Posted by Neal on June 15, 2010
Over the weekend, Adam and I went on his Cub Scout pack’s summer camping trip. The highlight of the trip was a visit to the Wilds, an exotic-animal preserve operated by the Columbus Zoo in eastern Ohio, on lands reclaimed from strip-mining operations. Riding on the safari bus, we saw Bactrian camels, giraffes and rhinoceroses, and something I’d never seen before called the Sichuan takin. The tour guide said that there were also some North American animals there; in particular, they knew that bobcats were starting to recolonize the area, but they were very hard to observe.
“So,” our guide Alex told us, “they use specially trained dogs to look for bobcat scat. Do you know what scat is?”
The scouts knew: “Poop!”
“That’s right!” Alex continued with details about how you teach dogs to sniff out bobcat poop: “You put a piece of it under one of several cups, and reward them when they knock over the right one. So now, they can go out in the field and find where the bobcats have been, because if bobcat poop is there, then a bobcat has been there. And you know what else they can do? They can put that poop under a microscope to find out what kind of things the bobcats have been eating.”
“Wow, smart dogs,” I said to my seatmate Ron, the father of one of Adam’s fellow scouts. “I didn’t know dogs could use microscopes.”
Our guide had switched without warning from anaphoric they (which referred back to the dogs she was already talking about) to generic they to talk about what anyone with the skills and curiosity could find out from bobcat excrement. It had taken me a second to make the switch along with her.
All the talk about dogs and stool samples reminded Ron of a favorite family story involving both. When his daughter Jenny was about four or five years old, he told me, he and his wife Pauline had had to collect a stool sample from their dog to take to the vet. Jenny wanted to know why.
Ron and Pauline explained that the vets were going to send the poop to a lab to find out what was wrong with their dog.
Jenny just couldn’t get this. “But I don’t understand!” she kept protesting. Ron and Pauline tried to explain that labs had microscopes they could use to examine the stool sample and get clues about the dog’s condition.
“But I don’t understand! How can they do that?” Jenny asked. At one point she was almost in tears, Rick recalled.
Finally she burst out, “But how do they teach those dogs to do that!?”, and Ron and Pauline finally realized that all the time they’d been saying “labs,” Jenny had been hearing “Labs”.
And, I might add, when her parents were using generic they to refer to whoever worked at the labs, Jenny was taking it as an anaphoric they, with Labs as its antecedent. It made sense, in a four-year-old kind of way, Ron admitted: Who more appropriate to send your dog’s stool sample to than another dog? Dogs sniff other dogs’ stool samples all the time!