Who doesn’t love St. Francis? We love Francis because he loved the world’s fowl and fauna.
Whether he was selective in his affection for animals is lost to history. If we are to trust the iconic images of Francis that have appeared over the centuries we might conclude that he had a thing for birds.
We have a statue of St. Francis in our garden. When we moved into the house, where Francis is now, there was a cement fabrication depicting the face of Bacchus. Bacchus was not to our taste so we replaced him with a statue of St. Francis. Indeed, with this statue, Francis is cupping a small bird with both hands.
In the popular mind, Francis has become an almost universal symbol of our primal connections with nature, our interconnectedness to all living things, even skunks and snakes. Greater love hath no man, we might think.
That we humans enjoy cross-species relationships–– with deep bonds of affection ––is well known. We see it in the child’s hamster, her painted turtle, his goldfish, the guppy and the ubiquitous presence in millions of households where cats and dogs live in love and harmony with the householders
Cats are the most convenient of the four legged animals to house. They are self-directing, with finicky tastes but easy to care for; a little kitty litter and a small can of cat food does the trick and the cats do the rest, leaving their masters or mistresses free to come and go from the house with little worry. Dogs are not as easy to care for but the nature of the bond I think is more substantial; dogs are more demonstrably affectionate than cats in my view: you know when dogs are happy. Cats are furtive and sneaky; you’re never sure just what they’re feeling or thinking.
The companionship that cats and dogs offer us is legendary. They enjoy esteem among human beings such that there are even pet cemeteries here on the Shore where we can rest the bones of our pets in charming wooded ambiance with the same solemnity and dignity we practice when burying our friends and relatives.
As much as we abuse the world –– and we most certainly do –– we demonstrate our essential goodness in the affectionate bonds we make with our pets. The dog is man’s best friend, and in the modern world to a lesser extent, a woman’s best friend; I suspect cats are not as much a guy thing.
The most maligned of God’s creatures are mice and snakes. The abhorrence for these, God’s creatures, may be atavistic but it’s entirely undeserved.
Our Judeo-Christian heritage has not helped. A shared Christian and Jewish myth agree that a snake messed things up big time up for everyone. Adam and Eve enjoyed beatific splendor in a beautiful garden, a piece of real estate to die for. They let a snake snooker them into doing what they knew full well they shouldn’t have. With onerous consequences: after their eviction from the garden, Eve would bear children only in great pain while Adam would have to get a job and work for a living.
Here on the Shore blacksnakes are as numerous in the grass as nettles are in the Bay. Blacksnakes can get big –– they look scary and we need to be periodically reassured they will do us no harm.
One spring, my wife and I watched the lawn from the porch as three blacksnakes were involved in what I can only describe as a manage a trois. The snakes wound in and out of one another’s embrace in the most supple and tender way, giving the impression of a sensuality I would never have assumed of snakes. The assignation lasted about an hour and we stood there, like the basest of voyeurs, totally enthralled as we watched their intimacy. Finally, they peeled off one another, each going its way. One climbed a tree, wrapped itself around a branch and took a nap. An hour of such intensity can be exhausting even if you’re having fun.
There’s a Shore axiom involving snakes and mice. It’s a zero-sum observation of sorts; If you have snakes in the house, you don’t have mice. If you have mice, you don’t have snakes. This brings me to considerations of mice. Mice demonstrate daily how they and not dogs truly deserve the old accolade, ‘man’s best friend.’
Everyone loves Mickey and Minnie, but they’re fake mice, not the real thing. In the real world, mice are treated as pests to be rid of. This is the grossest of injustices. The better mouse trap does the job but in brutal ways. It’s always a bloody business.
There is no animal that has sacrificed more in saving human lives than the laboratory mouse. He keeps on giving even as he is man-handled, women- handled, deprived of sleep and companionship, injected with toxins, fed unhealthy foods, put through mindless exercises, suffering abuses and indignities in abundance. All this in the service of finding cures for our ills.
I have been complicit in some of these injustices that we visit on mice.
One winter we discovered mice had been nesting in the car. We saw droppings first. A family found its way to the engine compartment and nested in an air filter. After a while the smell in the car became unbearable tipping us off to the regular presence of mice. Mice have abysmal sanitary practices. They poop and pee indiscriminately, on the run, as it were, leaving a trail of effluence that with enough time stinks. We had our mechanic removed the nest, leaving them homeless. When asked about the smell, he looked at us, the way a doctor looks when delivering bad news to his patient: “Takes months at least to go away,” he said in a muffled vice. Was there anything he could do, we asked? Again, with the same somber look he shook his head, gravely.
Considering the plagues of all kinds from which I was safely delivered, saved because some mouse gave his all, I’d say having a smelly car for a few months is a small price to pay. I’m confident that St. Francis would have had it that way, too.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.