While walkin’ the dog on Saturday morning, I had two contrasting encounters with local animals. One was uplifting, the other dispiriting.
On reaching the road at the top of our track and deciding which route to take, an indefinable shape down to my right dictated my choice. I wondered at first whether a branch had been blown down onto the road. Then, as I got a little nearer and Alf picked up the scent, I realised it was a group of three small chevreuils – the white-bottomed roe deer that hide in the woods from hunters – idling on the road. There aren’t many cars along here at the best of times and they only bounded back into the woods when Alf took off after them. We see quite a lot of them here. We curse them for their ticks and cherish them for their grace and beauty.
On the home leg, coming down from the top meadow into our nearest hamlet, I spotted one of the white goats that live in the two crowded hangars, dumped unceremoniously by the big sliding door. The poor creature was as lifeless as a taxidermist’s creation. Past its sell-by date. No doubt the farmer would pick it up later and take it to wherever he normally takes the cadavers. In the UK now, some no doubt well-intended but misguided piece of legislation requires farmers to leave their dead animals by the side of the road until they are picked up by some animal-disposal agency. Sometimes they can lie there for several days at a time. I suspect that French farmers are more pragmatic.
I didn’t stop to study the goat. I prefer to pause for a chat to the living – on mornings when the door has been slid back to admit some air – rather than to linger on an ex-goat. I am not sufficiently philosophical about the great cycle of existence to face squarely up to death. Besides, the poor stiff creature was too obvious a symbol of the way we treat animals as commodities, to breed, trade and otherwise exploit until they have outlived their commercial usefulness.
That evening, I was talking to an old friend at a dinner party. I hadn’t seen her for a few months and learned that their beloved 15-year old dog had barked his last. We talked about the joy and pain of having family pets. Neither of us could understand individuals capable of announcing, I don’t like animals. It’s an attitude that seems to deny a whole magical dimension to life on earth. She told me about the time, as a young girl, when she got back home from boarding school to discover that the family dog was no more. Her stepmother told her, ‘I took it to the vet to put down; we didn’t think you’d mind’. Clearly a woman who neither likes animals nor understands young girls.
Debs and I have tried to refrain from giving our daughter advice about the type of boy to look for in life. Neither of us believes that stuff about never trusting a man whose eyes are too close together or whose eyebrows meet in the middle. Neither of us would ever forbid her over our dead bodies from bringing a gentleman of colour back here for dinner. One thing we always urge her, however, is to be suspicious of someone who doesn’t like animals. Personally, I think this is a surer criterion than my mother-in-law’s advice to her daughter that she should go for a man with a healthy appetite. (I believe she was referring to food.)
Not that we really think there’s much chance of The Daughter hooking up with a chap who cares not for animals. The other day, she sent me a text to say: I’ve just seen a dog with its head on its master’s lap. It was the sweetest sight. It reminded me how much I miss Alfie. Please tell him that I miss him and I love him and I haven’t forgotten him. I replied to the effect that he was very unlikely to forget her. Our dog has an elephant’s memory for everyone who even visits this house. She then explained: I never question it! It’s just that I needed to voice it, he’s one of the most special beings in my life and I hope he knows it and doesn’t think that I’ve abandoned him or that I don’t love him.
Even allowing for the customary ‘drama-queenliness’ inherited from her mother, I was touched by her depth of feeling. It made me think back to my first close encounter with death, soon after I’d gone away to university, when our family cat, Sylvester, had been ‘put to sleep’. At that age, in fact at most ages, it’s devastating.
I asked my friend what their dog had died of – with half a mind, I suppose, to what we might one day have to face up to with our dog. It was a tumour; the Big C. The vet had told her that she would know when it was time to act. Their dog apparently became very dependent, but wasn’t in any evident pain. And then, one day suddenly, he went off his food and lay down on the floor and looked at her with an expression that told her clearly that the time had come. The vet came over and did the necessary.
It’s true. When you share your life with another creature, you do know. If you’re in tune with the birds and the bees, if you talk to your animals even though they can’t talk back to you, there’s no mystery to it. It’s like that splendid old Tango advert: You know when you’ve been Tango-ed! It’s simply that you understand them well enough to appreciate when something is really wrong. Just a matter of common-or-garden empathy.
Twice in his life, Alf has been infected by pirose, a potentially fatal malady carried by ticks, those vile little blood-suckers that seem to serve no purpose whatsoever. Both times, within about half an hour, it was quite apparent that something was up. My friend told me that their gums go bloodless and they lose all strength in their back legs. Even though I didn’t know this at the time, it was obvious from his comportment and expression that he needed urgent help. So both times we were able to get him to the vet in time for an antidote.