Sunday nibble special: Reality bites

I worked for Cesar Millan for ten years, and I was there when the incident in question with Lidia happened. Here are my thoughts on it.

Truly about a nibble, indeed.

I suppose that I should just address this now, sooner than later, because I know I’m probably going to start drawing some sort of media attention because, reasons. Also, the public story broke on Friday, and friends started sending me links left and right.

The media has been hyping it as “Cesar Millan’s pit bull Junior killed Queen Latifah’s dog,” with a side of, “Oh, and bit a top young gymnast.”

Although the second part did happen a bit over four years ago, it’s just now making the news. The very short version is that a woman named Lidia Matiss has filed suit against Cesar Millan, primarily because, she claims, his recently deceased pit bull Junior mauled her leg, leading to the end of her promising gymnastics career.

In addition to that, she alleges that Junior also mauled one of Queen Latifah’s dogs to death at Cesar’s Dog Psychology Center and, she says, that was covered up by the staff being told to claim that the dog was hit by a car.

As my readers may know — and the name of the website is a big clue — I used to work for Cesar. In fact, I worked for him for just over a decade, originally as operations manager for his online business, but then as his head content creator and editor and in-house ghostwriter.

So there are things I know and things I don’t, but I can really only comment on what Lidia alleges in her lawsuit. Not that I’m under any kind of NDA but, like I said, there are things I know and saw and things I don’t, so I have to tread a very fine line to avoid committing libel.

What I can say is that there is at least one misrepresentation in the story, and that’s that every single version I’ve seen states that Lidia was bitten in a building that Cesar owned. I know that that one is not true because I was at many a meeting before we moved into it and near the end of my tenure there, and it was all about leasing the space.

What Cesar did own was his Dog Psychology Center, but let me pull back the veil here a little bit on how his whole enterprise operated.

The first thing you should know is that Dog Whisperer and Dog Nation and Better Human Better Dog and anything that appears under the National Geographic banner had nothing at all to do with the company I worked for in more than an arms’ distance way.

Well, with one exception that I’ll bitch about later.

But, in other words, Cesar on TV was an entirely different division from our company, which started out as Cesar Millan, Inc. (CMI) and eventually became Cesar’s Way (CW), both of which handled the business of his online presence and etail sales. It may or may not have been his loan-out company as well, but I was never privy to that information, so I cannot comment on it.

While it was CMI, it shared offices with MPH Productions, which was the company that originally brought Cesar to NatGeo and pitched the show. Well, okay… they took the idea that two female producers had pitched to them, because they’d found Cesar, and sold it to NatGeo.

CMI shared offices with MPH for the first few years in a space on Hollywood Way in Burbank that was long since converted into a Target Express across the street from a Model Train Shop. If you ever want to hang out where my desk was, stroll inside and find the aisle that gives you a straight-line view of the optometrist across the street. Near the back of that aisle and about eight feet from the wall is where I would have been sitting.

What I can say about those days is this: Cesar got screwed by MPH — that much was proven in a lawsuit that dragged on for ages but finally resulted in the two women and Cesar winning back the rights to the name “Dog Whisperer.” Second was that MPH was ridiculously generous to everyone on their staff and CMI’s — because they were apparently spending Cesar’s money.

And yet, there was still this weird arms’ distance thing. In those days, if Cesar ever came by the office, he was definitely kept on the south side, where MPH was, and even though the CMI folk were the ones who ostensibly worked for him, we were treated like red-headed step-children, at least by MPH.

Back to the division of labor thing, though. MPH dealt with NatGeo to make the show. Meanwhile, CMI dealt with Cesar’s wife at the time, Ilusion, in order to design and market various products, including DVDs not produced by NatGeo, training accessories, toys, and so on.

We also coordinated and staffed his seminars which, at the time, were nationwide.

During my first two years there, we had two gigantic issues with third parties. Well, sort of third parties, but this brings up yet another division in CesarLand.

In addition to the NatGeo side of things, mostly run out of Washington DC, and our Burbank offices, there was the Dog Psychology Center. When I started, it was located in what was basically a donated parking lot in South Central L.A. It wasn’t given a lot of attention on the show, but functioned mainly as a long-term rehab place for problem dogs Cesar was training.

Eventually, he did make enough money from the show to buy the acreage in Santa Clarita, California, that became the Dog Psychology Center (DPC), and I was very privileged to visit that place many, many times over the years, and meet a lot of the animals, including Lorenzo the Llama, Marty the Donkey, who was a total sweetheart, and Cesar’s entire flock of goats, who would play hard to get until you thrust a handful of lettuce at them.

But, again, the DPC was a totally separate entity. It had its own staff and director, and as far as any of us from CMI were concerned, we only got to go up there by special invitation.

That’s probably getting a step or two ahead, though, because those DPC trips didn’t become regular until another event happened and, again, while I’m not privy enough to the internals to make any positive assertions, the short version is that outside auditors were brought in, they looked at the books, and cried, “Foul!”

That was in 2009, when a Man Called Bob (which should be in all caps with TM next to it) swept in, saw what was going on, announced, “Well, this is bullshit,” and CMI divorced MPH and moved along the way.

We wound up at first in a building we all dubbed The Bouncy Castle, which was found by Cesar’s younger brother Erick Millan. It was… weird, but exactly what we needed. (Side note: Erick is a ridiculously talented designer and all-around nice guy who eventually moved back to Mexico to establish his own design firm.)

After we moved, and since a Man Called Bob convinced Cesar to trust him, Cesar was suddenly a lot more accessible to us, and I think it was the first time he actually realized that he had a team that was bigger than the DPC and the marketing hacks at Nat Geo.

This was also the building I was working in when I took a chance and Cesar suddenly realized, “Shit. This dude writes?”

It all happened because I suggested a bit of entertainment for the holiday party to a Man Called Bob, got him to approve a budget, and then I rewrote the lyrics to two Christmas carols to be Dog Whisperer themed, brought in six actors to sing them, and Cesar flipped his shit in joy.

That was about five years after I’d started working for him, but it was a major career change. I went from operations manager to content creator, editor, and unofficial Voice of Cesar overnight.

We eventually moved out of the Bouncy Castle and wound up in a place closer to Burbank Airport that we dubbed The Shoebox, but it was a move up for a few big reasons. One was that we brought our warehouse operations in-house, so no longer had to rely on a third-party fulfillment center, which saved my successor a ton.

We also had studio space and editing suite within that warehouse in which we could do quick videos — either product demos or more elaborate greenscreen stuff, and we had an in-house video/editing team as well, which started to crank out online content independent of NatGeo.

Finally, the nicest part of it being a two-story building was that all the corporate people — execs, legal, Foundation, and creative (meaning Cesar’s brilliant brother Erick) wound up on the second floor. Meanwhile, the newly created Digital Team in charge of all things online got to share the rather much larger than we needed ground floor.

Side note: From day one to this point and beyond, the office was always dog-friendly, and I brought both of mine nearly every day. In fact, I took advantage of this to finally break my dog Shadow out of her fear-aggression toward other dogs, and I think that Sheeba just became so blasé about the idea of “let’s go to work with daddy” that she wound up being comfortable anywhere.

Don’t take that as a total endorsement of Cesar, though, because that was mostly me, although I did have to know his philosophy and methods backwards and forwards in order to write about them, sometimes as myself, but more often as him — and that was as weird to me as it sounds.

So from late 2012 to 2017, I became “The Voice of Cesar,” writing his weekly column/fan message, co-ghostwriting one of his books, and creating a ton of non-bylined dog advice articles, implying they were his.

There was no attempt at fraud here, though. Just a show biz reality. Very few celebrities, unless they were already known as writers in the first place, write their own material, whether it be their books, blogs, social media posts, etc.

The vast majority of them are created by the web marketing teams for a few really good reasons. One is to protect the celebrities from themselves, making sure that they don’t commit any major faux pas. Another is to keep the voice consistent and, ideally, properly spelled, and grammatical. Finally, there’s the simple fact that the celebrity is probably far too busy in front of the camera or doing live interviews and the like to have any time to sit down and write.

All of this applied in Cesar’s case with one other factor, of course. English was not his first language and he didn’t even start learning it until he came to America when he was an adult. He can speak it perfectly well, but actually writing the words is a challenge for him, particularly when it comes to spelling.

I can vouch for this, though — in Spanish, he’s super-literate.

But… when it came to being part of the necessary deception, what did I care? He paid me good money to do that, even after the company cut bait and fled to its final, smaller HQ, which happens to also be the place in which Lidia alleges that Junior bit her.

We still had a warehouse in the back and a small video production department, although the editing suite was now a not-so-sound-proofed office sharing space with the digital team.

Oddly enough, although it was a one-story building, it was basically split into three zones, so we had the same division. Executives in the front, digital team in the middle, and warehouse and shipping in the back. I was in the middle, with a direct line of sight view through the door to the front office and front doors if the door in the adjoining wall were open, which it usually was. Important in a moment.

Meanwhile, the DPC was still doing whatever it was it did miles away. And I was a true believer in Cesar right up until the end, but for a few years now, I’ve been not so sure.

As for the Queen Latifah thing, I vaguely remember some mention of one of her dogs being killed, but we never heard anything besides the “dog ran in front of a car” story ourselves, so I’m not touching that one. The only people who know the truth were working at the DPC at the time.

The one thing I can state as a fact is this. I was there, in the office, on at least one instance when Junior bit Lidia. I didn’t see the actual bite, but, as noted, my cubicle was in direct line of sight of her mother, Lisa’s, office, so I had a very good view of Lisa and Lidia coming out, Lisa exclaiming that Junior had just bit her daughter, and Lidia limping, although I couldn’t see the actual injury because she had that leg turned away from me.

A Man Called Bob jumped into action and saw to it that Lidia got rushed off to the ER. I honestly don’t remember how Cesar reacted because, by that point, those of us on the Digital Team, i.e. in the back half of the office, were too busy discussing the incident ourselves.

But what I can state absolutely, without committing libel, is that Cesar’s dog Junior did, in fact, bite the back of Lidia’s leg — calf or thigh, I’m not sure. But since she was the daughter of CW’s Of Counsel at the time, it was all kinds of awkward.

Did Junior bite her more than once, either that day or on subsequent days? Not to my knowledge, Was he generally vicious?

Well, again, all I can discuss is what I know, and since I knew Junior for most of his life, having met him as a squishy little pup, he was never vicious toward me, or either of my dogs. Then again, I think that he always liked me, so the worst “mauling” I ever got from him was when he decided to come over, lean onto me hard, and then lick my face.

Ooh… how vicious!

Honestly, though, Cesar’s response to the lawsuit is weak. His lawyers basically said that Lidia should have assumed the risk, knowing that Junior was unleashed around the office. One big problem: The “bring your dog to work” policy came with a caveat. If your dog was ever vicious and bit another dog or human, then they were banned.

I cannot deny that I saw the aftermath of the bite, but that’s all that I can say. I didn’t see the actual extent of the injury. I just know that Lidia was taken to the ER immediately. I also don’t remember exactly when in 2017 this happened, although I know it was near the end of my tenure.

For whatever reason, Cesar’s Way decided to disband the digital team and go with an outside contractor for online marketing. I was laid off the Friday after Labor Day in 2017, although I was retained to keep writing Cesar’s weekly columns for a nice monthly salary through the end of March 2018, and did receive a ridiculous severance package, including reimbursement for my unused sick time, which was all of it.

The only sick time I did use was because of that weekend in August 2016 I’d wound up in the hospital, so that was a different year. But that experience, getting laid off, and the ton of money I walked away with led directly to the creation of this website.

In other words, yes, Cesar treated me and the rest of us well once he realized he had employees but, on the other hand, we were also trained to look the other way a lot — or at least gaslight ourselves whenever some scandal threatened.

I mean, as the team maintaining his online image, we were the ones who had to jump in to protect things, and we only ever got the story that came down to us from the executive suite. In protecting the boss, we were really protecting our jobs.

Tell me that you’d do differently — although most of what we had to deal with didn’t involve people being bitten or dogs being killed. Rather, it was gross misrepresentation by Cesar-haters (who are legion) of his techniques.

Are his abilities as a dog shaman perhaps inflated a bit? Probably. (He tried to do his thing with my dog Sheeba, and she basically gave him stink eye and ignored him.) Does he rampantly abuse dogs just for fun? That’s a hard no.

But… I was an insider for a long, long time with Cesar, and I can say that he’s no saint. No one is. I don’t have any of the dirty laundry and honestly don’t know whether it really exists. All I know is that Lidia is not lying, at least about her injury.

So, to Lidia… godspeed.

Momentous Monday: Ending canine prejudice

I originally wrote this piece in February of 2020 but found out a couple of days ago that Cesar Millan’s current pit bull and right hand dog, Junior, passed away on July 21, 2021, at the age of fifteen. I knew Junior well, since I met him as a puppy and I first saw him when Cesar brought him into the office, walked to a spot where everyone could see him, then held the tiny pup up above his head by the scruff of his neck, like the presentation of Simba in The Lion King

For more than a decade after that, I interacted with Junior often, and he seemed to grow to really like me over the years. He was a gentle giant, and put the lie to the idea of pit bulls being vicious. So I’m rerunning this article in his honor.

There’s a reason that I call this site The Word Whisperer. That’s because prior to starting it, I worked for a decade for the Dog Whisperer, and for a good part of that I was Senior Editor and Head Writer on his website, as well as keeper of the corporate voice and (sssh, don’t tell!) the ghostwriter for all of his online articles and a lot of his media interviews.

So, in other words, I was deeply into all things dog, and one of the subjects that he was passionate about and which I crusaded for was the plight of the pit bull. As in by the early 2000s, they had become one of the most maligned and misunderstood breeds in the country.

They were banned everywhere, simply based on perception, and especially the misconception that “pit bull” is a breed of dog. It’s not. It’s a type of dog, comprising at least four distinct breeds.

But for those of us who are pit bull fans because, face it, they are sweet dogs, there was a recent victory as the city of Denver voted to overturn their pit bull ban originally imposed in 1989. No mean feat, considering that the anti-pit bull crowd turned out to argue against it but, trust me, I’ve had experience with them, and they are an emotional bunch who won’t let facts get in the way.

What they like to ignore is that any dog can be dangerous and that unknown breeds of dogs involved in incidents are often reported as pit bulls, especially if they’re over a certain size. They also ignore the fact that dogs can sense when a human is anxious or uneasy around them, and this can actually lead to attacks. So… the people who fear pit bulls act fearful around all dogs, and bad things are going to happen.

This was a question I dealt with in one of my more popular articles on Cesar’s site, which I’m now going to plagiarize and paraphrase from, because I can. (Bastards scrubbed all of the bylines recently, but that’s a long story I’m not going to go into until TMZ is writing me a big-ass check.)

The question I asked: How did pit bulls get such a bad rap?

Would it surprise you to learn that pit bulls used to be America’s darlings? Before the mid-80s, stories of pit bull attacks are practically non-existent. As noted, there is also confusion over exactly which breed of dog is a pit bull — American pit bull terrier, Staffordshire terrier and, at times, the bulldog. This confusion seems to have dogged the breed from the beginning, as there is some disagreement over the origin of pit bulls.

In one theory, pit bulls began during antiquity as the so-called molossus, a now-extinct breed that was used by the Greeks as shepherds and guard dogs. In times of war, they marched off to battle with their humans. Eventually, so the theory goes, the Molossus made it to early Britain, where it became known as the mastiff. In the first century CE, Rome discovered the breed after defeating the Britons, and the dogs spread all over the empire. For the next four hundred years, they were used as war dogs, and intermixed with various local breeds all over the European continent, becoming the forerunners of the modern pit bull.

A competing theory places the origin of the pit bull in England at the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, when butchers would use large, Mastiff-type dogs as “bullenbeissers,” which translates as “bull biter.” Trained to latch onto a bull’s nose and not let go until the animal was subdued, these dogs were the only way that humans could regain control when a bull became agitated. Unfortunately, this practical if dubious use eventually led to the “sport” of bull-baiting, where dogs were put in a pit with an intentionally riled-up bull and spectators placed bets on which dog would hold on the longest, or bring the bull down. You’ve probably guessed it by now, but this is also the origin of the terms “pit bull dog” and “bulldog.”

Still not a specific breed, the bullenbeissers were bred with terriers, combining their intelligence with the strength of the mastiffs. As bull-baiting came to be banned in the 19th century, dog fighting became popular as an underground and quasi-illegal activity in the UK. British immigrants to the U.S. at that time brought dog fighting, as well as their dogs, to the New World. However, as the breed spread to Americans and Americans spread across the continent, pit bulls began to be put to their original use, as general purpose herding and working dogs. Because of their fighting history, though, the American Kennel Club would not recognize the breed until 1936, although they defined it as a Staffordshire terrier, distinct from the American pit bull terrier.

Far from being considered a killing machine on legs, pit bulls seem to be an American favorite in the early half of the century — indeed, during World War I, the country itself is personified as a pit bull on army recruitment posters, and several pit bulls go on to become famous in the American military. Referring to an athlete as a pit bull is a very common sports metaphor through the 1930s, and it is meant as the highest compliment. There is also a famous racehorse in the late 1930s named Pit Bull, as well as a number of pit bull stars of early motion pictures. Frequently, pit bulls are associated with children, as in the Our Gang comedies, as well as with Buster Brown, both in short films and as the corporate mascot for a shoe company. The famous RCA Victor image of a dog and a gramophone also featured a pit bull terrier.

All of that pit bull love went away by the mid-80s, and by New Year’s Day 1986, over thirty communities are considering breed specific legislation and bans on pit bulls. What changed?

For one thing, despite being illegal in all fifty states, dog fighting made a comeback in the 80s, and the pit bull is the dog of choice. It is also the preferred guard dog for drug dealers and gangs, with a hugely publicized attack in 1987 in which a pit bull guarding a marijuana crop in California mauls and kills a two-and-a-half year-old boy.

By the summer of that year, every single proposed ban has become law, but not necessarily with the support of animal professionals. Kent Salazar, head of Albuquerque’s animal control division, commented at the time of their proposed ban on pit bulls that he didn’t think a ban on pit bulls was necessary, saying, “We have all the means to protect people with clauses about vicious dogs.” He also noted that, a few years previously, Doberman pinschers were the target of such bans. His words went unheeded, and Tijeras, New Mexico, just outside of Albuquerque, passes the toughest pit bull ban of the time, allowing animal control officers to seize and destroy them on sight without compensation to the owner.

The various pit bull breed bans are decried by animal control officials as “the most concentrated legal assault on a pit bull they can recall,” as well as “canine racism.” The Houston Chronicle quotes unnamed officials as placing the blame for the problem squarely on humans. “(M)any of the pit bull attacks are due to a skyrocketing number of poorly bred and badly trained dogs raised by backyard breeders, who are trying to cash in on the pit bull’s growing reputation as a cheap, but deadly effective guard dog, particularly in urban areas.”

Nearly thirty-five years after the beginning of this anti-pit bull hysteria, the tide seems to be turning a little bit, but every step forward is followed by a step back. Even as Florida is attempting to overturn all breed-specific legislation, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin is considering imposing a new ban. Yet it only takes a brief look at the history of pit bulls to realize that the dogs are not the problem; the humans who misuse them are. For over a hundred years, holding the owners personally responsible was enough to prevent attacks, and the breed was perceived as very child-friendly. With outreach and education, it may be possible to restore that image and rehabilitate the pit bull’s reputation, restoring an iconic American dog to its rightful place among mankind’s best friends.

Maybe Denver will be a first step back toward the direction of sanity and a reminder: It’s never the dog’s fault. It’s always the human’s.

Photo: The author being viciously mauled by the Dog Whisperer’s pit bull Junior. © 2017 Jon Bastian.

“Sit” by any other name

In what now seems like another lifetime, I used to write for Dog Whisperer Cesar Millan’s website. Here is an article originally published in two parts under the heading Dogs and Language, Part 1: ¿Se Habla Spaniel? And Part 2: Sprechen Sie Dachshund?

If you’re bilingual, have you trained your dog in more than one language? If you only speak one language, have you ever tried nonsense words on your dog? Either way, the purpose of this exercise is to separate the language you speak from what you’re communicating to your dog.

Whether you’re bilingual or monolingual, for this exercise you will need to come up with a list of words in a language you’ve never used with your dog before. Basically, you will substitute the words your dog knows with words your dog has never heard.

Go on. Dig up that high school Spanish. Go to an online translator, pick a random language, and make a list. Make up meaningless words. The important point is this: pick one word in the new language and match it to a something your dog knows.

For the next week, only use the replacement words whenever you would use the familiar ones — but think the familiar word while saying the new one. It also helps if the new words don’t sound like the old commands — choosing the German “sitz!” to replace the English “sit” wouldn’t really work, but using another word for sit that sounds nothing like it would be ideal.

If you’ve done this exercise right, very soon after you change the words, you should find your dog responding to them without hesitation, as if you’re still speaking the language they know.

What’s going on here?

If you’ve kept your intent the same and used the new words in the same context as the old, then your dog isn’t listening to what you say at all; she’s paying attention to your energy and body language — and your expectations.

Dogs are all about expectations. Groups of dogs work as a unit, instinctively, and follow the leader by sensing and mimicking body language. If you still don’t believe this, then try the following exercise.

Silence is golden

The instructions for this week are simpler, but also more difficult. For one week, use all your usual commands on your dog, but… you cannot say a word. You can use gestures, posture, and facial expressions. You just cannot say words or make sounds. If it helps, you can pretend to say the words in your head, but that’s it.

In each case, make sure that you have your dog’s attention — they should be looking at you calmly, and making full eye contact. But, once that’s achieved, communicate away in silence. You will probably feel the need to move your hands and arms. Go ahead and do so. You will probably feel stupid and nothing will happen for the first few tries. Don’t give up.

If you remain calm and focused, it won’t be long before your dog understands and responds. It shouldn’t take more than a day or two before your dog follows is picking up on what you’re telling him without a word, and before this doesn’t feel so strange and awkward for you. But, by the end of the week, you should be able to speak to your dog from across the room with merely eye contact and facial expression.

What’s going on here?

Again, in nature, dogs do not communicate with words. When they communicate with growls or barks, they really aren’t speaking to each other. The tone of a bark or growl is produced by a dog’s energy and body language, so such sounds are really more a communication of “How I feel right now” as an indicator of pain, danger, excitement, etc.

When one dog wants another to sit, it doesn’t make any sound. It will merely walk toward that dog while presenting as large a posture as possible, and bump into it if the message is not received. If the message is still not received, then a couple of well-placed paws will probably put the errant dog in line.

In any case, the path to forming that deeper connection with your dog or dogs begins with learning how to communicate like a dog, rather than in working against that and forcing your dog to communicate like a human.

Leave the human words behind, and you will develop an even stronger bond with your beloved canine. In return, your dog will love you even more for understanding it, and using its own language.

Stupid human tricks for becoming better leaders

Anything that will put you in closer touch with your own body or improve your human communication skills will help you to become more in tune with your dog. Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Yoga: You don’t have to be as flexible as a gymnast to do yoga, and there are varying levels and classes. Instructors are usually willing to accommodate your abilities, and doing all these weird stretches will help you get in touch with your body, and your body language.
  2. Dance/Aerobics: Again, you don’t have to be Fred Astaire to dance. Look around, and find something fitting your experience. Tap and Ballet are probably only for people who’ve had some dance training, but things like ballroom, waltz, or country line are probably accessible to anyone. If you don’t want to do dance in quite so formal a way, then look for an aerobics class.
  3. Improv: Although an aspect of theatre which frequently involves words, improv classes are excellent for teaching you the skill of listening, as well as teaching you to be constantly in the moment. Since dogs are also constantly living in the moment, improv is a good way to learn to be more dog-like.
  4. Volunteer: As in volunteer at your local animal shelter, where you’ll get to interact with lots of dogs that are not your own. Practice using the silent command method on each of them. Practice calm, assertive energy while walking them. Also inquire with your local veterinarians to find out if they need volunteers; ask your own vet if they will trade volunteer time for medical care.
  5. Read to Kids: No, really. Contact your local libraries and elementary schools to find out whether they have reading programs. And, although the above dog advice leans toward the non-verbal, reading to a room full of five-year-olds and keeping their attention is good practice, since many studies indicate that adult dogs operate at the same intellectual level as a human five-year-old. It’s not just the words keeping them pinned to their seats… what non-verbal cues are doing the job?

If all of the above fail, then there’s this: Take your dog on a long walk, in silence — but don’t forget to bring plenty of water for both of you. Your dog will let you know when you’ve walked long enough and it’s time to go home. Before that, your dog will let you know what it’s like to be a dog. Listen to the silence and learn.

Postscript: I actually wrote this piece, and included #3 up there, long before I started doing improv. Weird. I was giving myself future advice, I see.

Photo: Author’s dog Sheeba, taken by Stephen M. Grossman.

Sunday nibble #45

Keep in mind that I try to keep my post-writing a week or two ahead of the dates they go live, so for all I know everything could have gone downhill in the past week, given events from last weekend, which is when I’m writing this.

The Sunday Nibble is back from hiatus, which began with my Christmas Countdown, and the last installment was the eighth and last in a series of short pieces I’d originally written with the intention of publishing them on a friend’s website, The Flushed.

The series title was “A short guide to knowing your shit,” and it fit right in with The Flushed, which is about all things having to do with the bathroom — although the title they would have gotten used the word “poop” instead, because they’re more PG-13. But the series never ran there.

However… I am now also guest-blogging four times a month over at Paw.com, a site all about pets, mostly of the canine and feline variety. I wound up with this job because I used to write for “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Millan’s ecommerce website, and one of my former co-workers there recently became Creative Director for a company that does content creation for various client sites.

He contacted me almost immediately to offer the gig, and how could I say no? It was a natural fit. Check them out, and yes, they do sell stuff, specializing in beds, blankets, and other pet-friendly products.

So yes, it’s another case of “it’s who you know,” but Creative Directors are good people for artists and writers to know in general, since they tend to have a lot of clout within their organizations. And, being Creative Directors, they hire us — the creatives.

Also, from time-to-time, I’ll still post the random movie review to a site called Filmmonthly.com, which I founded two decades ago with a pair of fellow film-lovers, one of whom was the other roommate during the tenure of the very bizarre Strauss, about whom I wrote on Friday, and the other was the roommate who took over when Strauss abruptly departed — the one whose cousin accidentally torched their kitchen with a toaster oven.

We ran the thing for a good while, and all three of us were the publishers, racking up a ton of reviews. Eventually, we all stepped back and turned it over to the next generation, although for a long time our prior work was there — until one of the people trusted with the site at some point muffed up and wound up losing a lot of the older files forever.

Things that make you go “Grrrrr.” Unfortunately, if you search my name and filmmonthly, you’ll get a ton of hits because, as publisher, my name was on every page. Most of them will not be my work.

But I did recently review a low-budget adaptation of the King Arthur story that surprisingly did not suck, so there’s that. There was also a fun little indie comedy about incest, Call Me Brother, that I also liked and reviewed.

I’ll share another secret with you. The Christmas and New Year Countdowns are my way of giving myself a vacation. I program everything to publish automatically before Thanksgiving arrives, and then on the Friday after, boom. I don’t need to write or post anything for over a month.

This works out great IRL, because this also coincides with the frantic tail-end of my busy season at work, which pretty much entails seven-day weeks and ten hour days from October 15 to December 7. Every. Single. Year.

The only exception, of course, is when the Out of the Blue Oxford Boys drop their charity single for the current year. That always gets its own special post, because they and what they do are both very special.

Which is to say that, looking back at 2020, I’m kind of amazed that I managed to post something every single day when there were many days that I felt no motivation — and I think that’s true of a lot of us who lived through lockdown.

Kind of ironic, really. All the time in the world to write, but it was hard to get motivated. Except… it did give me time to focus in on The Rêves, which I started serializing here weekly back in July, long before I actually finished it.

And now it’s 2021, and it feels like we’re going to have a new beginning, maybe, but it won’t be soon and it won’t be fast. What it will probably be is the final general realization that if we want to fight this thing, we do have to take it seriously and sacrifice.

It may not seem like it, but “sacrifice” is something that Americans can be good at when they actually do it, and when they’re not being cheer-led on by greedy, selfish leaders.

Nobody really complained when security tightened up after 9/11 and it seemed like it took an anal probe and two blood samples to get into any government building. No one complained back when they could only buy gas on days based on their license plate number.

No one complained when everything was rationed during WW II. And on, and on.

Now, I don’t know what percentage of people who voted for a certain losing presidential candidate last year are also staunch anti-maskers, but I can give you these numbers. Out of the total U.S. population, only 23% voted for the outgoing incumbent. But if we cut that number down to “all people eligible to vote,” whether they do or not, then it’s 38%.

The other candidate got 25% of the total population, and 42% of all people eligible to vote, although based on the actual vote count, it came out as 52% to 48%.

Or, in other words, for the politically engaged, a divided world, but if you look at the total population, one thing stands out. The selfish people fall to around one-fifth of the population.

And that is very hopeful, because there are more of us who can be good Americans and sacrifice, whether we vote or not (and why the hell don’t you, if you’re eligible?) than there are greedy Americans who want to burn it all down.

So… for every Karen, there are four Americans willing to stand up to her shit. And that is how we are going to turn it around in 2021, albeit slowly, and finally see normalcy return in 2022.

Simply put, there are still more Americans willing to do the right thing. We’re just not as vocal or visible as the selfish ones who like to kick and scream like infants to get their way. But their tantrum will end soon, once they’ve woken up to reality. If they ever do.

Okay, it’s another Sunday Nibble turned into a full buffet, but that’s okay. It feels like I’m coming out of hibernation, so there’s a lot on my mind.

Amazing animal adaptations to the human world

If you think that animals haven’t continued to evolve in the wake of having wound up in the middle of human cities and culture, then you haven’t been paying attention. Our friends — furry and otherwise — are catching up to us. And why not? Some of them try to emulate us as much as possible, while others are just really good at reading our body language. Others still are good at figuring out patterns independent of our behavior, while a final group doesn’t think much, but knows how to follow instinct.

Let’s start out with our emulators.

It’s a typical Monday morning as you make your way from your house on the outskirts of the city to the subway station for your regular morning commute to your office downtown. You get on the train and take your seat, armed with the newspaper or touch pad or smart phone as the usual distraction, when you notice a half dozen or so unaccompanied dogs casually enter the last car with you and, like any other commuter, take their seats. They sit or lie quietly as the train heads off for the city and, as you stand to get off at the central station, so do they.

This would be an unusual sight in most major cities, but to the residents of Moscow, Russia, it has become quite routine. In the twenty years since the break-up of the Soviet Union, the changing face of this metropolis of nearly twelve million has forced its population of stray dogs to learn the ways of their human counterparts. By night, they live in the deserted industrial areas outside of the city, a canine population last estimated five years ago at 26,000. By day, they head downtown, where the people are and, more importantly, where the free food is, and they do it the same way the humans do.

No one taught the dogs how to navigate one of the world’s busiest subway systems. They have managed to figure it out on their own, and have also learned the concept of traffic signals. Stray dogs have been observed waiting for the light before crossing the street, and they aren’t just taking their cues from humans – they exhibit the same behavior when the streets are devoid of people. What they do take from humans are their lunches, and some enterprising dogs will use a well-timed bark to startle a hapless pedestrian into dropping their shawarma onto the pavement, to be snatched away by the successful hunter. When not using this technique, they will scavenge from dumpsters, or just hang out in busy areas waiting for the inevitable handout. They’ve also been known to exploit human psychology by sending in the cutest puppers in order to do the heavy-lifting of begging for the whole pack.

Yes, these dogs are playing us.

Why they have figured out these tricks is fairly obvious: their environment changed when downtown was revitalized and they had to adapt. How they do it, though, is another question, and zoologists are still studying them to figure it out. The dogs can’t read signs, so their subway navigation, which includes getting on and off at the right stops, is still a mystery, as is their ability to obey a traffic light on their own. It would be one thing if they had been trained – but they have not.

This isn’t the only example of animals adapting to the human world. The next group are the pattern seekers, who use repetitive and predictable cues to figure out how to safely navigate the space in order to feed.

In Japan, crows have been observed exploiting roads and traffic in order to crack nuts that they can’t themselves — but the most remarkable part of this is that they use the traffic signals to tell them when it’s safe to go into the road to fetch the good stuff.

Next is the animal to exploit humans by using instinct over intellect, although ultimately a bit of both: Clever Hans, a horse that appeared to know how to do simple sums and count, until it was determined that what the horse was really doing was reacting to subtle human emotions given away as the horse approached the answer. Hans could literally tell when he’d hit the right number via tapping his hoof until the humans reached maximum excitement, by which point he’d learned that “Decrease in excitement means stop.”

At least this is a few orders of magnitude above the animal that reacts strictly by instinct, with no intellect involved — the “avoid that moving shadow and get out of the light” reaction common to cockroaches, who are far less intelligent than horses. They don’t think about what they’re doing or why. They don’t have the brain capacity for that. Instead, they just automatically skittle away from things perceived as danger. This is a very common behavior among animals, and in fact extends all the way down to single-celled organisms, which will also instinctively and automatically swim away from chemical signals that they consider unpleasant or dangerous.

That’s how survival and evolution work, and it’s how life on Earth evolved from being mindless single-celled organisms that only know “swim toward food, swim from trouble” to the complex primates that seem to be top of the food-chain for the moment and, at least for now, have developed our technology far enough to start to fling ourselves out into the solar system.

And that process is also how we inadvertently help all of our domesticated animals to evolve, so it shouldn’t be any surprise that as we develop more technology and empathy, our companions develop more empathy and intelligence. Sure, I don’t know whether it’s us or our pets getting smarter, or if it’s a mutual act, but whichever it is doesn’t matter. The only important part is that we seem to be increasing the emotional bond between ourselves and our animals that are above the purely instinctual level, since most of that latter group seem to be nothing but pests.

Maybe this will lead us to a meatless world, or at least one where all of our meat is grown in labs or fabricated from plant products. If you’ve never seen dancing cows, happy goats, laughable lambs, pet pigs, or even redeemed raccoon and frisky ferrets, you should. The more I learn about animals, the less I want to eat them.