France: More on Dogs and Horses

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Henry Ward Beecher: (abolitionist) For fidelity devotion love, many a two-legged animal (man) is below the dog and the horse. Happy would it be for thousands of people if they could stand at last before the Judgement Seat and say “I have loved as truly and I have lived as decently as my dog”. And yet we call them “only animals!”

Dostoyevsky: “Love animals: God has given them the rudiments of thought and joy untroubled. Do not trouble their joy, don’t harass them, don’t deprive them of their happiness, don’t work against God’s intent. Man, do not pride yourself on superiority to animals; they are without sin, and you, with your greatness, defile the earth by your appearance on it, and leave traces of your foulness after you- alas, it is true of almost every one of us! “Compassion for animals is intimately connected with goodness of character; and it may be confidently asserted that he who is cruel to animals cannot be a good man.”

One of the wonderful things about life in a French village is that there are animals everywhere: cattle, sheep, goats, horses, donkeys, hunting hounds, game birds, deer, rabbits, hares and hedgehogs for starters. The French are animal lovers – notwithstanding the fact that they are perfectly happy to eat their fellow creatures.

In a nearby town on the 27th of each month, regardless of which day of the week it falls upon, there is an agricultural fair. We try not to miss it when we are in France because it is a true, rustic idyll straight out of a Thomas Hardy novel (only French). Balzac or Flaubert would be the French approximates. Flaubert has Emma Bovary attend a local agricultural fair at Yonville. The farmers are there in great numbers to inspect the animals and perhaps to buy or sell some. Every sort of farm animal one can think of is there on display and for sale: Horses, donkeys, sheep, goats, cows, birds of all kinds, rabbits, dogs and so on.

There are scores of trestle tables laden with farm products and equipment.  The pepinieres are there with truckloads of plants and trees ready for planting; and all the equipment necessary for running the farms is available. Labourers with various skills for sale stand around dressed for the role hoping for employment. I was hard put not to gape and point my camera at the shepherds in their tunics and holding their crooks.

Once. when we were out on a country walk, we came across a farmyard: roosters, hens, geese, dogs, cats and lots of hutches housing an exotic variety of rabbits – lop-eared and otherwise. Madame spotted us peeking in and gestured for us to come over to admire her menagerie. She opened one of the cages and hauled out a wonderful, butter-fat, lop-eared bunny that she placed in my arms. Docile and dozy, it enchanted us and we were full of admiration. I asked Madame why she kept so many bunnies. “Pour manger!” (for eating)  she said with an air of surprise. Why else would one breed rabbits?

4903738178_70175bed99_zPatience on a monument

We have made the acquaintance of most of the local pets be they horses, cats or dogs. We are regular visitors to their paddocks and gardens. We equip ourselves with bread, corn, dandelions and whatever we can think of that might exhibit our good will. Sometimes they remain stubbornly aloof, but we never tire of trying to commune with them.  We stopped one day to admire some baby, black lambs. We walked down the field and Davis had his tele-photo lens at the ready because we thought the sheep might be a bit timid when they saw us. Not a bit of it. They turned, saw us and came at us en masse galloping like the Charge of the Light Brigade.  About 15-20 of them. We could hear them thundering along. They skidded to a stop beside us and looked up at us with profound and heart-breaking expectation. But we had nothing to give them except our admiration. They were as tame as pets. They let us stroke them and when they realized we didn’t have anything for them they sloped off baahing disgustedly. Talk about raising a person’s hopes to no avail! There ought to be a law against it.

Floating in the fields, their slender legs not apparent through the grass, there are picturesque sheep everywhere, fat and fluffy. Sometimes we stop to admire them and “baa baa” at them companionably. They lift their black faces and, still chewing, they regard us with alien eyes, but make little reply. We suspect that French sheep do not speak in “baa baas”.  French ducks after all, say, “coin-coin” instead of “quack-quack”. My misgivings concerning the correct way to address a French sheep were heightened because one summer, one of them, a magnificent and sociable fellow was in residence in a field adjoining our back garden. His field itself is next-door to a kennel in which abide pack of handsome and vocally gifted hunting hounds.

The field is home to different creatures from season to season: a horse, now geese, and on this occasion, I have no idea why, a wonderful talkative sheep. Spying me out in the garden weeding he would come to the nearest corner and “baa!” at me imperiously in an attempt to communicate something about the circumstances in which he found himself. When I grew tired of stooping I would take a walk over to parley with him, but with the best will in the world, we were unable to achieve much more than mutual admiration. Nevertheless, I am not so sure that the philosopher Wittgenstein is correct when he says that even if a lion (in this case a sheep), could speak, we would not understand him.  His experience of the world is so different to our own. The sheep looked at me and I looked at him. It seemed to be enough. Something was understood between us.

 

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Another such encounter occurred when, on a drive to a nearby village, we came around a bend to discover a big white boof-head standing as if waiting for the “walk” sign before crossing the road. He had a good long look at us. “What are you doing?” we asked. “What business is it of yours?” he stared us down. We tried to shoo him back into his paddock where all his companions seemed to be, but he gave us a huge and indignant “MOOooo” so we edged around him and  left him to it. He was out of sorts no doubt because they hate being separated from their companions. It causes them real anxiety because they are herd animals.

If we happen to be on the road near the local dairy when the farmer moves his herd from one paddock to another we have the happy experience of sitting there as the cows mooch past shouldering the car as they bump by at a a calm pace. Most of them find it necessary to have a really careful, long look at us through the windows and at very close proximity. It is another of those “Am I looking at you or are you looking at me?” situations.

Further along on the same day that we were dispatched about our business by the white calf we came across a wonderful big duck wandering nonchalantly along the foot path as if he were off to attend an important meeting. The feathers on his head were all standing up in a cantankerous quiff.  He clearly had in mind to go somewhere special. He gave us a very cursory glance as he waddled by – despite our attempts to engage him in conversation. Davis said “Perhaps he knows what we had for dinner the other night.”

We used to drive by a particular garden often to see a wonderful spotty pig and suddenly he disappeared. We convinced ourselves that he had become the dinner of his devoted owner. He had been gone for nearly 2 years and, miracle of miracles, there he was! Looking at us with his mild and inquisitive piggy gaze. “Are you looking at me? Or am I looking at you?” We were so happy to see him because we had grieved for him. His owner had seemed very fond of him. The pig played around his feet having his ears scratched occasionally as they worked in the garden. When his owner is there he frolics around his feet – friendly as a puppy. Sometimes he goes “skitter pig” and dances about the field in a corpulent rendition of joie de Porker.  We should have had more faith. Yet the French do tend to think nothing of eating their pets. It is the same pig there is no doubt because we have several photos of him and his spots are identical.

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We showed our lovely, freckly, pet pig to our visiting cousin who remained resolutely disinterested. The pig himself was lying curled up in a spotty heap having a nap against a warm stone wall. His enormous, dotty belly ballooning around him and his sweet, piggy face peaceful with slumber. It appalled us that our guest was impervious to his considerable charms. The man has no heart and no eye for extraordinary beauty. Like Basset hounds, this particular porker has the transcendent beauty of sublime ugliness (as Kant would describe it). We just love that huge lump of lard. As the saying goes: the way to a person’s heart is “to praise the beloved.” Our visitor missed a big opportunity there. We would have felt very warmly toward him if he had only admired our beloved spotty friend.
 

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We walk to the edge of the village to feed an old horse of our acquaintence. He is a crabby old Neddy that is for sure. He will eat the apples, carrots and bread out of our hands, but flatly refuses to allow us to pat him. No liberties of any kind. His carer came out one day and explained that the horse, whom we call Brunellus, is 34 years old. That means he is a nonagenarian in human terms. He became part of the family when the daughter of the house-hold was a child. The daughter is now married with children of her own and Brunellus remains.

5888729042_867dccd626_zTatin and his friend Tartine

One evening while we were sitting out in the garden at happy hour we were visited by the huge 4 year old draught horse and his life companion – a small donkey. The draught horse is a deep reddish gold with lighter gold mane, tail and frilly, golden feet. They were being taken on a promenade from one field to another. As they walked by our front gate the horse‘s proud owner heard our exclamations and they stopped in their tracks to receive our admiration. We took some photos of the enormous horse standing with his head through our gate-way and his bottom out onto the street. (I was feeding him bread.) Davis crept around behind to take a photo of the lovely round BTM, but the owner spied him and quickly turned “Tatin du Champs” around to face the camera so that Davis could get him from his best angle. The besotted owner kept saying “He is gentle. He is good. Look at his beautiful feet!” and other such doting remarks. He told us that, on the occasions when they harness the horse to plow their little vegetable field, the Donkey stays behind in their home paddock and cries. Sobs. (as you would of course).

5888159937_9a0b2716c2_zTatin pays an afternoon call

Dogs have participated in human social groups since we lived in caves. Studies done by reputable scientists demonstrate that even though humans are more closely related to chimps, dogs understand us much better than do those closest relatives. Dogs will follow the human gaze to discover what it is we are looking at, while a chimpanzee will not. The French respond to this sympathy and the long association between man and dog with deep devotion. Their dogs are more indulged than most children. They accompany their human companions to church, on public transport, to restaurants, shopping and everywhere humans go, dogs go too. They are better behaved than many Australian children. Alarmingly however, the French still think it permissible to dock their best friends’ ears while in Australia we have largely abandoned that cruel practice.

In the country villages many of the towns people keep hunting hounds. We have a beautiful pack living nearby and we can hear them baying for breakfast. When we succumb to the temptation to visit, they turn their faces skyward and through perfectly pursed lips they greet us with a full-throated concert. I lean into their kennel and the most intrepid leap to lick my fingers, grateful for any human attention even if it is not their beloved hunter.

Often people who are not even hunters will keep a pack of four or five large, handsome dogs. Dogs and their keepers go out running en famille. On many occasions when we are out walking through the hedgerows, a few well-cared for, well-mannered dogs join us, willing to give us a try as potential walking companions. They oblige us with their company for short time but since we stop to pick the berries and take photos, most often, they are forced to abandon us as too slow for them to tolerate and we part with no ill feelings. In nearly every car in the supermarket car park there is a trusty mutt on duty overseeing the family’s property. More often than not a lovingly constructed and elaborate bed has been provided for the car’s four-legged custodian.

Once at a fair we came across a woman selling Lancier puppies. They were like huge white fluffy balls as they slept calmly in their playpen. Beside the pen their mother sat with sweet dignity greeting and being greeted by all the passers by. She would smile and raise her white paw to shake hands politely and the recipients of her courtesy would all fall about in enchanted delight. Lanciers are the dogs that shepherds place in flocks of sheep in order to protect them against predators. The dog looks just like a big white sheep (only much more intelligent) and it becomes emotionally attached to its herd and guards them with its life. We had trouble tearing ourselves away from that beautiful creature.

While we were having brunch one day in the garden a beautiful Belgian Shepherd came bounding in under the mistaken impression that we were waiting for her to join us at table. She must have been just out of her puppydom because she was very friendly and skitter-brained. Her frustrated little owner came rushing in and tried to drag her out by the scruff of her neck, but she flopped and declined to be moved. She found our company so congenial. Eventually Davis and the owner had to carry this huge creature out through the front gate where, as soon as they deposited her on the ground, she took off as full throttle after MiMi. She finally understood what was required of her. To deal with this pesky, previous cat. Fortunately the small cat was more than a match for Her Galumphingness.

There are handsome dogs everywhere in the village. We were driving along a country road we spotted and a beautiful golden retriever who was trotting along the road sniffing at this and that and completely alone. Davis said “Lets say hello to him!” so we stopped and wound down the window of the car to greet him. He trotted up to the car and, looking troubled, he peered in at Davis. Then he leaned round Davis to get a better look at me. His face was a picture of curious consternation. “Do I know you?” then he decided that he didn’t know us and returned calmly to his sniffing. “Don’t know you at all! Don’t know why you’re wasting my time”.

 8210806306_3a24e3fa20_oSt. Bernard keeping the guard

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