It’s official, animals have lost their last remnant of respect for us. We people have changed and shed some of our feistier habits that used to keep them in check. In the old days, people went vegetarian only after they’ve run out of animals to hunt and any beast foolhardy enough to wander into a human settlement was facing two possible outcomes. In the highly improbable case it was judged too ugly to eat, the creature was greeted with a hailstorm of sticks and stones and sent from whence it came, its self-esteem curbed somewhat. Given that people weren’t such fussy eaters in days of yore, it was massively more likely the intruder was interpreted as a surprise food delivery and treated accordingly. After the humans were done picking its bones clean and rhythmically banging them together thanking the God of Foolishness for the feast, they tanned its hide and made it into warm slippers and a new handbag for the village First Lady, and if the creature had antlers or fangs of any consequence, they were repurposed as spear tips to welcome the next rambler of its kind with added efficiency.
Those days are long gone and now a growing number of us are herbivores either by choice or out of our distrust of the dubious origins of the dead flesh that supermarkets have been pushing. The animals seem to have caught wind of our sudden reluctance to consume them and they’re getting bolder by the day. Here in Slovenia, grey herons that used to keep to themselves are now loitering in our backyards, eyeing you as though it’s you who’s out of place and out of bounds rather than them. I mean really, you’re a large, perfectly edible bird and I’m a primate with an upper body designed specifically for launching ballistic projectiles. Trust me, I could take you out with a rock in a blink. So why are you so confident that I pose no danger to you? How could you possibly know that I was vegetarian and much against harassing animals? I suppose you don’t know me but you do know my kind – the latest edition of Homo sapiens whose predatory instincts had been numbed into oblivion by 24/7 access to food.
I can’t think of a better way to substantiate my claims about the recent surge of insolence on the part of the local fauna than to relate my own mother’s experience in terms of animal audacity. Saying that Mum has a large physical presence* would be a difficult case to argue but she has an undisputed ability to make very important people with huge egos feel really tiny if they’re foolish enough to invoke her wrath.
*I’m the product of a union between a man who used to work as a jockey (and looked the part) and was conventional enough to marry a woman shorter than him. One of my greatest accomplishments in life is that I managed to grow noticeably taller than both my parents, which is a rare feat for a girl.
Intimidating as my mother can be to fellow humans, she inherited the family jewellery (= a heart of gold). Animals often prove a better judge of human character than most people, which, in addition to their casual disrespect toward mankind, must be why she’s had more than her fair share of weird encounters with them:
– A while ago our resident sparrow hawk (a large female that’s gotten borderline obese because my folks feed the songbirds all winter and she regularly takes out the slow ones) downed a turtle dove and proceeded to pluck its feathers right in front of our aviary, wreaking havoc on our pigeons’ mental cool. Seeing this, my mom banged on the window and shook her fist at the inconsiderate raptor. Unfazed, the hawk gave her a dismissive glare and returned to sprinkling the lawn with the hapless dove’s plumage. My mother’s rationalisation of the hawk’s brushoff was that it must have been starving and consequently lost all fear. My take on the matter was that the hawk must have felt perfectly safe and subsequently lost all respect.
– Much to her bewilderment, Mum once found herself accosted by a pair of hissing weasels circling her in the garden. It turned out a mouse was cowering right next to her foot and the weasels must have been after it. That’s double disrespect, actually – the mouse thought it a great idea to run to a human for protection and the weasels thought they could spook the human away with their little display. This might have grown into a regular occurrence if it wasn’t for our super cool cat who saw off both the mice and the weasels post haste when he took charge of things.
– When Mum was engaging in one of the all-time favourite Slovenian pastimes (bilberry-hunting), she was startled to find that a well-stocked bush would start emitting strange noises whenever she reached towards it. Upon examining the matter up close, she discovered an adder coiled up beneath it, hissing and gargling and vocalising in a distinctly odd way for a snake, which must be Serpentine for ‘back off, this bush is mine all mine’. Now, we’ve been told countless times that snakes, at least European ones, will flee from humans rather than stand their ground on any given day. We’ve also been told they were exclusively carnivorous. I’m at a loss to what point a bilberry-bush-guarding adder intent on intimidating my mother could possibly be making except for declaring that humans had no business rummaging in the undergrowth anymore. The end of the world must be near.
– The list of Mum’s weird encounters with forest-dwelling creatures doesn’t end here. When she was hiking in the woods, a squirrel that had been perching on a branch above her head went berserk for reasons unknown. The supposedly timid creature (red squirrels are usually much shier than their grey cousins) started making indescribable noises, scurrying back and forth, audibly stomping its feet and waving its tail much like a ticked off cat. Go figure. My mother and her bemused friends figured the squirrel must have been guarding its nest/hazelnut stash. But seriously, what kind of a small creature lacks the common sense to know that it should either hide when humans approach its valuables or try to lure them away? I’ll never forget what a clever game bird did when I was little and animals still considered humans a threat. We were hiking in the mountains when a snow chicken (technically, either a rock ptarmigan or a black grouse but good luck telling the hens apart when you’re six) emerged dragging its wings, stumbling and staggering across the hillside. My brother said she was feigning injury so that we would follow her away from her nest. Having the misfortune of being the youngest child, I knew that my siblings shouldn’t be trusted and I rushed after the limping hen, my heart bleeding for the poor creature. It turned out that once for a change it wasn’t my brother who was hoodwinking me but rather the ingenious bird; when the hen judged her progeny was out of my reach she miraculously recovered and flew off. That’s how you deal with a stronger (and naive) adversary. I can’t help but worry about the future of mankind if now even the squirrels believe they can take us on.
However it’s roe deer that top the list of worst offenders against the natural order of things. I’ve lost count of their transgressions against my family and me personally. By now I’ve grown accustomed to their ungodly grunting during the rut, but the first time I heard a deer bark I thought an angry boar was after me and I made it halfway up the nearest tree before I realised a horny buck was playing me for a fool. One would think that after the famous showdown between my granddad and his roe-foe, the deer would learn to limit their frolicking on our family property to night time, or to at least watch out for my relatives approaching. I guess not. When our familial curiosity got the better of Mum and she went to examine what a buck had been up to in the orchard below her late father’s cabin, the animal’s familial obliviousness to its surroundings was such that it paused its plum-munching activity only when it found itself standing nose-to-nose with Mum. Instead of making itself scarce, the buck collapsed on its haunches and stared at her for a whole eternity, sniffing and wiggling its radar-dish-sized ears. Then it slowly got back up and casually strolled into the woods. She was absolutely thrilled by the whole thing and spoke of the utter tranquillity and a spiritual bond between humans and animals. I tried explaining that the buck was either blind drunk on fermented fruit or exhausted from the breeding season and all the warring and romancing it entails, hence its slow retreat, but I ended up being labelled a buzzkill.
But this was nothing compared to things that were to come. You need to know that my folk’s house is miles from the nearest forest in order to appreciate our surprise upon waking up to this one winter morning:
Lo and behold, a deer was helping itself to the feed meant for the songbirds and, by extension, stealing from our portly sparrow hawk without a hint of concern about how wildly out of context it was. I guess the deer must have raised the stakes by actively following my family around and it would seem that their bet paid off. For not only did my folks rush to put out lettuce, bread and other goodies for the deer, but all the neighbours chimed in to cater to the creature that not so long ago wouldn’t have been offered bread and greens but rather would have been served together with them. I absolutely love to see animals happy and they sure seem at their happiest with their mouths full but I also know that lost deer should at least be captured, deloused and shooed back into the wild. Figuring someone capable of reason should be told about the stray deer but wary about being branded a traitor, I furtively consulted a couple of discrete veterinarians on the state of the animal and was satisfied to learn it didn’t pose an immediate disease risk and that it would eventually find its way back to its natural habitat. The deer spent a couple of weeks roaming the neighbourhood and walking from one carefully-arranged cold buffet to another, regularly popping back for a nap in our birch grove. When it finally wandered off, a party of concerned community members followed its trail to make sure it was headed toward the forest and spent a month or so reminiscing about their lost pet. (I mean, how cute, but don’t come running to me when the word gets out and King Bambi and his subjects storm the neighbourhood and graze our gardens to the ground, or worse.)
Seriously, I used to rent a flat on a ranch owned by a warm-hearted family who collected sickly deer kept by the locals (some people still can’t resist the urge to snatch a fawn) and tried nursing them back to health, with varied success. While living there, I learned many things about deer, like the sadly obvious fact they seldom thrive in captivity and that they’re startlingly strong with few reservations about attacking people if they feel cornered, which is why they make less than ideal pets. They sure are pretty creatures but I believe we should both make an effort to keep our lives separate. On that note, I really wish deer learned how to cross the road in the dark instead of relying on my headlights to illuminate the way because I die a little and they could die a lot each time they jump right in front of my car.
Then again, the fact animals don’t skedaddle at the slightest whiff of humans anymore isn’t always a bad thing. Without venturing beyond the legal definition of the term ‘city’, I could say I live downtown right next to the city hall. Yet I don’t have to rely on TV to see all kinds of wild creatures gambolling around and I’ve witnessed everything from a massive white stork gathering to legendary aerial battles between – and among – raptors and corvids. But perhaps best of all is that I’ve had some really odd visitors to my flat and, odd as I can be myself, I captured some of them on camera and even allowed a few to stay. Because animals rule! Though I fear the day this won’t be a figure of speech anymore is closer than we think.