffalo enabled the cultivation of rice to support Asia, how the dog evolved as herder, hunter and guard as well as companion. It suggests that cultural concepts like monotheism would have died had they not been able to travel with camels across deserts.

It even credits animals with changing humans genetically. Before domesticating cattle, humans would lose the ability to digest milk after they were weaned from the breast. Those people who learned how to produce milk and cheese adapted biologically so that they could continue making lactase -- the enzyme that enables the body to process milk sugars -- as adults. Many in those populations that didn't -- including some Asians, Native Americans, southern Europeans, Australian Aborigines and Africans -- today remain "allergic" to milk.

Caras says "A Perfect Harmony" finally gives animals the credit they're due.

"We know our forebears had fire under control 2.2 million years ago. We know we were chipping pebbles and stones to make tools 1.2 million years ago," he says. "And then nothing happened. Nothing. No increase in technology. Man just went on living in the cave until 14,000 years ago when you begin to find goat and sheep bones -- there are ways bones change with domestication -- and then everything went crazy!

"Agriculture, telephones, computers: All of these things came after man domesticated the goat and because of it.

"But how did he do it? How? I'd never heard."

So he came up with an answer. Before domestication, Caras says, humans must have had a relationship with the animals they later kept and bred. They may have singled out certain species for protection because they believed they had a totemic, or spiritual, status.

"At no time did Irving Cave Man turn to Patrick Cave Man and say, 'Hey, let's go out to find an animal to domesticate this afternoon!' " he says. "It was a long, long relationship between the people and that animal that evolved."

Caras believes the practice of selective breeding began serendipitously. Humans tended to keep and trade for the animals with characteristics they found desirable or ingratiating, argues, and would not kill them except during times of famine.

In time, those attractive traits intensified through generations until they were dependable, or bred true.

Tempting fate

Explaining his own theories is new turf for Caras, a man more used to writing for the tens of thousands of admirers of such books as "A Cat Is Watching" and "A Dog is Listening."

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