Thursday, February 1, 2007

Lovable animals

This morning, from my bathroom window, I caught sight of a weasel under my grapevine. The elegant little beast (scientific name Mustela nivalis, the world's smallest carnivore) disappeared before I could grab my camera, so the photo here comes from the web. While looking for the image, I ran into a nursery rhyme that I remember well from my childhood:

All around the mulberry bush,

The monkey chased the weasel,
The monkey stopped to pull up its socks,
Pop! goes the weasel.

On the surface, it looks like nonsense, and I started to wonder how and why these unintelligible lines would have remained intact in my brain for all this time. I still don't know. But thanks to Google, I learned that the words and phrases of the nursery rhyme are no doubt a muddled mixture of codified 19th-century London slang.

After the weasel, from the same window, I noticed another wild animal: a young roe deer, annoyed to find itself trapped in a corner of the sheep paddock. I wandered down with my camera and got close enough to get a few photos of the animal. As soon as the deer saw Sophia and me, it decided that there was no point in loitering any longer at Gamone, so it turned around and bounded across the paddock in huge leaps. Its amazing acceleration from zero reminded me of the automobiles at the start of the Monte Carlo Rally. At full speed, the deer hurdled a sheep fence on the far side of the paddock and disappeared into the woods.

Among the Christian saints, besides my favorite Bruno, I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Francis of Assisi, because of his success with sheep and wolves. Maybe it's some kind of jealousy, in that sheep tend to run away from me and, back in Paris, dogs used to bite me. In any case, it's a fact that I can't compete with Saint Francis. As they say in French, between Francis of Assisi and me, there's no photo finish. Seriously, once upon a time, I might have been dismayed by the fact that it's not possible to make friends, here at Gamone, with weasels and wild deers. But these days, after my intensive reading of books on evolution and genetics, my attitude has changed completely. When I see an animal dashing away at top speed from a dangerous human being (me, for instance), like the proverbial bat out of hell, I imagine with pleasure that I'm witnessing a demonstration of the specific behavior—referred to as a phenotype in the jargon of genes—that has enabled its species to survive and evolve since the beginnings of life on Earth. I've been warned that the new donkey Mandrin likes to wander into kitchens and eat any food that's lying around on the tables. But donkeys abandoned the wild woods nearly as far back as naked apes. On the other hand, if a weasel or a roe deer were to come up and try to share a meal with me, I would look it straight in the eyes and say: "With behavior of that kind, my dear friend, you should have become extinct ages ago."

On television this evening, a journalist asked a celebrated French zoologist if she could explain why many local animals apparently picked up advanced signs of the terrible tsunami of 2004. The impassioned explanations of the zoologist gave the impression that we dull humans cannot compete with animals in the domain of sensitivity to things that are happening in the world around us. Fish could feel the approaching waves of the tsunami in mysterious "radar" detectors on the sides of their bodies. Birds had a birds-eye vision of the approaching terror, and they started screeching at a pitch that only dogs and other birds could hear. Elephants felt the vibrations in the pads of their feet, and monkeys realized that the fish and the birds and the elephants were upset about something or other. As for us drowsy humans, we just ain't capable of realizin' nothin', because we're too busy doing serious things such as talking or reading or taking photos or trying to win friends and influence people in one way or another.

Sometimes, I wish I were a weasel, or maybe a wild deer. No, let me be serious. The animal I would like to be is a dog. Like Sophia.

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