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.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Getting out and around

You get punished for being a homebody in Paris. In the past few months I missed seeing the runaway horse, the naked pole vaulter and most recently (sigh) the naked models walking down the street where I get my hair cut, all of whom were galavanting just blocks away from our apartment. Oh well. Ever since I opted to blow off Woodstock and stay home and drink beer with friends, I felt like my destiny is always to miss the real party.

Fortunately I've discovered if you do manage to get out and around and keep your eyes open, there are still little surprises to be found. Some examples:

The other day I was passing a neighborhood wine shop which had their weekly specials in the window. Among them was a bottle of Cotes-Du-Rhone which caught my eye. The reason was the label.[See above left. Take a close look.] It had bumps all over it, like Braille elevator buttons, I thought. I told my wife I saw wine for the blind. I told my friends. I got the look usually given to people who say they have seen a UFO.

But I was right. The label was in Braille. I learned that since 1996 the wine maker, Michel Chapoutier, has been labeling all his wines with Braille, partly as an homage to the previous owner of the property who created a shorthand version of Braille, and partly to make his wine more accessible to wine lovers with impaired vision.

(Sometimes forgotten among in the thickets of history is how much various French innovators have done to improve the lives of the handicapped. A blind autodidact and gifted musician and inventor, Louis Braille gave the world the raised dot reading system used today on books, elevator buttons and wine labels. Another Frenchman, Abbe Charles Michel de L'Epee was the first person to establish a school exclusively for deaf children. It was replicated in the United States with the help of one of his teachers.)
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On a more mundane note, I am constantly fascinated during my Parisian walkabouts by the extremes to which people go to keep their bikes from being stolen. This person removed his seat and U-locked the bike to a tree guard. It must take him an hour to get ready for a ride:

And I cannot get over the fact that sometimes you can turn an ordinary street corner and see hundreds of rollerbladers coming at you:

That's almost as good as a runaway horse.

Fascinating French Fact: Abbe Charles Michel De L'Epee is interred in the historic 17th century church of Saint-Roch on the Right Bank, where there is a statue of him and, below it, a thank you plaque from the blind people of Belgium.