Man’s best friend.jpg

Man’s best friend

Skip Bandele reflects on life and his world — as he sees it

SHE IS called Didi, the Arabic word for ‘girl from the country’. I have known her since she was two-years-old, her character never much given to playfulness, but always loyal and sweet. Now she is nine, an old lady in some ways. Didi only has two burning passions in life: food and affection, being cuddled an activity she hopes may bear the implied promise of further delicacies coming her way. She is adorable, kind natured yet cunning, but in a transparent sort of way; in other words, your typical mongrel pet dog.  

Didi does not like Portuguese men – I don’t know why – and hates water, but not necessarily in that order. When a hose is turned on in her vicinity, it doesn’t matter how remote the possibility that she may be within range of it, Didi retreats casting suspicious glances in the offending object’s direction. She is also terrified of loud noises, without being either skittish or paranoid, although she does have a tendency to almost permanently keep her tail between her legs, giving her a subservient apologetic appearance. Firework displays and the shots fired in the Monchique hills marking the beginning of the hunting season are her greatest horrors.

Didi, like most dogs dependent on human contact, is acutely aware of certain basic rules: under no circumstances is she to enter the office or, above all, the tennis courts on which I spend some of my daily working life. Imagine my surprise, then, when, during a midsummer thunderstorm, no rain in evidence, electricity cracking through the intimidating angry afternoon sky, Didi came to join me on court where I was handling a high-pressure hose, pressing her shivering frame against my leg beneath the dripping nozzle. The dry thunderclaps had terrified her to such an extent, that she jumped over her own shadow, breaking all deeply ingrained fears and conventions in the process. The deafening noise had reduced her to a pitiful bundle of abject misery.

Even as I sought shelter from the pending downpour at my desk, she followed, almost crawling onto my lap, had her pear-shaped body not prevented her from doing so. And Didi is not alone in her sensibility to the terrors the human world holds, one of God’s creatures ruled by instinct, as opposed to people, who are able to rationalise situations and conflicting emotions in the majority of cases.

Let us change location for a minute, and look at a different and almost always ignored aspect of the tragic theatre of the Middle East I tried to humanise a fortnight ago, and at how Didi’s not so distant cousins fare there. Among all the human suffering endured at times of war, those dependent on their stricken ‘masters’, pets and other animals, are never mentioned, which is strange considering what disproportionate amounts of love, money and care our western society lavishes upon its furry friends. Take my sister, for example. It does not matter how mangy, flee-ridden, sick or visually repulsive a stray animal may be, she will take it in, look after it, and attempt to make it better, regardless of the astronomic veterinary costs involved.

An equally suffering and destitute human specimen, however, does not elicit a second glance! This is not meant as a criticism, merely as an explanation of how we have varying propensities to care. All of which brings me back to the other, four-legged, victims of armed conflict.

At a conservative estimate, 8,000 dogs and cats have been left to battle for survival, without food or water, during the current crisis by Israelis alone fleeing their homes. Many have been left tied up, in some cases on rope so short that they cannot even lie down. Those that do manage to escape, wander around streets, lost and disorientated in the bombed rubble of their former homes, crazy with hunger and thirst, terrified by the sound of screaming missiles incessantly passing overhead. Shrapnel and cluster explosives that have not proven to be mercifully deadly at first, have only increased the misery, maiming and causing permanent physical disability. I will not even start to describe the equally indelible mental damage sustained.

Dozens of puppies, only moments ago the lovable toys of their owner’s children, were found simply thrown out like garbage, dogs beaten to within an inch of their lives for the inconvenience of trying to seek refuge in an air-raid shelter alongside their former masters. Farmers are reporting that stressed out cows are producing less milk, and eggshells are so thin that they fall apart at the slightest touch.

These are only a few examples of the traumas suffered by those that author and animal welfare campaigner, Jilly Cooper, call the forgotten victims of war. These casualties, never recorded, litter our history from its beginnings through to modern times. Whereas primarily farm animals bore the brunt of man’s folly in the past, the increasing urbanisation of war, such as witnessed in the former Yugoslavia not so long ago, now wreaks death and hardship on our pets, almost as an afterthought.

The way some of us casually shed our once assumed responsibilities toward our household animals and mete out cruelty beyond comprehension, unfortunately does not restrict itself to theatres of war. Especially during this time of the year and in southern European countries, the betrayal of trust placed in us by our dependents is repulsive. This is not to say that our supposedly equally ‘civilised’ northern European neighbours have much to shout about in this department either – some of the reports frequently aired on television, depicting acts of gross depravation enacted upon man’s helpless ‘best friends’, defy description.

Here in Portugal, it has long been common practice for holidaymakers to rid themselves of unwanted, bothersome or merely inconvenient pets, dogs in particular, by throwing them out of a speeding car or just tying them to a tree in some remote part of the countryside before taking off. What is the poor abandoned animal to think? What does it feel when its unconditional love is treated in this way? A whole carefully built up existence is destroyed in one callous action. Fortunately, animals, like humans, have almost limitless powers of recuperation.

I would urge you to spare a thought for these, our fellow creatures, childlike in their emotional make-up. And, if you decide to share your life with one of them, don’t run to the next shop or breeder, as if purchasing a fashion accessory: visit one of the many temporary and permanent kennels near you and give an already desperately disappointed dog or cat a new life. They will be forever grateful.