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We have a new addition to the family this week–a furry twitchy baby rabbit, named Cocoa if it turns out to be a boy and Coco if it turns out to be a girl. Given the amount the twins are feeding it, it’s already developed a nice round firm tummy. (So much for vegetables keeping you thin—why yes, I will have some more chocolate, thanks.) ilsa-cocoa.jpg

I hope this one lives. Since our move to Mauritania, we’ve had the worst luck with pets. We’ve had, at various times, 3 hedgehogs (including the incredibly-named Legolas Gimli Jones), 2 puppies, 1 turtle and 4 rabbits. All have died except the turtle, whom I assume is still alive somewhere in our garden. I haven’t seen him since spring. He was very tiny and cute last time I saw him. However his kind typically lives 100+ years and gets enormous. In hope of that, I named him Methuselah, although Ilsa had already named him Timmy Turtle and wanted to keep him in her Barbie house.

We also had a stray cat give birth to three miniature black-and-white copies of herself in the corner of our gazebo. Each child named one; Aragorn (Elliot), Obi-Wan Henry (Abel Henry), and Joanna Louise (Ilsa, who always names animals after her friends). The kittens were quite domesticated but went wild while we were gone this summer, and disappeared, joining the ranks of feral cats who roam the neighbourhood and cry in the nights.

Keeping pets is a strange concept in this land, where the choice is often real between feeding animals and feeding people. In general, Mauritanians don’t have pets. Animals provide something—food, wealth, skins, protection, transportation, etc. Why would you want another mouth to feed if it doesn’t do anything to earn its keep?

On top of the mystery of “WHY pets” is added a religious element—Islam frowns on dogs in the house. They are considered unclean. The result, here at least, is that Mauritanians are afraid of dogs. And I don’t blame them—they let their dogs roam wild, and don’t discourage children from throwing rocks at them. Quite frankly, most of the dogs around here scare me too. They roam the streets in packs, snarling and barking and impregnating each other—sometimes all at the same time.

When we got our first puppy, a friend counseled us on how to raise a dog. “Pen him in a corner of the yard and never go near him—just throw him food sometimes,” he said. “He’ll grow up to be really mean. He will be a good guard dog.” Uh, yeah.

That dog didn’t make it. He was taken from his mother, and given, unasked, to the twins as a surprise 6th birthday present, when he was only a few days old. I explained that puppies need to stay longer with their mothers, but it was already too late.

When our last rabbit, a white one named Alice, died of heat exposure last summer while we were gone, our guard tossed the carcass off in a side lot. When we returned, for some reason he felt compelled to show the kids the bits of fur and bones that were left. They were unfazed (“Weird,” commented Elliot), but I was mystified. Why would he think they would want to see their dead pet? Certainly not for closure. Perhaps he was worried we would suspect him of having eaten the rabbit.

Animals are viewed as definitely different from people—no one would ever refer to a dog as their “child” or have an animal be part of a wedding ceremony, for example. Here we have donkey carts plodding down the streets endangering traffic, and all the drivers (ages 5 to 70) beat their donkeys. Many have open sores. When you are having a party or a lot of the extended family over, you slaughter a sheep—just out in the street. It’s common for me to walk out my front door and find a sheep in its death throes, still moving a bit, lying in a pool of blood. Did I mention this post might not be kid-appropriate? And yet which is the odd society here? For millennia, mankind has differentiated between animals and people and slaughtered sheep in front of children, and it’s only in our ultra-hygienic hyper-sensitive age that we think meat comes wrapped in plastic on disposable styrofoam trays. And, after living here nearly 2 years, I read an account in Newsweek of a dog’s birthday party in Seattle, of a bakery catering to canines, and my sense of disassociation was painful. I could no longer imagine such a place. I felt that I truly was living on a different planet now, and I wasn’t sure which one was home.

November 2006

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