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Tails of Love

The bond between people and animals is one of the strongest and most beneficial friendships in history.

Tails of Love

— Catherine Ledner

The rocket came in fast, maybe 900 feet per second—too fast for anyone to sound the warning siren, and much too fast for all the troops of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force to take cover. It was March 21, 2007, when the 73-millimeter insurgent-launched rocket exploded inside their base in the Al Anbar province of Iraq, right next to Corporal Dustin Jerome Lee and his canine partner, Lex. Lee, a 20-year-old Mississippi native, was gravely wounded by the blast. Lex—a German shepherd trained to sniff out hidden explosives—was also injured, his brown and black fur burned, shrapnel lodged in his back and spine.

Marines on the scene watched as the bleeding Lex climbed on top of Corporal Lee to protect him from further harm. They saw Lex try to revive his master by licking his wounds. And the Marines who rushed to their comrade's side had to peel Lex reluctantly off the young corporal so medics could try to save him. But Corporal Lee's injuries were too severe; he died at a nearby military hospital.

A few days later, two uniformed Marines arrived at the Lee family home in Quitman, Mississippi, to deliver the news of the corporal's death. "After the Marine Corps representative told us everything that happened," recalls Dustin Lee's mother, Rachel (pictured above with Lex), "my next question was—and I'll always remember it—'What about Lex?' "

The Marines seemed puzzled. "We're not sure," they said. "We know he's alive. Why?"

"The more we talked, the more I wanted Lex to be at Dustin's funeral," she says. "After hearing that Lex climbed on top of Dustin as they both bled…Lex and Dustin shared a bond, and now that bond is a blood bond. Lex was the last to see my child. I wanted him there at the funeral with me."

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What explains this powerful human-animal connection? What makes a wounded dog protect his dying partner—and what makes a grieving mother want that faithful canine companion at her son's funeral?

Humans have long been fascinated by the other animals with whom we share this planet. Our distant ancestors started painting horses and the fearsome aurochs (which humans would eventually tame and breed into the contemporary cow) on cave walls tens of thousands of years ago. Animals both wild and domesticated adorned ancient pottery and jewelry, and joined our ancestors in their tombs.

Today animals still enchant us, perhaps more so than at any time in history. There are roughly twice as many pets in American households as there are children under 18. Forty years ago Americans owned about 40 million pet dogs and cats in a nation of 200 million people; today our pet population has more than quadrupled, as the human population has grown to 300 million. Sentimental books such as Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World and Marley & Me have become New York Times bestsellers. We knit for our dogs and serve lobster to our cats. And when our pets become ill, we're ever more willing to spring for veterinary care. Ailments that used to be death warrants—cancer, a broken hip, kidney failure—are now often successfully treated. "When I first went into practice [in the late 1980s], ten was pretty old for a Labrador or golden retriever," says Jeff Wells, D.V.M., the author of All My Patients Have Tales. "Now I often see those breeds at 14, 15 years old."

But even though we've benefited from the loyalty, intelligence, and labor of animals for thousands of years, humans are only beginning to understand why we feel such strong attachments to specific members of other species. Over the past ten years intriguing studies have started to reveal the evolutionary, social, and biochemical reasons that people and animals are such fast friends—and offer the rudiments of an explanation for the amazing phenomenon of animal heroism.

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