Friday, May 8, 2009

Animal Intelligence

A pigeon crapped on my head today. I was running my last lap of the Luxembourg Gardens, when I felt a warm, semi-solid dollop of goo splat on the top of my skull. Even before I smelled it, I knew what it was. You don't mistake something like that for rain. My attempt to wipe it off only smeared the poop around, creating a greenish birdshit mousse that made my hair stink and stand up in very odd ways. But this special event got me thinking about the complex relationships the French have with their animals in particular. And about animal intelligence in general. Let me explain.

If one were do some sort of I.Q. rating of the animals in Paris, dogs would be at the top of the brain chain. Every day you see them out on the street, self-possessed, four-legged boulevardiers. usually ambling yards ahead of their owners, thinking doggie thoughts, off on a doggie mission, lost in doggie world. Unlike their American versions, the dogs of Paris rarely take note of people. They don't pant or pander or snarl or bark or hop up obsequiously or even look at you. Many stroll along leash-less, although an owner and leash are close by. I once saw a dog carrying its own leash in its mouth, sparing its master even that burden. For all I know they may vote in presidential elections.

At the other end of the animal I.Q. spectrum are pigeons. They are far, far, far at the bottom. They are underneath the bottom. To put it another way, their intelligence only slightly higher than gravel.

One of my first impressions of the Luxembourg Gardens was how spectacularly dumb pigeons were. Unlike most creatures with eyes and ears and the ability to walk, not to mention the ability to fly, they were beyond dense. Barely a day went by when I did not almost step on a pigeon during my jog. The scenario was always the same. After I almost tripped over it, the bird would frantically flap its wings and coo and then run around in a tiny circle on the same spot like one of the Three Stooges, giving me multiple chances to step on it or accidentally kick it again. How do they keep from getting run over? I wondered. (Answer: They don't. See photo above.)

First I thought all the birds of Paris were all dimwits on the wing, until my wife and I were waiting for a train at Gare Austerlitz. We were sitting in the inside portion of a cafe. I noticed that a small posse of sparrows were loitering suspiciously outside the automatic door. Whenever a customer walked in, a sparrow would fly in behind him in a kind of I'm-with-him move, then flit around until it found a table with crumbs or, even better, a sympathetic diner. One flew over to the table next to us, perched on the back of a vacant chair facing a woman reading her paper and stared at her with its beady little eyes until she smiled and tossed it some crumbs.

Of course critter love does not extend to all animals in France. Go to the markets and you'll see skinned bunnies and the heads of piglets hanging from meat hooks. Go to some neighborhoods and you will find signs for chevalines, horse meat butchers, like this:
Although my understanding is the French are losing their appetite for eating a distant cousin of Seabiscuit, this shop I saw was doing pretty good weekend business. (In case you're wondering, the older the horse, the more tender the meat.)

Once you get away from the city there is a big attitude shift. You will not see French people carrying their dogs as though they were made of porcelain or hauling them around in precious carriers with mesh netting windows so Monsieur Le Fido can get a little air and see the sights.

"Country people are more basic, more grounded," is how one veterinarian put it to me.

She has a thriving practice in the Limousin and during one of my visits she showed up late for lunch looking distraught. She accidentally hit a cat. "I can still hear the thump of the body when I ran over it," she moaned.

She figured out which farmhouse it belonged to, went to the front door and nervously knocked. "Do you have a red and white cat?" she asked the woman who answered.

"I have two," the woman said.

"Not any more," said the vet. Then she told the cat owner about the accident.

The woman shrugged. "Better the cat than me."

"This is what I like about country folks," the veterinarian said. "They see animals as animals. Not as people or substitute children."

Later she was complaining about a young horse she had recently bought and how aggressive and untrainable he was. When I suggested she sell it, she replied, "I couldn't do that. He's too dangerous. I would worry he would hurt the new owner."

What about loaning it out for breeding?

"He's not that much of a thoroughbred. I'll try one more round of training."

"And if that doesn't work?"

"I'll eat him," she said.

Bon appetit.

Fascinating French Fact: The oldest public pet cemetery in the world is Le Cimetière des Chiens on the outskirts of Paris.

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