Saturday, July 14, 2007

Some Farmers Love Their Animals

Some farmers love their animals. Some farmers love their animals more than others. Some farmers REALLY love their animals. This is a story about the love that dare not bleat, baa, woof, whinney, or otherwise speak its' name. I really don't have a clue how prevalent this practice is, here in the isolated, rural depths of deepest France, but jokes and anecdotes about the practice abound, and there doesn't seem to be too much shock or disgust in the telling.

Of course, perhaps this is because the French tend to not treat their animals as household members or pets. This is true for both the non agricultural Frenchperson, who is perfectly capable of leaving their pet, and their granny, abandoned during the summer holidays, and of the farmer who counts on his animals as the means to his income. Animals are generally thought of as objects that one uses to decorate, please the children, or kill to eat or sell.

In recent years, however, this has slowly begun to change. Small animal 'pet' vets are just now beginning to realize that there may be money to be made in pets, by convincing people to treat them as family memebers and be willing to pay for more than merely simple food and basic care. Even in our own local clinic, the difference between today and just a few years ago is a sight to behold. Our own vet has a newly-added, quite flashy corner of the waiting room, where dietetic petfoods and flashy accessoris are on display. If an animal comes in healthy and hearty and only for a vaccination or two, five tmes out of ten they'll walk out of the clinic with one of the 'added on sales' items from the display.

A few years ago, you'd bring in a sick dog and the the vet would say to take him home and let him die quietly, in comfort, next to the warmth of the open chimneyfire...and then you'd see the smelly old mutt banished to an old rag on the floor of the garage, halfway in a coma, until the end of its' life, after which it would be sometimes buried in the garden but usually thrown into the river or stuffed into a feedbag and dumped during the night into the big trash container by the end of the road. Paying real money to put an old animal down was almost unheard of, and done only for those animals that were in agony or whose owners didn't have a gun or a stick or a big rock to do it themselves, had they even thought to do so.

Go into that same veterinary clinic today with a sick dog, and you won't get out for under several hundred Euros, and if the dog should die, in spite of it all, the vet will ask you if you don't want a doggy funeral or cremation...for a price, of course. Or, failing to get the client to stump up for an actual funeral, the dog might end up waiting for the renderingplant truck, in the big freezer at the back of the clinic...for a price, of course. I'm not certain that, nowadays, you would be even allowed to leave the clinic with the body, to be disposed of at your leisure in the privacy of your own home.

Of course, that's for the small animal pets, the farm animals still get treated as much as they have been for the past centuries. Conceived, born, raised and produced in small cages or in the dark windowless corners of a damp and drafty barn. Overcrowded in dirty pens and taken for long, stressful rides in open trailers to other countries to be slaughtered and eaten. Kept from their mothers and fed unnatural diets in order to grow more quickly to marketweight. Tied up on a short chain next to others for months during the winter, with hardly any room to lie down or with mucky bedding full of thorns. Slaughtered without benefit of stunning, and left to bleed even without the prayers for the soul that the scorned Muslim Halal meat merits. The list goes on and on, and this is only the small family farmer...heaven help the animals that are produced on the big industrial factory farms.

This kind of animal husbandry is one of the main reasons that we raised our own creatues for food, back when we lived in a little house on a big parcel of land, just outside of town. By then, I had learned enough about how to raise animals and kill them to feel confident about doing it for myself. I was determined to do it in a better, more humane fashion that that of some of people around here...and for the most part, I succeeded.

We were carnivores then, and we are still carnivores now, and although I really do prefer my meat to arrive in the headless, hideless, anonymous supermarket package version that in no way resembles the animal that it used to be, I want to know how the meat that I am eating has been raised and fed and cared for and killed and prepared. So I set out to learn, and found myself a few French farmer friends to teach me the basics.

Once adept (depending on who you ask, for my farmer friends still now laugh at my efforts), I set up shop, filling the place with livestock of any and all varieties... Chickens, guineafowl, ducks and geese wandered freely around, the roosters irritating me when they took to crowing from the top of the plane tree, just as the baby, who was taking a nap in the playpen that had been nailed to the table underneath, was sound asleep and I could get a break and have a quiet cup of tea and a cookie to myself. Rabbits and guineapigs were housed, under the shade of the old appletrees, in clapiers made of recuperated palletts and chickenwire. The dog kept company with several cats. There was a pig that was named Denise, after my ex Mother-in-Law, slowly fattening himself on tablescraps and unsold fruits and vegetabls from the market. The goats and I held a running battle to see who would be the first to harvest anything from the vegatable garden. A couple of ponies and Bunny, the donkey grazed in the field and sometimes escaped through the forest to visit the neighbors. It was a wonderful place to be.

Nearby was an old folks' home, and sometimes the residents would come by with old bread and scraps for the animals, as well as candy and sweeties for the kids. There were always loads of kids...I had four and the place was a perfect haven for all of their friends. Mothers would drop off their children and sometimes not come back for a week or ten days, or even a month, during the holidays, knowing perfectly well that the kids would eat, sleep, and play all the whole day long, and be put to bed with bedtime stories and singalongs in English, and might come back home with a few bilingual phrases to get them thinking about English as a second language. One mom said to me, 'I know they'll have to be steam-cleaned and sterilized, once they get back home, but they are so happy to be here'. Gee, thanks.

One particular old man came more often than most of the visitors from the retirement home. I didn't mind, because he usually never really bothered with the kids, preferring to stop and visit the animals, instead. I figured that he was shy. He'd generally be there whan we got back from an outing, and leave soon afterwards, reinforceing the shy idea. One of the other residents told me that he'd been a farmer, so I figured that he simply missed his old ways and came by for a souveneir of his younger days. Little did I know what it was that he was missing.

One day, we drove up to find this old man seemingly urinating. He pulled up his zipper as we were driving in the gate. I never had a second thought about it, after all, French men will pee anywhere, and not always against a wall with their backs turned towards you for politeness, either. I did think it rather strange that he was peeing so close to where the pony was, and it almost seemed as if the pony was curiously reaching out with his nose to sniff...but I waved away any 'peculiar' thoughts on the matter. The strange thing was, was that when I stopped the car, he hurriedly began to shuffle away. And when I put out my hand, in order to politely shake his, he looked almost surprised at my gesture, and very nearly didn't return the handshake, as he was in that much of a hurry to get away. Once again, I thought he was just a shy person.

A few days later I was having a coffee with a friend at the table outside, under the plane trees...the table was long enough to have a place to sit, AND to leave the nailed-on baby playpen in place. The baby loved being in that playpen on the table, because he could pull himself up and watch, all day, as the tractors and trucks, that belonged to the the Town Hall, came and went, dumping their loads of dead leaves, rocks, wood, and various building materials onto the propert right in front of us, which was the local depot for the town. It might not have been the prettiest place to live, but it certainly was th most fun place to live for the kids, with that big, ever-changing, adventure playground right there, seemingly made just for them. To this very day, that boy wants to be a truck driver.

The woman almost spilled her coffee, as she jerked upright and said 'What the hell is he doing?!', so I looked, and there was the old man, sitting on a cement block, apparently offering his penis to the dog. The dog didn't seem to mind, and was sniffing away...or at least, that's what it looked like from the distance we were sitting, and I found myself feverently hoping that sniffing was all that the dog was doing. I had to hope it wasn't what I thought, as a half dozen small kids were playing in the gravel, not yards from the scene.

The old man must've noticed us watching him, or heard us yelling, for he got up, zipped up, and went over to a tree by the stream, where he 'finished his business' without the benefit of an animal partner, and walked back to the old folks' home. At that point I knew that something had to be done, and went over to see the people in charge of the home the next morning. I wasn't sure how to present myself, or if I'd be believed, or even understood, as at that time, my knowledge of the French language...especially those particlar terms of the language...wasn't too strong.

I was invited into the office, where Madame la Directrice listened attentively to my story, and then asked me to come out into the corridor and take a peek at the clients in the sitting room. She pointed out the old man, and asked me if it wasn't him that seemed to be having these 'problems'. It was him, all right, and I confirmed it. She told me that this had come as no surprise to her, and that the office had already had a complaint or two about the old man and another resident's dog, and then made the comment that, 'Wasn't it sweet to know that the urge is still there, at that advanced age?'.

She went on to say that it turns out that the old guy really WAS a retired farmer, and, after seeing his sexual proclivities in action, we had to understand that as he'd never been married, this is what he was used to. And not to worry, she said, the doctor would be called in and the old farmer would be given regular doses of bromide, which would nicely take care of things. I asked if it wouldn't be more kind to buy the poor sod a stuffed animal.

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