Be interspecific! The fine art of polite conversation

I saw my first robin of the spring this morning when I was walking Barbara. I usually start seeing them in February.

“Well hello,” I said to the male robin. “Why are you so late this year?”

“What’s it to you?” he retorted. He bounced around the ground a couple times and then flew away.

Barbara and I watched the bird land in the neighbor’s tree and then looked at each other.

“Some birds,” Barbara said, “never learn to master the fine art of polite conversation.”

“I’m afraid you’re quite right,” I said back to my dog.

As my dog and I continued walking in the morning sun, I pondered how many human-to-animal conversations I have enjoyed and observed. Most people I know regularly engage with their pets and wildlife.

I see these interspecific conversations in the homes of my loved ones and in the yards of my neighbors. I see them in public when people walk their dogs. I’ve seen grown men wave and talk to the animals at the zoo. And I remember when Jesse and I were dating, we saw a deer and he said, “Hello Pretty” to it in a very gentle way.

Occasionally I’ll meet someone who clearly has no ability or desire to commune with nature or the precious animals within its realms.

One such person was “Charlie,” a young man who lived in the apartment above us in southwest Minneapolis in 2005. Every once in awhile, I’d be in the backyard with my dog Woody at the same time he got home from work. He’d unlatch the gate and walk through the yard.

“Hi Charlie.”

“Hey Connie, how are you?”

“Fine, yourself?”

We’d talk for a minute before he’d excuse himself. The last thing he would do before he went inside was look at Woody and say one word.

“Dog.”

I’d wonder why Charlie didn’t worship my dog. Woody was a saint, an angel and the reason I subscribed to a higher power. Surely everyone else felt this way. Even Charlie’s roommates were kind to Woody. They’d greet him, bend down to pet him and say things like, “I should get a dog, too” or “You’re a good boy.” Cute things.

But never Charlie and I really wanted to know why. It didn’t seem right to ask him outright why he was so aloof so I decided to take up grilling. This was no easy task for I was a vegetarian and had a six-month-old baby but I was determined to find out why he didn’t adore my perfect dog.

My grilling scheme lasted about a month. I learned how to make a little pile of charcoals, douse them with fluid and efficiently grill chicken, hamburgers, hotdogs and corn on the cob. Every evening, I’d be in the backyard with my daughter and dog, grilling up dinner. I’d either hold my daughter or she’d be in a bouncy seat. Woody would usually be lying in “his spot” underneath the picnic table. It was always a peaceful scene when Charlie would enter through the gate.

“Hi Charlie.”

“Hey Connie.” He’d say hi to my baby and check out what I was grilling. “Looks good.”

Sometimes he’d ask me to keep the coals going so he could throw some salmon on.

“Sure,” I’d tell him. “I’ll holler up when I’m done.”

“Thanks.”

Then he’d look at Woody and say:

“Dog.”

And then he went through the door.

He was a tough nut to crack, that’s for sure. A couple weeks into my scheme, I started to get decidedly more aggressive, Minnesota style.

“Anything interesting happen at work today?”

Charlie, like so many, worked at the University of Minnesota. I didn’t actually know what he did there and it was too soon for me to ask such a personal question.

“Not much,” he’d say. “Went over some more protocols, that kind of thing.”

“Sounds interesting,” I’d say. “Have a good night.”

“You too,” he’d say and then look at Woody.

“Dog.”

On the fourth week in, I was thinking about giving up. Jesse and I were so sick of barbecued food. But then Charlie came home and this time Woody got up and greeted him.

“Woody!” I said, “Get back here.”

“Hi dog.” Charlie said.

My heart warmed to hear him say “hi” to my dog but I noticed that he didn’t pet or pat Woody. He stood erect and kept his distance. Woody went back to his spot and I apologized.

“I’m sorry about that,” I told him, and meant it. Woody never did more than just look at Charlie.

“It’s fine,” Charlie said. “He probably smells the other dogs on me.”

“What other dogs?” I asked. “Weren’t you at work?”

“Yes. We had more dogs than usual come in.”

“I don’t understand,” I told him. “I don’t know what you do.”

I asked him to tell me more and he explained that he worked in the biomedical department and part of his research meant examining dogs that were dead and alive. Apparently there was a freezer filled with dead dogs. Then he looked at Woody.

“I see a lot of dogs that look like you.”

He said good night and went inside.

I immediately lost my appetite and felt instant remorse for my curiosity. But at least the mystery was solved and I could finally start cooking inside again, on a stove. The public nature of barbecuing is exhausting. All that smiling and “Smells good” and “How are you doing?” and “Want a burger?” is too much, even for this extrovert.

I don’t think I talked to Charlie in the backyard ever again and now that I think about it, that was probably what the poor guy wanted all along. He probably just craved some peace and quiet.

I feel a little guilty and foolish about my barbecue scheme, but I am still suspicious of people who don’t regularly engage with animals, or even take a moment to wonder what they may be thinking.

Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoy talking with your first robin of the spring! -Connie

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