Monday, April 30, 2007

Chimeras, coydogs and a really strange chimp

Humans have always been fascinated by chimeras, a combination of animals into one creature. Ancient civilizations frequently depicted them. A "chimera" is actually one particular imaginary creature that has lent its name to the whole concept. Some chimeras are actually real, but are offspring of two closely related animals, at least from the same genus. More likely they are hybrids, which is a similar concoction, the technical difference between the two involves cells and zygotes and all that fun stuff, not important here. Real of imagined, these animals are often quite interesting. With no attempt to be comprehensive, we start with some ancient imaginary creatures and move on later to the ones that you can actually go see.

Chimera. Why not start with the prototype. A chimera is a creation of the ancient Greeks, and is part lion, part goat and part dragon (sometimes part snake). It seems to me that the feline part is the strongest of the three, as in most images you see, the monster seems to be headed wherever the lion leads. You sort of have to feel sorry for the goat, whose head is planted smack in the middle of the snake and lion parts. Being part dragon, it breathed fire and terrorized the humans living nearby it. According to myth, it was killed by Bellerophon, a Greek hero riding on the back of another “chimera” named Pegasus.

Pegasus. A Greek myth whose name and image is still familiar to us thanks to the many companies that have adopted him as their mascot, from Mobil Oil to an Icelandic film company. One of the more popular mythological creatures (probably because he didn’t eat people), even Shakespeare gave him a mention in Henry IV.

Pegasus’ mother was another chimera known as Medusa, the original “Yo momma is so ugly . . . “ girl, whose hair was made of snakes. She was so ugly that whoever looked upon her was turned to stone, and she is found in several Greek myths.

It seems like Pegasus is part bird and part horse, despite his snaky mother. The horse part comes from his father in some myths, Poseidon, god of the sea, and for some strange reason, also horses.

Unicorn. Speaking of horses, probably the other most popular legendary chimera is the Unicorn, which is also part horse and part – what? Legend doesn’t really tell us. Narwhale, swordfish, rhino? It may not seem like a true chimera, just a horse with a horn, but it is. The unicorn traditionally has a goat’s beard and a lion’s tail. There are, however, numerous versions of the beast, which we learned about from the Greeks, and which they believed actually existed in far off India.

The medieval unicorns are the ones most familiar to us. The Cloisters, a medieval monastery, which improbably sits on the Northern tip of Manhattan, has a collection of tapestries, made a few years after Columbus first sailed the ocean blue, that are spectacular. The various tapestries contain depictions of over a 100 different plant varieties, most of which have actually been identified. Weaved from the threads of several different materials, the tapestries are, in a sense, more astonishing than many famous paintings, which were probably a lot easier to create.

The name unicorn appears in the Bible, but not until the King James version in the early 1600s, which used the Latin for “single horn” in place of some other creature whose name they could not readily translate. Medieval unicorns are famously susceptible to virgins (not real surprising given the giant phallic symbol on its head) who can easily capture them and lull them to sleep. Although imaginary, it is not hard to see how unicorns were conceived by man, given the domesticity of horses, and the existence of such creatures as rhinos, oryx (an antelope which when viewed from its side looks like a unicorn) and narwhales, all of which probably contributed to the legend.

We could go on to centaurs -- half horse, half man, and the sphinx, the monolithic lion with a human face that sits on the same plain as the Egyptian pyramids. These two creations, along with the others, probably round out the hall of fame of "chimeras," although there were many others. The above creatures are all imaginary. But there are real chimeras or hybrids, which are also interesting, if not quite so exotic. Scientists have even created a sheep/goat, or "geep", in the 1980s in a controlled experiment, which not surprisingly, they named “Chimera”. However, the "dat" (half dog/half cat) was a 70s hoax. For the sake of accuracy, the following are technically hybrids, rather than actual chimeras.

Coydogs. I had never heard of these animals until I was in my thirties, and given my intense interest in animals when I was younger, arrogantly refused to believe that they were real. I was assured by a young lady from upstate that they were real, all right. She was correct.
A coydog is the offspring of a male coyote and a female dog. There are dogotes, in which case the male is the dog, but female coyotes spend such a short time in heat, it rarely happens that they are in a dog’s company at the right time.

Coydogs are often bred by humans, but some are wild, which can be a little scary. Take this scenario described from a backwoods website (

“My brother-in-law, who is an avid hunter, tells me these dogs will come in and attack a human, although I've yet to see it. (I actually hope I don't see it.) I've heard of one hunter who prefers to climb a tree and sleep in the woods if it gets too late, because he feels safer there, than out wandering around when the coy dog come out. That's a scary thought, considering the man has a gun with him, and lots of hunting trophies hanging on the walls of his home. I heard a farmer say that the coy dog will come out and eat mice from behind the tractor often while he is tedding hay in his field. I heard them kill a beagle one day... that was the most awful thing I've ever heard while living out here. It made me scream. Needless to say, there is a spooky feeling that comes with these animals... Whether it is myth or real, it keeps you thinking. Do you really want to allow small children to go out and play in the forest without supervision? You might not give it a second thought if you have not heard a pack of dogs for yourself. After hearing these dogs do their war cry, likely you will think twice about it, at the very least.

Two nights ago, we had our turn at a visit with these wild critters. Steve took the dog outside, and they were hanging out there. All of a sudden, Steve and our dog had two packs of dogs howling at them, one on each side of them. Steve said they were so close, he could hear them breathing. You really have to hear them to imagine the feeling this can send through your soul. It really does make the hair rise on the back of your neck. Steve brought the dog in, who was feeling a bit confused by the whole thing, and headed out again, this time with a weapon, just in case he needed it. By the time he got back out there, they were gone.”

Oh, they are real all right. In some states breeding coydogs is illegal, as it is with wolfdogs ( Frankly, they scare the hell out of me. Although coyotes are found all over North America, they shy away from people, and usually only attack small animals, ocassionally biting a human. But, once you mix them with another animal, you can't count on the behavior being the same. To mix a coyote's speed (no dog can match them and even a thourougbred for only a short time) and cunning with a dog's often larger size and lack of fear of humans, sounds like a dangerous combination.

Ligers and Tigons. These are combinations of Tigers and Lions. If it is a male lion, it’s a liger, the reverse a tigon; and they are similar although tigons are more likely to be fertile than ligers. The liger has a showing of both stripes and large size, and a lion's spots (typical of young lions), tail, and, in males, a mane. They also roar like lions. The most interesting thing about these creatures is that they are HUGE, as if prehistoric. A liger may be twice the size of the already huge siberian tiger, which is the largest cat born in the wild. One theory has it that because of the combination of species the growth hormone never quite turns off in them, or at least not for a long time. Despite their enormous size, they move as stealthily as other cats.

Fortunately for natives of Africa and Asia, these cats are probably only found in captivity, as lion and tiger ranges do not normally meet in the wild, having different habitats.

Then there is Oliver the "humanzee". I recently saw a documentary about Oliver and sneered all the way through it. Although it looked convincing, I couldn't buy the half chimp, half man story line. Come on. Then I did some research and saw that Oliver really exists, is still alive, and quite a story.

Oliver was found in the wild in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). His original owners, the Bergers, found him to be quite an interesting chimp or possibly, half chimp. He had a very human looking face, although partially as a result of having his teeth removed, which flattened his face a bit. But he was also bald on top like a man might be, and looked like a very hairy old grandfather. His behavior was also suspect. He insisted on almost always walking like a human, in a way other chimps simply can’t, or at least not for very long. It was his stride that especially interested me, more so than his human like face. He did seem like a man walking in a monkey suit.

According to his owners, Oliver did not smell like other chimps, and was not liked by them. He much preferred watching tv with the family than monkeying around. His powers of comprehension and concentration also made him seem somewhere between human and chimp. As his owner explained, if you showed another chimp how to load a wheelbarrow, as soon as you turned around, it would be up a tree. Oliver would take the wheelbarrow to where they pointed, and calmly fill it.

In fact, Oliver became almost another member of the family until his teens, when he started showing an unhealthy sexual interest in Mrs. Berger. He was already a media favorite and was sold off to a New York lawyer. He has had several owners since then, went through many sad years in captivity and now lives in a home for chimps.

No one knew if Oliver was just a chimp, a mutant of some type, or the product of some bizarre mating of Tarzan and Cheetah (Cheetah and Jane seemed less likely). Eventually, one of his owners got the bright idea of doing a dna test on him in 1996 and Oliver . . .

turns out to be just a chimp who walks, looks and acts like a man. Not quite as exciting, but still, there is something about Oliver that is just different, and if you get a chance to see a documentary about him, you will at least be charmed. He is not a chimera, but despite my knee jerk cynicism, I am kind of sorry they did the test. Even sceptics can dream.


  1. Coy dogs scare the hell out of you? Pussy.

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .