Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Stool School

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!

5 Responses to “Stool School”

  1. Herb Stahlke said

    Does anyone happen to know the age at which children begin using generic subjects?


  2. A woman brought a very limp duck into a vet. As she laid her pet on the table, the vet pulled out his stethoscope and listened to the bird’s chest. Then he shook his head and said, “I’m so sorry, your duck has passed away.”

    The distressed owner wailed, “Are you sure?”
    “Yes, I’m quite sure. The duck is dead,” he replied. “How can you be so sure?” she protested. “You haven’t done any testing on him! He might just be in a coma.”

    The vet left the room and returned a few moments later with a Labrador Retriever. As the duck’s owner looked on, the dog stood on his hind legs, put his front paws on the examination table and sniffed the duck from top to bottom. Then he looked at the vet and shook his head.
    The vet patted the dog and took him out, returning a few moments later with a cat. The cat jumped up on the table and sniffed delicately at the bird. Then she sat back on her haunches, meowed softly, jumped off the table, and strolled out of the room.

    The vet looked at the woman and said, “I’m sorry, but as I said, this is most definitely, certifiably, a dead duck.” Then he turned to his computer terminal, hit a few keys, and printed a bill, which he handed to the woman.
    The duck’s owner, still in shock, took the bill. “$150!” she cried. “$150 just to tell me my duck is dead?” The vet shrugged.

    “I’m sorry—if you’d taken my word for it, it would have been $20, but with the Lab Report and the Cat Scan, it’s $150.”

  3. Glad you liked it, Neal! I just couldn’t resist.

  4. Great story! By the way, I am pretty sure the Labs could determine what was wrong with Ron and Jennie’s dog by smelling its poop but they would have trouble communicating it to humans.

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