Thursday, July 28, 2011

On the Unfathomable Psychology of the Corgi

The last corgi we had, Braselton (aka Brassie), was a squirrel chaser.  Had she been born among the native peoples, I feel quite sure her name would have been Mighty Squirrel Warrior.  We had only to say, "Get away, old squirrel!" and off she'd go on a tear, whether there was a squirrel in the picture or not.  Find the hidden squirrel she would, or die trying: that was the philosophy of life by which Brassie lived and according to which she framed the pattern of her days.

Our current successor to Brassie, Flora, appears to have a different philosophy, and I'm still trying to figure it out.  Each evening as dark falls, she plants herself on the south side of the sunroom, where a redbud tree abuts the window, its branches actually touching the window itself at several points.

A redbud highway is more like it.  Beneath the tree are both our compost heap, with an ever-shifting array of tidbits of interest to an ever-shifting crowd of squirrels and birds (and rats and raccoons, on whom more in a moment), and a two-tiered fountain that the birds absolutely adore in our current hot, rainless weather.  

The redbud highway is, in short, Flora's reason for establishing an evening watch at the south window of the sunroom.  It's her job, so to speak, since corgis are busy little working dogs who make it their business to monitor the perimeters of their houses, farms, apartments, etc.  

And here's the puzzle: nightly, before full dark has set in, one squirrel after another heads up and down the limbs of the redbud tree, right beyond Flora's nose, and there's never a peep from her.  All she does is watch, with rapt attention, cranking her neck in that way corgis do, up, down, around and around, to make sure she misses not the tiniest flicker of movement in her tree.

With the raccoon, it was much the same.  I say "the" raccoon, since there has been only one, but she visited us for two years, using the redbud highway each evening as dark arrived to make her way to the yard of the neighbors just to our south, where delicious bowls of catfood are out all the time for the neighborhood's stray cats (and, as it happens, for the neighborhood's rats, as well: on which more in a moment).

We assumed that the raccoon, who was, we knew, a female, since we could see her underside as she ambled through the tree each evening, lived somewhere down south of us until we were traveling earlier in the summer and Steve's brother, who was staying in the house to watch it in our absence, looked out the window one night to find her entering a hole under the roof's eaves.  A hole she had chewed, to give her access to the same little apartment she had created for herself the year before, when we could hear her moving around inside the wall making sounds like pins in a bowling alley toppling until we called a raccoon catcher to catch her and remove her to the wilds.

And since Joe closed that door up, we haven't seen Rorina, as Steve named her, ever again since that week.

When she did come along the redbud branches routinely, though, the dogs (Val often accompanies Flora on the watch) behaved precisely the same way they behave when the squirrels climb the tree: they merely watched, obviously fascinated by the large mama 'coon, who would recline along a limb as she saw them watching, and slowly curl and uncurl a paw in a gesture for all the world like a human beckoning gesture.  

They were not threatened by Rorina.  They did not want to hunt her.  They clearly did not see her as an invader of their territory.  She was a show, an evening performance designed to teach them something that eludes me, about the interaction of animals in a world partly wild, partly citified, where a delicate balance exists between animals as pets and as unwelcome intruders from the green spaces dotted throughout the city.

But then there are the rats: there, the enmity of Flora and Valentine is absolute and unrelenting.  The rats come to us in successive waves, as a new batch of them is born, and each time a new wave breaks, we go through the same sad, reluctant routine: out comes the rat poison, to be strewn inside the basement where the dogs can't get at it, but where the rats do gambol.  And then the traps lying along the limbs of the Lady Banksia on the east side of the sunroom, whose branches overlay the redbud, also get reactivated, filled with cheese, since we feel we have no choice except to exterminate and/or trap the rats, which may carry disease to our dogs.

And somehow Flora and Val (and Crispen, who doesn't participate in the nightly watch but is eager to take part in the chase, once the other two have alerted him to the rats' evening visits) know all of this, and want to let us know they are fully on board with the rat-catching project.  Because as soon as a rat scurries along one of the redbud limbs each evening during the latest wave of rat visits, the dogs go wild, clawing at the windows, barking to beat the band, moving from south window to east window to track the rats' progress, and then clambering after them once we let the dogs outside to do their rat-hunting duty, and I suspect, to their way of thinking, prove their canine worth to us.

And what I wonder about as I watch and think about all of this is how a corgi (or a half-breed corgi, in the case of Val and Cris), knows how to distinguish squirrel from rat from raccoon.  And how they know which critter, in particular, we want them to hunt, and which we'd prefer them to leave alone.

Since they clearly do know this, and are eager to comply with our wishes--even to the extent of bringing carcasses of freshly killed rats to the back doorstep, to let us know they've proven their worth to us as mighty hunters of the demesne.  Though we're not eager to discover, as a friend of ours discovered a year or so ago after her cat had done her duty and caught a mouse, one of these trophies on our pillow as we go to bed at night . . . .

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