Reciprocal living with our finned, furred and feathered friends
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“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” So quipped Groucho Marx (or possibly Jim Brewer, depending on your sources).
People who live alone have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic; many possibly already struggling with social isolation. This, understandably, has led to a surge in pet ownership. Life is enhanced when shared with an additional heartbeat.
This desire to have a furry friend is nothing new. Dogs have lived alongside us for millenia; supposedly descended from wolves, who – should they be able to operate the controls of a time machine without opposable thumbs – might be rather humiliated to arrive in 2021 and discover that they are represented by portmanteau-named mongrels such as the LabraDoodle (labrador/poodle) and CockaPoo (cocker spaniel/poodle). And imagine the canine ignominy if these ancient ancestors of dogs encountered a Shih Tzu/poodle hybrid.
While neologists fluff up cross-breeds’ genetic heritage, and infantalists coo over ‘fur-babies’, most pets can definitely be called commensals. Although this name is derived from the word for ‘eating at the same table’, I never want to see an animal licking off a dinner plate – we know where Fido’s tongue has been. Nonetheless, domestic animals are in it for the nammet.
Proto-dogs ate carcasses left by early hunters. Nowadays pampered pooches are indulged with vegan diets, hypoallergenic meals and grain-free kibbles. And in the ultimate commensal relationship, the Queen’s DOrgis (dachshund/corgis) are served from their own curated menu.
I have my own commensal. Not a dog, nor cat – not even a mammal. I am the host for a rather impertinent jackdaw which I have named Speckles, due to her freckly breast feathers.
Recently a colleague returned to work after over a year away from the office. Channelling Lord Carnarvon, she creaked open her locker to reveal the lost treasure within – a box of out-of-date granola bars.
“I’ll have those.” I offered and, that very evening, I crumbled one onto my balcony. The next morning the biscuit had gone, replaced by two pieces of flattened clay reinforced with organic matter – maybe daub from an old building. Impressed in the surface were conspicuous beak marks.
I put out further food; more clay arrived, which I saved on my windowsill alongside the other fragments. I have observed Speckles steal a piece out of the stash, break it in two with her beak, and position one half on top of the other. There’s a lump of chalk that, although flown up to me in my eyrie, she has subsequently taken against – regularly casting it off the balcony into the garden four floors below. Tormentingly I bring it back only to find it discarded again a day or so later.
While I gather and catalogue the gifts from my corvid commensal she, in return, receives fat balls and peanuts and sups from my solar fountain. Maybe one day she’ll bring me a shiny coin, like my 5p ghost. But that’s another story…
This article first appeared in print in the Isle of Wight County Press on 4 June 2021 and also online.