THE SCENE IS PÉ RONNE, a fortified town on the river Somme, a few years before the Revolution. In a house on the edge of town, a small, well-trained band has gathered to make the final preparations for a long and dangerous journey. Each member of the band has a tightly packed bale strapped to his back. They know only the law of blind obedience, not the law they are about to break for the umpteenth time. The leader of the band has served an apprenticeship and is now allowed to make the journey without a load. Responsibilities, of course, are a burden in themselves. The rules of the business are few and simple, but they call for skill, experience and courage. In this respect, the little band would be the envy of a military commander. Despite the dangers that lie ahead, all the tails are wagging.
The caravan of smuggler dogs sets off to the crack of a whip while the master goes back indoors to sleep. Somewhere in the night, where Picardy meets Artois, it will cross one of the frontiers that divide France into zones of taxation. At the barriers, excise duty must be paid on almost everything that humans desire: tobacco, alcohol, leather, salt and iron. Guards patrol the borders. If smugglers are caught, men are sent to the galleys, women and children to prison. Dogs are executed on the spot. The lead dog sniffs out the route. Human smell means dive into a ditch and stay down until the patrol has passed. Dog smell - it could be an excise hound - means change the route, head out across the marshes or scatter over the moor. After several hours of excitement and delays, the expedition reaches the other village and the second part of the plan comes into operation. While the carriers lie low in cornfields and hedgerows around the village, the lead dog trots up to a house and scratches softly at the door. Dogs coated with mud and briars come running in. With their last ounce of energy they leap at the man to congratulate him on another successful mission. Since the humans eat the same food as the animals, there will be a well-earned feast followed by a long and lazy day.
SOCIALLY AS WELL AS genetically, the smuggler dogs of northern France are a vanished breed.
...In many parts of France, dog-power was vital to the early industrial revolution. In the Ardennes, where nail-making was a major domestic industry, a passer-by who peered into one of the nail-makers' low stone cottages would see a small dog scampering inside a wheel to keep the bellows blowing. In the Jura, villages without a water supply used wheel-spinning dogs to run machines. The usual stint was two hours, after which the dog, slightly singed by flying sparks, went to wake its replacement and could then do as it liked. The humans worked for up to fifteen hours a day and were often stunted, myopic and claw-fisted. The dogs seem to have been better adapted to the work. Like a hired labour force, they took responsibility for their own training. Old dogs taught young dogs the trick. Bitches suckled their puppies as they skittered about inside the wheel and learned the family trade. These working dogs were valued members of the family and were often included in family photographs.
The other main canine industry was carting. Long after dog traction was banned in some départements, milk, fruit and vegetables, bread, fish, meat, letters and sometimes schoolchildren were delivered by dog-cart. The dog-cart was the poor man's bicycle and motor car. As late as 1925, well over a thousand dogs in harness were still running about the Loiret département, south of Paris. The flatter the terrain, the more dog-carts there were (the practice had spread from the Low Countries), though they also managed to take machine-guns to the trenches and bring back the wounded in the First World War. Like other quiet forms of transport, the dog-cart was driven off the roads by the motor car. The sudden roar of an engine was too much for a responsive dog.
City dogs today are thought of mainly as an excremental menace: over eight million dogs in France - two hundred thousand in Paris - produce eighty tons of excrement a day and cause thousands of broken limbs. In the days when manure was gold, this was not a major complaint. The dogs themselves were a cheerful part of city life. Even that cat-worshipping aesthete Charles Baudelaire loved the sight of working dogs going about their business, 'driven by fleas, passion, need or duty': 'those vigorous dogs hitched to carts . . . show by their triumphant barking how pleased and proud they are to rival horses.' The 'heroism of modern life' was not peculiar to the human race:
I celebrate those calamitous canines who wander alone through the sinuous ravines of immense cities, or who say to the abandoned man, with twinkling, intelligent eyes, 'Take me with you, and perhaps we shall fashion a kind of happiness out of our two miseries!'
...The smuggler dogs of Brittany and Maine were not treated as kindly as their Picard counterparts. A family in Maine, where salt was taxed, would leave its dog with a family in Brittany, where salt was free of duty. The dog was tethered, starved and then released with a pack of salt. Only the most intrepid excise man would try to stop an angry, famished dog heading for home.
Some of these shambling, muzzled parodies of human beings made horrendously long journeys - to Germany and Britain, and even to South America. For the people who watched these sad performances, part of the attraction was undoubtedly the handler himself: an example of a primitive species from the edges of France. 'Built like a bear-handler' was a proverbial expression for a weak and shabbily dressed little man. These one-sided feudal relationships were more important to the humans than the tiny income provided by the bear. In towns and villages that were cut off for part of the year, cowering from the threat of avalanches and the crushing weight of boredom, even a dangerous wild animal was welcome company. An official who visited a mountain village in the Pyrenees was taken to see an old woman in need of charity. She and her husband had raised a dancing bear, but bears are prone to fits of anger and the husband had been mauled to death. 'I have nothing, sir, nothing at all - not even a roof for me and my animal.' 'Your animal? You mean the one that ate your husband?' 'Oh, sir, it's all I have left of the poor man.'
The first law against cruelty to animals, the Grammont Law of 1850, outlawed animal fights in towns and cities, not primarily because the animals suffered but because violent sports were thought to give the proletariat a taste for bloody revolution.
Just as a World Wildlife Fund sticker on a car window does not prevent it from leaving a trail of flattened corpses on the tarmac,21 so was sentimental concern able to coexist quite happily with unconscious cruelty. Bourgeois passengers on Mediterranean ships amused themselves by shooting dolphins. Hunters on holiday could be indescribably sadistic in disposing of their prey. The idea that hunters had a special understanding of the animals they killed is extremely dubious. Even at the end of the nineteenth century, some hunters believed that marmots pulled each other along like carts and that chamois and bouquetins (ibex) swung themselves headlong down sheer cliffs by stabbing their horns into the earth. Many of the wild inhabitants of France were no better known than the human inhabitants of the French colonies.
...This is one of the earliest signs that anyone was saddened by the disappearance of a species. For a long time, the seemingly obvious idea that a species could become extinct, first proposed by Georges Cuvier in a paper on the mammoth in 1796, was an obscure, scholarly notion. In 1825, at the age of twenty-one, George Sand showed no particular concern when she wrote in her Pyrenean diary, 'We are living on bear and chamois, but we see hardly any'.
...More cunning and determination were deployed in the eradication of species than in the extermination of Protestants in the Cévennes. Eagle hunters had themselves lowered on plank swings until they were level with the eyrie. A blazing torch disposed of the parent and the eaglets were stuffed into a bag...Edible migrating birds were trapped in nets throughout Gascony and Provence. At the end of September, while flocks of doves from Scandinavia and the Jura were heading for the Basque Country, villagers in the Pyrenees were erecting giant poles. In a tiny crow's nest on top of the tripod of poles, a man scanned the horizon. The other catchers hid behind leafy screens. The man in the crow's nest held a flat piece of wood carved into the profile of a flying bird of prey. When the flock was a hundred yards away, he hurled the wooden bird into the air: the flock dipped and flew into the nets. The job of killing was left to women, who could exterminate several hundred birds in a few minutes by biting their necks. In Provence, where songbird stew was a popular delicacy, nightingales and warblers, tied together by the beak, could be bought at market. Birds were thought to devour olives and other crops. Until the public-information campaigns of the mid-nineteenth century, and the law against stealing birds' eggs and destroying nests (1862), no one seems to have realized that birds ate harmful insects. Some people planted berry bushes at the door so that they could lean out of the window and kill the birds with a stick.
...Some wild animals survived because humans wanted them to remain wild or found them too small and troublesome to be worth taming: the black Camargue bulls, which became more lucrative in the mid-nineteenth century when Napoleon III's empress Eugénie lent her support to Spanish bullfighting, and the small, speedy white horses that lived in herds of thirty or forty in the dune-deserts of the Landes, the salt delta of the Camargue and on the plains near Fréjus.
By 1840, when roads, pine plantations and irrigation channels were eating away at the wilderness, only a few hundred wild horses remained in the Landes. Did the threat of extinction sharpen their wits, or was it simply that the most intelligent survived the longest? A horse who was known to the villagers of the Arcachon Basin as 'Napoléon' had spent two years in captivity. He escaped to the land between the sea and the marshes where the fine dune-grass grew and applied the skills he had learned from humans to a herd of his own. Napoléon's horses watched for invaders from the heights of the dunes. When the hunters approached, the herd moved to a higher ridge which the domesticated horses, weighed down by riders and slowed by sand, could never climb. When the humans encircled the sandy fortress, the herd arranged itself into a wedge formation, with foals in front and mares behind, and charged downhill towards the weakest point of the circle.
The most famous animal hero produced by this colonization of the animal kingdom was a dog called Barry who worked at the monastery on the Great Saint Bernard Pass. As early as the eighth century, the Saint Bernard dogs had been trained to find travellers who were lost in the fog and snow, which makes their paramedical profession one of the oldest in Europe. All but one were wiped out by an epidemic in 1820. The sole survivor was mated with a breed related to the Pyrenean sheepdog. Unlike most dogs, the Saint Bernards yearned to go outside when a storm was brewing and when drifting snow was reinforcing the grey walls of their fortress. They not only patrolled the pass and sought out helpless travellers, they also took preventive action: they had been known to set off in pursuit of people who passed the monastery and who seemed, in the dogs' estimation, to be unlikely to complete their journey.
Most engravings show the Saint Bernard dogs carrying a neat little brandy-cask on their collar. In fact, they carried a complete survival kit: a basket of food, a gourd of wine and a bundle of wool ets. They had a precise knowledge of the whole region long before it was accurately mapped by humans and were capable of running for help to the nearest village if the monastery was further away.
When the sun began to shrivel up the grass, almost a million sheep, goats and cows poured out of the plains of Provence. These enormous caravans created their own travelling atmosphere, filling the air with dust and leaving a trail of half-eaten vegetation. Several thousand sheep and goats, moving at an average speed of less than one mile an hour for two or three weeks, could bring a large part of the country to a halt. Coach companies retimed departures to miss the flocks and herds that might occupy a bridge for half a day or block the narrow corridor along the Rhône. Tales of transhumance tend to stress dramatic conflicts. There were some hostile villages whose land was laid waste by hungry sheep and trampled by cows, and where gardes champêtres were paid to walk alongside the animals until they left the region...The most prized animals were decorated and dressed when they left for the mountains or when they were taken into church to be blessed. Cows were adorned with headdresses, flowers and flags, and sometimes with little wooden towers containing tiny bells that were thought to protect the herd from lightning. A few sheep and cows strayed onto fields and gardens, but transhumant flocks were not a rabble. A strict order was observed. In front went the menoun (castrated male goats), then came all the other long-haired goats, the countless troop of sheep or cows and the magnificent white sheepdogs whom, it was said, 'it is an honour to know'. Bringing up the rear were donkeys, carrying the shepherds' belongings and the lambs that were too small to keep up with their mothers.