When we saw Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp”, I was 11 or 12 and my mother whispered to me how clever it was to draw Lady as a spaniel so she could toss her ears back, like a girl tossing her hair, and Peg as a Pekinese so that when she shimmied through her torch song, her tail did it for her. I’ve been big on ears and tails ever since (noses too, if you’re human – but that’s a whole other story).
So as I was switching through tv channels the other day, as you do and particularly at the moment, I came on an animal, prone, surgically blanketed, with a white coated vet standing alongside and the camera zoomed in on a badly torn ear, and I saw that I was looking at a not fully grown kangaroo. The way the vet acknowledged and touched the beast was appealing, and he explained that the ear would have to be stitched “… and now I’ll show you my secret weapon.”
He brought forward a jar of very thin mother of pearl buttons, something like the size of an old copper penny and real nacre, and stitched them in, individually and carefully at three separate points, to support the ear as it healed. Then, as the animal came round, he carried it back to its owner, a younger man plainly concerned, and they sat while the vet explained what he had done and how the supports could be painlessly removed. “Is he going to be all right?” asked the kangaroo’s guardian. “Sure” said the vet “ look …” and he showed if he pushed the palm of the roo’s paw, it was increasingly slow to fall back. “He’ll be round in a minute.” Forget Van der Valk, give me the vet.
I watched this same man talking to a turtle, stroking its shell while he and a knowledgeable woman discovered where it was injured, uncomfortably but not too seriously, which he could deal with there and then – this was part of a WWF project into turtles in that bay. And with all the animal films I have watched – and I have watched a lot – I have never seen anybody talking to a turtle or stroking its shell before, though a friend tells me they feel everything through the shell. I like that image.
What puts me off animal documentaries is also to do with ears. I either can’t stand the presenter or the music, either way, aural room freshener. Though people who give their intelligence, their energy, their lives to save wild animals capture my imagination. I remember a longstanding game warden, murmuring in patient Zulu to a rhino, knowing the animal could smell him but the team needed to net him and take him to a place of safety, and the Japanese scientist who designed a replacement tail fin for a dolphin who had lost his in a savage infection.
Because in all the truly terrible human suffering and endeavour of the last weeks, the animals haven’t had much of a look in. Yes, the Chinese “wet” markets have been mentioned, where you can buy almost anything in conditions that would spook a horse – but not more than mentioned because the Chinese don’t like this laboured and we need the Chinese. To eat wild animals is one of two strands of human behaviour as old as time – one is economy and the other is folk medicine. It is believed that if you ingest the animal, you take on its most prized attributes -strength, wisdom, cunning and again, strength. Two friends of mine have seen those markets and they both say they will never forget them though they wish they could. Is it just my Western gutlessness which says if you must kill a bear, why must it be in filth and misery?
Reviewing a new book called Has China Won ?, Max Hastings writes ”A year or two ago I observed to a friend who knows Asia well that after many centuries of appalling treatment from the West, the Chinese seem to deserve their time in the sun. “You may be right,” she responded cautiously and wisely “but I don’t think they will be very kind.” Not to us and not to the animals.