The British and their pets

Let no one say I hide from the tough topics. I asked what you wanted to hear about and I got questions about budget cuts (destructive), mental health services (needed more than ever given the budget cuts), British television (mixed but I’m not much of a TV watcher these days), and what the British think of Americans (long story). So let’s start with the heavy-duty stuff and talk about the British and their pets. This is justified because Sandy Sue wrote, “I’d love to hear about Brits and their pets. In one post you said they don’t holler for their animals like we do–I loved that. More!”


Spoiler alert: The Big Guy's been found.

Spoiler alert: The Big Guy’s been found.

Dogs played an important part in introducing us to the village. Wild Thing has a gift for starting conversations with pretty much anyone, and if she sees someone with a dog she stops to talk if she can. In any country. In Kate Fox’s book Watching the English, I read that dogs are an accepted conversation starter. A bit like the weather. They’re a nice neutral topic that allows shy people to connect, and Fox writes about the English as a publicly shy people. The national assumption is that each person goes into the public sphere surrounded by an invisible privacy bubble and it would be rude to break in. Commuters who see each other morning after morning may, after a year or so, go all out and nod to each other. Which is why they need pre-programmed topics—the weather, the dog, the whatever—in order to break out and enjoy a bit of human companionship.

Lucky us that Wild Thing’s quirks fit so well with the country’s. Our acquaintances and then friendships in the village grew out of Ida’s habit of talking about dogs. When we first came here as visitors, we met a few dogs, and through them a few people, and through them a few more people, and here we are, all these years later, still pestering them.

One of the first things Wild Thing noticed was that if you asked people about their dogs, a certain number of them would tell you entire tales: She’s a rescue dog and she’s settled in wonderfully but she’s still afraid of people with hats. Oh, he’s had a difficult day—he saw the vet this morning. Last week she was stung by a bee and it’s been very traumatic. These weren’t just dogs we were hearing about. Each one was the central character in a novel.

I don’t know if more people adopt abandoned dogs in the U.K. than in the U.S., but I do know we hear about it more often. Stop to admire a dog and if it’s a rescue dog that’s the first thing you’ll learn. Which leads me to wonder not only if more people adopt rescue dogs here but if more people abandon them. Or is it that more of them find a home? Or do we just hear about it more because people need the outlet of talking about their dogs?

Dogs are welcome in more public places here than in—well, it’s hard to generalize about the U.S., but certainly than in Minnesota. Lots of cafes and pubs welcome them. If we’re not sure and don’t see a sign in the window, we’ve learned to poke our heads through the door and ask. A few even offer dog biscuits. Some set water bowls outside the door, whether or not dogs are welcome inside. At singers night in the nearby pub, dogs are a regular part of the mix. Every so often one will add a well-timed howl and be welcomed with general hysteria. One of the organizers has a small repertoire of dog songs that he’ll sing at times like that. Mostly, though, the dogs are content to listen and hope someone will drop a sandwich.

As a result of being taken more places (or I’m guessing it’s a result), dogs are generally more relaxed in public than a small and unscientific survey leads me to believe they are in the U.S. I do hear and read about aggressive dogs, but so far our experience has been good. A bit of growling now and then, the occasional pup who’s too big and enthusiastic its brain, but mostly they get along peaceably and behave well. Even if one or another of them howls at a song. We’ve all wanted to once in a while, haven’t we?

We’ve usually warned away from snappish ones by their owners.

In Minnesota, state law governed where dogs could and couldn’t be taken. A coffee shop near our old house let dogs in because they couldn’t see a reason not to, and it worked well until they got caught by an inspector from the Minnesota Department of Dog Fur and General Bad Behavior and received a couple of stern warnings. They still couldn’t bear to kick dogs out but we took pity on them and stopped bringing ours in. Other dog-owning regulars did the same. Then the state passed a law that made it illegal to tie a dog outside while you went in for coffee. No, it didn’t specify coffee. It could have been shampoo or a bottle of milk. But it limited what people could do with their dogs. We could walk them and take them back home. We could keep them at home, and we could let them out in the yard if we had a way to keep them inside it. But we couldn’t integrate them into our lives the way we can here.

Because I live in the country, people keep other pets and semi-pets. On the other side of the valley, B. keeps peacocks. Come spring we hear them yelling something that sounds like “Help! Help!” The peahens want nothing more out of their lives than to lead their chicks onto the road and wander up and down it, and I’ve learned to slow down near B.’s house. The peacocks like the road as well. One year I saw the local half-size bus herding a peacock down the road toward me at maybe half a mile per hour. As the bird walked, he threw his feet forward—not quite in a goosestep but it was close enough to make me understand why they named the step after a bird. He had his fan spread and was yelling furiously for help, or for reinforcements. When he got to the house and no reinforcements had come, he stepped aside and let the bus through.

I didn’t have a camera.

Any number of people keep chickens and a few keep geese. Some of these are just chickens and geese and some are pets. One year two of M.’s chickens died, leaving her with just one, which was so lonely she’d follow M. from place to place as she worked in the garden and would sit on the windowsill when M. went in. Eventually M. got another hen or two and the chicken went back to acting like a chicken.

M.’s hens are battery hens that aren’t laying as heavily as they used to and would otherwise be slaughtered. They come to her practically featherless and in terrible shape, hardly knowing what to do with the great outdoors. Then before long they feather out and start pecking.

A few years back, someone not far from the village adopted a lamb with a broken leg that she found on the moor. She located the farmer and told him about it and the farmer offered to shoot it, so she loaded the lamb in the car, got its leg set, and raised it until it became a ram and a bit of a handful, when she found someone with a smallholding who was willing to take it. By that time, it didn’t consider itself a sheep anymore and didn’t settle in well with the other sheep. Eventually it made itself a home with the horses.

And then, of course, there are cats.

When the stray we adopted, Big Guy, disappeared a couple of weeks ago, we put a note on the village Facebook page, which is all you have to do to activate the village network. For a while, the comments were all about I hope you find him and next time try putting butter on his feet the first time you let him out. Then last Saturday night we got a phone call: The Big Guy had showed up outside S.’s house, yelling his head off, and they were feeding him. They’d heard he was ours. The kids wanted to adopt him and the parents were being won over. They said he was shy about coming inside but they’d made him a space on the porch, where the boiler is, so it’s warm. Their house is just downhill from where he was first found. Apparently that’s where he wants to live. It’s got a beautiful view and I guess he likes it. Wild Thing told them that he didn’t seem happy here, so if they were willing to keep him that would be great.

I stopped by on Sunday morning to bring them some cat food left when Moggy died. Fast Eddie still eats kitten food. And dog food. He plans to be a dog when he grows up. Anyway, I stopped by and there was the Big Guy, cuddling with one of the kids. He was happy to see me but not as if he’d been lost and I’d found him. He was indeed a bit shy about coming into the house but when he saw a bowl of cat food he decided he’d take the risk. It’s hard to know whether he’ll stay, but he does seem to like the neighborhood, they’re treating him well, and I think he’s found a home. Even if they do call him Marvin—Starvin’ Marvin.

I don't  think the Big Guy's going to sleep here--he's not much of a jumper--but they made him a nice warm bed in an old doll carriage.

I don’t think the Big Guy’s going to sleep here–he’s not much of a jumper–but they made him a nice warm bed in an old doll carriage.

While I was down there, Wild Thing got a call from S.’s neighbors, who reported that the Big Guy had been trying to get into their house. Then A. called. She thought she’d seen the Big Guy at yet another house in the neighborhood and she’d gone to ask if he was their cat but they don’t have a cat.

Oh, and W. thought he’d seen the Big Guy running across a back road nearby.

It takes a village to find a cat. And in Big Guy’s case, to house one. For the moment, though, he’s housed and fed, which is good because it’s been raining a lot and the wind has been so strong that during some of the gusts I couldn’t walk into it.

How is this any different from the U.S.? People in our old neighborhood people also put themselves out to care for cats. One of ours, the much-loved Big Ol’ Red Cat, was a stray who was taken in initially by our neighbor, D. But she couldn’t keep him because the cat she already had was pounding on him, so she brought him to us and he settled in happily. The underlying feeling about cats was the same. But in a city a cat can fall off the radar without wandering far. Just like a person can. Living in the city, you end up with a series of short stories. In a village, you hear the entire novel.

The Writing on the Sidewalk of a Cornish Village

Either I’m engaging in antisocial behavior or I’m the last defender of decency in Cornwall. Some days it’s hard to tell.

Wild Thing and I live on what’s called the estate. If you’re American, that sounds all grand and Downton Abbey, but what it really means is “the subdivision.” We live in a tiny fragment of suburb, even though we don’t have a city to be suburban to. Our village is spread out—a village without any center—so this is the most densely populated bit. By dogs as well as humans.

Irrelevant Photo: A view of the south coast and St. Michael's Mount

Irrelevant Photo: A view of the south coast and St. Michael’s Mount

Yes, dear ones, I’m writing about dog shit, and I’m not going to call it poo because I just can’t. When I first moved to Minnesota, I heard a wonderful phrase: “She wouldn’t say shit if she had a mouthful.”

Well, I don’t have a mouthful, but I did skid through the stuff and come away with a shoeful, and I can’t see why I should call it anything else. It’s not a beautiful word, but then the shoe wasn’t looking so good either.

Shit was the mildest word I yelled. I’m sure someone was behind a window saying, “Oh, that’s one of the Americans.”

Never mind the language, though. The important point is that somebody hasn’t been cleaning up after their dog.

I know two things about this dog: It’s large and it likes to spread its bounty as far as it’s physically able. I walk with my eyes on the sidewalk these days, the way I did as a kid in New York, before dog owners were expected to clean up after their dogs. My family had a dog. We thought we were being good citizens because we got him to shit between the parked cars. In fact, back then the city put up signs saying “Curb your dog.”

After the shoe incident, I bought myself a box of chalk. Then I waited.

Several days later, I found another deposit. Right by the red metal box that everyone (even me) calls the dog poo bin. I knelt on the sidewalk and chalked, “Clean up after your dog, please.”

I stepped back to admire my work. I’d forgotten the your, so it actually read, “Clean up after dog, please,” as if a computer translation program had written it. I used to work as an editor, so that missing word bothers me, but it did get the point across. And at least I hadn’t forgotten the please.

Good manners are more important here than good grammar. No matter how ungrammatical—or, for that matter, rude—a note you tack up somewhere, you can make it okay if you write “Polite Notice” at the top. I can’t tell you how many signs I’ve seen that declare themselves Polite Notices. Even if you were to say, “Pick up after your dog, you miserable, lazy, unclean excuse for a human being,” if you also said it was a polite notice, it would be okay.

And even if the rest of your wording is polite, you still have to open with “Polite Notice.” Actual politeness isn’t what matters. You have to remind everyone that you’re being polite.

I didn’t open with “Polite Notice.” I didn’t figure a chalked notice on the sidewalk had to, but then (as I’m often reminded) I’m not British. Wild Thing’s sure that what people mean when they say that is that we just don’t get certain things, and that the speaker feels sorry for us. I’m not sure she’s right. I tend to hear it as a statement of fact: We really aren’t British. Or we are—we’re citizens—but on some deeper level we never can be.

I don’t necessarily want to know how the speaker feels about this.

So it’s hard for me to be sure how significant that missing “Polite Notice” is. I may have offended someone other than the dog walker, but I can’t tell. I’m not British.

English Dog Owners

This has happened to me twice now: I was walking the dog—a lovely cluster of fluff and enthusiasm—when another dog walker stopped some 20 feet away and asked, “Is that a dog?”

I looked at her as if I needed to check. Half of me did it to play along with the gag and the other half did it because the question was so strange that maybe it wouldn’t hurt to check. Yes, she was still a dog. Small, I grant you, but so am I. It doesn’t change what we are.

I looked back up.

“Um, yes,” I said. Even the second time, when I knew better.

Would you have to ask if this is a dog?

Would you have to ask if this is a dog?

The other person, both times, reeled his own dog in, explaining that the dog’s snappish with other males, although he’d be fine if my dog were a bitch.

By this time, I understood what the other dog walker saying—bitch, female; dog, male—but excuse me, you can’t call my dog a bitch, and while we’re at it, you can’t tell me my dog’s not a dog. I mean look at her, she’s down there wagging her tail. My cats don’t do that. You want bitch, buddy, talk to me.

But that little drama plays out in my head. When you live in a village you don’t run around starting wars on a whim. Or, yeah, some people do, but their wars enter to gossip chain and circulate forever. Think of it this way: The village keyboard has no Delete button. And whoever you just started a war with? You’ll run into them for the rest of your life.

I admit, I wouldn’t have started a war over this if I was still living in a city. It’s too silly, and I’m not that quick to fly off the handle. But living in a village colors the way I don’t say it. I kept the vague smile that had landed on my face I was first asked if my dog was a dog and I said, “Oh. That. Female. She’s female.”

At which point, both times, the other person let his dog approach and they gave each other a good sniff. The first time, the dog who would have been fine if my dog had been a bitch turned bitchy himself and snapped at her before being hauled off. Which goes to show you something, although I’m damned if I know what.

I won’t swear that any of this is particularly English. We have dog breeders in the U.S., and they probably talk about dogs and bitches, but no one in the States ever asked me if my dog was a dog. Not once.