Dr. Pavlov, I Presume?

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, March 1995

Dr. Pavlov, I Presume?

In a world that's going to the hogs, this little Piggy will have none of it.
By Randy Wayne White

There was much to recommend the rainforest coast of northeastern Australia, many curios and recreations -- giant crocs, coral reefs, and tree-climbing kangaroos among them -- but for the moment my attention was devoted to the topic at hand, namely, the conditioning of Dr. Pavlov's dogs.

"Fit little dears, what? Hoh! They love to run, the lot of 'em. Especially when they get a pig up their nostrils." When Peter Pavlov, Ph.D., is describing his dogs, "pig up the nostrils" is a much-used expression.

There were four: all cattle cur and kelpie crossbreeds, each blue glazed with shepherd patching. There was Kazi, the lead dog. Heckle and Meat were the scouts. And little Meg, just nine months old, was serving her apprenticeship, and learning to hunt. "Not easy up in the bush," Pavlov reminded me. "Dog has to learn about pigs. Just the same as people!"

Pig dogs and dogging pigs: Pavlov's two favorite subjects. He is, after all, one of Australia's foremost experts on feral hogs, a dedicated field biologist who has spent the last 17 years researching and writing about the esoterica of wild swine. Feral Pigs, Ungulate Predators is one of his monographs. The Behaviour of Feral Pigs in Flocks of Lambing Ewes is another. And those who suspect that Pavlov's interest in dogs is selfishly utilitarian would do well to read his Comparative Dimensions of Testes of Australian Dingoes. "Fascinating animal, the dingo," Pavlov might tell you. "Did you know that the Australian kelpie was developed by crossing dingoes with British sheepdogs? Study the dingo, then spend a few months in the bush watching my dogs work pigs, you won't doubt it. Oh yes, there are similarities!"

Already I was learning a lot from Dr. Pavlov, and I had every reason to believe that arranging a meeting with him was one of the smartest moves I had made since arriving in Queensland. Arranging a meeting wasn't easy. Between Cairns and Mossman I had made inquiries: Were there any researchers around doing interesting fieldwork? My motivation wasn't scientific; it was selfish. (The reasons are complex; I'll explain them later.) Even so, I was eager to hook up with some reputable professional who could lead me into the outback, and Pavlov's name was on the short list. More interesting, his name was always offered with a strange mix of reticence and amusement: "When it comes to the rainforest, Peter Pavlov's good value. But believe me, mate, you don't want to go pig-shooting with Piggy!"

That's what Pavlov did -- hunted pigs and shot them. It came as no surprise, and I'm not prissy about such things. This, after all, is the white man's way: First kill it, then study it. My enthusiasm grew.

Pavlov was well known in small coastal villages such as Daintree and Wonga, and nearly everyone hinted, implied, or just came right out and told me that only the foolhardy would follow the man into the woods. "You come to Oz on holiday, right, mate? Well, Piggy Pavlov's no holiday!"

Which is exactly why I traveled up the coast to Cape Tribulation National Park, where Pavlov, as well as pursuing private research on feral hogs, is employed as a conservation officer.

I got lucky. Pavlov had been in the field and was just getting ready to go back out again, but yes, he supposed he could stop by the fancy eco-lodge where I was staying. "Bit of a chat-up about pigs?" he asked. "Righty-o. Not a problem. But could we meet in the parking lot? I'll be bringing my dogs, of course, and the lodge's guests might not appreciate four pig dogs splashing around in their pool."

That seemed prudent. The eco-lodge had a nice pool. We met in the parking lot.

In appearance, Peter Pavlov is a cheerful, gnomish mix of outdoorsman and academic. He has wild red hair, a prospector's whiskers, and the kind of bandy, bowed legs that I had previously seen only on Gurkha mercenaries and a certain manic type of Outward Bound instructor. Horn-rimmed glasses gave him a bookish look, but the khaki shorts and field cap were pure Australian. Same with his pattern of speech: Each sentence ended with a gradual upward inflection, from tenor to second soprano, so that when he laced several sentences together it sounded as if he were attempting to sing.

"Am I related to Pavlov the famous researcher? I'm often asked that. Yes, it's not an unfamiliar question to me."


"Oh, it's possible, I suppose. Yes, it's certainly possible."

But it seemed more than possible. Nobel laureate Ivan Pavlov, famous for his use of dogs in researching human psychology, was a ruling-class Russian. Piggy Pavlov's father was an anticommunist White Russian who migrated to Australia during the postrevolution chaos, 18 years after Ivan won the prize. These dogs bouncing all around the parking lot, lathering Piggy's hands, seemed like final affirmation. But I took it as the best of omens -- as well as the mark of Piggy Pavlov's strong character -- that he didn't dwell on the connection to any famous relative. I have learned not to expect such rectitude from academia's ego-brittle members.

Also, and to be honest, it was difficult to get Pavlov to talk about anything but pigs. And his dogs. And how his dogs dealt with pigs. If those topics lagged, there were dingoes. But pigs were at the top of his agenda. Did I know that feral pigs were a terrible environmental problem worldwide? Did I realize that feral pigs not only destroyed the rainforest with their constant rooting, but also impacted indigenous fauna by hogging food and, worse, preying on helpless young? Hawaii was a good example. Feral pigs were destroying the islands! In Pakistan, Asiatic boars competed with rats to destroy crops. In 1977, in New South Wales, feral pigs had almost single-handedly destroyed the wheat harvest.

"I had to go to the African literature to truly understand the behavior of feral pigs," Pavlov told me. We were still in the parking lot. His dogs had yet to find the eco-lodge's pool. "Have you ever read about hyenas? Hyenas are one of the few animals that kill for sport. 'Thrill kill,' the literature calls it." Pavlov looked at me. "Do you know what other animal kills just to kill?"

I took a guess. "Feral pigs?"

"Exactly! Pigs are predators, never forget it. Oh, they'll knock down a lamb and devour it in the blink of an eye. They are extremely destructive animals, and we really must find a way to deal with them." When he said that, his tone illustrated his dislike for feral pigs but also conveyed an underlying joy that they existed. If not for them, what would he and his dogs hunt?

Piggy talked on about pigs. It was interesting -- it truly was. But in time I brought the conversation around to the reason for our meeting: Could I join him on one of his field trips?

Pavlov was reluctant. There wasn't that much to see, he said. Fieldwork was actually rather boring. He hemmed and hawed, the prelude to polite refusal.

I pressed.

It was then that Piggy Pavlov said something that would later haunt me. He said, "People have come along before, mate, and it's never worked out. They just didn't understand that you must have a...have a...well, a very high tolerance for inconvenience to hunt pigs." It was phrased as understatement, of course, but it did not seem a cloak for maliciousness, as understatement so often is. No, Piggy Pavlov was cheerful and kind, and he remained so. He had stated his objections in a way that left the responsibility and the decision up to me.

I made it.

The next morning at five we left in search of pigs.

I said that my motivation for seeking out a field biologist was selfish, and it's true. From past experience, I knew that traveling with a researcher, just about any researcher, is a good way to see and become familiar with any kind of habitat. No matter what their specialty, biologists usually have a solid understanding of where creatures are and of who is doing what to whom. It's true that biologists are prone to eccentricity, but I like eccentrics. Furthermore, it had been my experience that field researchers behaved, well, reasonably while in the field. They didn't invite blisters with forced marches; they didn't invite injury by making difficult climbs. For them, wilderness was a place of study, not an instrument for measuring their machismo, which is to say that they took a lot of rest stops and often brought interesting things to drink.

So that's one selfish reason I sought out Peter Pavlov. Another is that I had spent nearly two weeks four-wheeling around northeastern Queensland, and I was weary of the constant tourist flow and roadside scenery. Nothing against northeastern Queensland, mind you. Queensland is Australia's tropical rim, the emerald fringe of the antipodean dust bowl.

It's gorgeous. As I said, it possesses enough curios and recreations to recommend it. But it's precisely because of this that the region is Australia's biggest tourism draw. Travelers from the Pacific Rim and around the world come to view its wonders. They come by the thousands, by the tens of thousands. The international port of Cairns, like Key West, Florida, is a fun coastal town with its own funky sense of history. But Cairns, also like Key West, is on a balls-out tourist binge. Cairns's main strip, the Esplanade, crackles with a riot of hand-painted BOOK HERE! signs flogging ecotours, car rentals, reef trips, floatplane rides, whitewater raft excursions, croc-watching trips, hot-air balloon rides, and gourmet backpacking outings, one of which challenges: ARE YOU FIT ENOUGH?

This is sufficiently unsavory, but worse, almost all the tours rely on the single road north out of Cairns for access to the rainforest and beaches. Even the brutal four-wheel-drive-only sections are so busy that they resemble a Toyota road rally. No matter where I went along the coast, I couldn't escape the impression that I was in the world's largest theme park, a green and spacious attraction through which the Nikon snapshooters, cruise couples, washed-out hippie pretenders, yupsters, and greensters alike all chauffeured themselves. It was after about a week of this bullshit that I began to make serious inquiries about field researchers.

But enough of this. I was finally with Piggy Pavlov, and we were about to hunt feral hogs. While it was still dark, he packed me into his old four-by-four among the chattering dogs and drove to a nearby beach fringe. The fringe was heavily wooded. Pavlov threw open the vehicle's doors and introduced me to his hunting technique: The dogs chased the pigs, and we chased the dogs. The initial chase covered a couple of hours and more than a couple of miles. It was pleasant. The woods were fresh with the medicinal odor of eucalyptus trees and rose gum, mixed with the smell of the sea. Every now and then Pavlov would hand me his M1 carbine to hold while he ducked under vines or stopped to study hog sign. There was a lot of hog sign. He certainly hadn't exaggerated the damage that the pigs were doing. Whole sections of forest had been rooted bare. It looked as if a mad bulldozer had been at work. But the dogs didn't corner a single pig.

"Not a problem," Pavlov told me. "Oh, they're smart, pigs are. That's why it takes 18 months or more to get a dog trained properly. And this is the easy part of my work! I'm not in this for the hunt, understand. It's purely scientific. After we take a pig or two, we have to do the necropsy. Have to see what they're eating to understand just what they're destroying. And check the liver parasites. Bloody work, mate. I once had a pig's intestines explode in me beard! Wasn't very pleased about that, I'll tell you!"

We drove to another area -- a highland rainforest named Mount Sorrow -- and began to hike uphill through dense brush. As we did, Pavlov chatted along happily. He told me how he had started his research in 1977 with a motorbike, a sheep dog, and a .308 rifle. "Dog sat on the petrol tank as I putted along, then he'd leap off the bike when he got a dose of pig up his nostrils!" I learned that feral pigs in Australia, as in many parts of the world, were the descendants of pigs brought by European colonials. The exceptions, he said, might be the very pigs we were now hunting. "In Queensland, I've found ticks on some pigs that are found only in New Guinea and Melanesia. And a stomach nematode found only in India and eastern Asia. The implication is that travelers brought pigs across the Torres Strait, perhaps long in advance of European settlers. But that's circumstantial. I still have a lot of work to do."

For the first few hours, I enjoyed myself. I was with a man who genuinely loved his work, and that kind of enthusiasm is contagious. Also, we were in big forest. Some of the trees were more than a hundred feet tall. There were clear streams to ford, and the air was fresh. "Oh, you'll see places that few locals and no tourists have ever seen," Pavlov had promised, and he was certainly right.

But then the terrain changed, and my mood began to change with it. The grade became steeper, and the undergrowth was dominated by a particularly noxious plant that Australians call wait-awhile palm. I have never in my life experienced anything like wait-awhile palm, and I hope to God I never experience it again. It starts life as a vine that is serrated with thorns shaped like fishhooks. This vine shoots out in tendrils, tangling itself with other wait-awhile vines until the whole mess resembles concertina wire. The mountain was covered with it, but that didn't deter Pavlov or his dogs. ("Pigs are smart, mate! Exactly the kind of country where they choose to hide by day.") I would take a step, and the vines would trip my leg. As I was untangling my leg, the fishhooks would latch into my hands, and the vines would tangle around my arms. For three hours, maybe four, I never took an unencumbered stride. I tried finessing my way through it. Then I tried bulling my way. But one was no better than the other. It was maddening. It was exhausting. My calves began to cramp. Then my thighs. When I yawned, my jaw cramped, too. And still we pushed toward the top of the mountain.

Pavlov was wearing shorts; his legs were a bloody mess. He didn't seem to mind or even notice. I began to study his expression, his demeanor, to see if he was subjecting me to some kind of trial by fire. If so, he wasn't the only one around who knew how to use an M1 carbine! And if his dogs turned ugly, I'd give them something more memorable than a pig up the nostrils!

But no, Pavlov was a pure spirit. This was his work, and he was obsessed by it. Ego and comfort had no more meaning to him than those bastard vines, which is again to say that he was unlike any field researcher I had ever met. He was not of a type; the man's behavior was contrary to all my previous conditioning. You can bet your last bottom dollar on this: If I'd known field researchers could be like Piggy Pavlov, I would have been sipping a beer at the eco-lodge pool or blissfully watching the Toyotas fly by on the coastal road -- anywhere but on that hellish mountain.

We came to another stream, and I dropped down into it, drinking deeply. I couldn't go on. I was cramping like a narcosis victim; my electrolyte meter was at dead empty. Yet I couldn't make myself admit it to Pavlov. He had told me, "You must have a very high tolerance for inconvenience to hunt pigs," and I had laughed off the warning. But enough was enough! I opened my mouth to speak the truth, but instead a lie floated out. I croaked, "I've been thinking about it, Piggy, and I'm almost sure that I got a whiff of hogs back by the truck. Pretty strong, too."

Isn't it amazing how controlled we can sound when we are least in control of our senses? But Pavlov never doubted me, never doubted me for an instant. He said, "There was a lot of sign down there, mate. But are you certain?"

I told him that I had spent part of my boyhood working on a hog farm -- that, at least, was true. "The smell of pigs sticks with a man," I told him. "I would have said something earlier, but I thought the dogs might be onto something fresh."

Pavlov mustered the troops -- "Kazi! Heckle! Meat!" -- and we immediately started back down the mountain. I could have wept with relief. Maybe I did. Or maybe the tears were from fighting my way back through those goddamn vines. It took almost as much time to get down as it did to hike up, but we made it. There would be no pigs waiting for us, of course, but it didn't matter. I had done what few others had done -- hunted with Peter Pavlov -- and I had done it without whining or quitting. Not officially, anyway. But, wonder of wonders, as we walked into the clearing that led to the truck, a big boar and four sows jumped out, and a very pleased Piggy shot two of them.

Later, as we performed the necropsies, Pavlov paid me a compliment. "You've got a nose for this, mate. Hog farm, was it? Fair dinkum, you do!"

I told him that it was conditioning. When it came to pigs, I was like a dog answering the bell.

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