“What do you think Ginger?” Silence …then.. “Ginger thinks your tie is very nice.” Nothing much wrong on the surface, but this was Alice, a family friend in her 70s, discussing my new tie with her cat. Alice was not mad, nothing ‘medically’ wrong, just quirky and a cat lover.
I would have been around seventeen at the time and as a small child was read stories in which animals thought, behaved, even spoke, like humans – Barbar the Elephant, Peter Rabbit, Jungle Book, and so on. But I was not ‘taken in’ and Alice’s perspective would have been beyond me. That animals could have personalities, demands, feelings, even relationships with humans was plain silly. Moreover, according to my then A-level biology course, animals could not do not do that sort of thing. Even the debate as to whether fish felt pain was not worth the bother – of course they don’t. And, anyhow, what if they did!
But how things have changed. After a family life where my dependents have included three cats and two dogs, I have become a cat affiliate (my wife classes herself closer to dogs). As I see it, while dogs can understand words and have moods, cats have views and try to express them. Apart from his general purring and miaowing, Willow, my favourite and last cat, had six distinct ‘words’ with which he could say: ‘hello’, ‘ouch’, ‘back off’, ‘where are you?’, ‘I am here/I am back’, and ‘thank you’. Only the ‘where are you?’ required a response and I would give it.
But I also speak to animals outside the family; checking first that no one is listening. When I would cycle home from work through Richmond Park I would shout ‘hello’ to any deer that strolled by. But that is a thing of the past, now conversation is more likely to be with robins. I have no time for seagulls, wrens or sparrows. I might well thank a blackbird if he has sung nicely, but robins are special and get more. Over the last week I have been cutting down some invasive ivy, and much of the time has been spent up a ladder sawing through matted roots in dank leafy undergrowth. Within minutes of my reaching the top of the wall each day a robin has appeared, perching within arm’s length. Each time I find myself greeting him out loud. I actually ask him if he wants a worm or some juicy insect, and if I found such would throw it over. I don’t think I could stop myself. I see robins as friendly and brave as they venture close to keep me company. And my relationship with them is deeper than simply passing the time of day. While the sight of a dead thrush or squirrel does not affect me, when Willow killed one of our garden robins, the site of its dead body brought me, and my wife, close to tears.
But setting aside conversation, we ascribe to animals all manner qualities, and while some seem common to all, so most see snakes are ‘evil’ and underhand, and owls parental and wise, the qualities we give different animals is often personal. There were six of us at dinner when a mouse suddenly appeared on the decking outside. Because of the lighting and window arrangements we could see him, but it seemed that to him we were invisible. He was eating the crumbs we had dropped during outdoor lunch earlier that day. Apart from stopping the conversation (he could not be ignored), the reactions of the diners were diverse. One found him repulsive, one a threat, one a welcome reminder of things natural, one intriguing and one (myself) endearing. The sixth did not see him and declined to comment. As to what we should do, some wanted him caught (and killed) and others were happy for him to be let be. Soon Mr Mouse scuttled back home satiated and unharmed. I swear that before he disappeared he turned round and gave me a wink and a wave.
When it comes to anthropomorphising, I do it. And although speaking with selected animals feels reasonable, being caught doing so would embarrass me, while convincing my more ‘scientific’ friends could prove difficult. I now see how unfairly I teased Alice about her relationship with cats and would like to go back in time and make my peace with her. While there I would also try to discover what the young Joe was really thinking. He was no fool so there is always the risk that he may change my mind back again. But somehow I don’t think he would.
Photo: Joe’s allotment robin (©Ian Bruce, 2011)