The other evening, I looked out of my bedroom window and there was a raccoon on the front lawn. Bold as brass, he was. I called the rest of the family who said he looked very cute. But if the animal on the front lawn had been a biggish rat, would the family reaction have been so taken with our visitor?
A while ago, an Italian told me that friends who come and stay in your house are like fish. Welcome at first, but after three days rather smelly and should be got rid of. Perhaps it’s the same for the animals who live with us in cities. Harry Eyres from the Financial Times makes the same point but in reverse, discussing why sparrows might have left London. He puts out seeds and tries to encourage birds into his garden. He’s only recently moved in, and he says that the birds make him feel right at home. He goes on to describe the significant loss of bird species that the planet is experiencing, and that loss is down to human activities.
On the same theme, the CBC recently carried an interesting radio programme about how we, as humans, relate to the other animals we live with. I say ‘live with’ but perhaps I should say ‘we have come to live among’ because it is we have moved into their habitat. That raccoon on my lawn might have been justified in thinking ‘who is that visitor peeping at me?’ Incidentally, the presenter mentioned that the raccoon had been most successful at taking advantage of human occupation. They come out mostly at night, so they don’t attract too much attention. And their fur is marked with bands of white, making them somehow seem cleaner—especially when compared to a rat.
The programme also dwelt at some length on the changing fortune of the pigeon. I had thought that somehow the dove and the pigeon were different species, but I was put right. The dove of the Bible is a messenger of peace, and still carries that message. We talk of ‘hawks’ and ‘doves’. Until fairly recently, it was considered quite acceptable to feed the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, and somewhere there is a photo of my brother aged about three doing just that. He had put his head down on the ground to say hello to the pigeons, eye to eye. Now the pigeons are considered vermin, are scared off with birds of prey, and feeding them is an anti-social act. Their role as carriers of messages during the First World War is an interesting story. There is a story, which I haven’t checked, that a pigeon won an award for bravery in that war.