Dr. Pavlov, I Presume?
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.
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
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.
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
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
“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
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
“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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.