Simon Barnes

Of geese and men

The history of human-goose relationships shows how confused we are about our fellow animals

Of geese and men
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Grumpy Gertie was killed in a drive-by shooting. This resident of the village of Sandon, near Letchworth, was shot at close range from a passing 4x4. There seems to have been no motive. Apart from pleasure, perhaps. Flowers have been placed at Gertie’s favourite spot, a reward of £250,000 has been offered for information about the killers, and the Sandon villagers are distressed and appalled.

Gertie was a goose. A white male farmyard goose — the name indicates an understandable confusion about gender; geese don’t go in for pronounced sexual dimorphism. It’s a strange little parable about the confusions, contradictions, paradoxes and inconsistencies that govern human understanding of non-human life.

Are the flower-laying villagers sentimental and mistaken? Is the shooter an inhuman brute? Do non-human animals have a greater right to exist when they are given names? (Call this the Cecil the Lion Perplex.) Are we supposed to measure only the human cost of Gertie’s death? Or should we also take into account the anserine cost of capricious goose-slaying?

Gertie was a village mascot. Sandon is home to about 200 humans, and Gertie appeared on the village sign. He took over a disused phone-box as a personal shelter; and that’s where the flowers have been laid, in a manner that seems to represent irony, grief and village solidarity all at the same time.

He was, then, a goose of some privilege, one given the honorary-human status that goes to well-loved dogs and cats: that is to say, it was accepted that he had a value beyond mere finance and a meaning beyond simple existence. To kill a beloved pet is an assault on the person doing the loving as well as the creature itself: Gertie’s death was an assault on the whole village.

All of humanity’s trans-specific relationships are packed with ambiguities. That’s made clear even if we stick with geese. We are disposed to love them and hate them, cherish and kill them, glory in them and despise them.

Farmyard white geese are all descended from wild greylag geese, just as all Aylesbury ducks are descended from mallards. Both have been bred for whiteness and for productivity.

Humans have kept domestic geese for thousands of years. They crop up in ancient Egypt in 2500 BC. They have been kept because they provide regular nourishment by means of eggs. We tend to mark our greatest feast days by consuming an entire animal, rather than just a chunk of one: some meaning is invested in the completeness of a big bird’s offering.

Geese are also valued for their guard-dog qualities: the geese that were sacred to Juno warned the Romans of the attacking Gauls. To this day, farmyard geese put the wind up visitors, even if there is no actual record of a goose breaking a human arm. (If you find yourself so threatened, remember to say ‘boo’.)

We love to load animals with arbitrary meaning and symbolism. Geese have a reputation for silliness: a foolish person, particularly, a woman, is a goose. The James Bond of the novels is fond of the phrase: ‘Don’t be a goose, Tiffany.’

In a highly ambiguous way, geese also provide sexual connotations. Goose is an 18th-century term for prostitute. It is also an obsolete term for penis. And if a lady is goosed, she is entitled to feel a little ruffled. Geese have been associated with fertility across the ages, and they hop — or waddle — from gender to gender without fuss, much as Gertie himself did.

There is a charming sequence in the H.E. Bates novel The Darling Buds of May in which Charley, the visiting tax inspector, is lunching in the farmyard with the Larkin family. As the meal progresses he believes he is getting a feel-up from the luscious Mariette; in fact, a goose has sneaked under the skirts of the tablecloth.

Wild geese are as confusing for humans as tame ones. Charles II introduced Canada geese to St James’s Park for love, because they are handsome and exotic. It turned out that this species was pretty capable of breeding in Britain. So in the 1950s the humans decided to do something about them. Geese go through an annual flightless stage when they are in moult. Canada geese in this condition were rounded up from rural areas and placed in spaces short of wildlife — such as urban parks. There they have settled very happily.

This happiness is now resented for two reasons. First, their diet causes them to defecate most efficiently: the phrase ‘loose as a goose’ is not just there for the rhyme. A sward much used by geese is a messy place. Secondly, they are highly conspicuous foreigners: prejudice against some non-native species is a socially acceptable form of xenophobia — ask a Londoner about parakeets.

Yet geese are also celebrated as one of the greatest spectacles of British life. Sir Peter Scott painted a series of celebrated images of pink-footed geese in flight, flying in echelon formation. Like the peloton in the Tour de France, they do this for aerodynamic efficiency. Boots used to sell these pictures in millions. The BBC’s Autumnwatch programme came last year from Caerlaverock, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust’s reserve on the Solway Firth. This gave the world an opportunity to revel in 35,000 over-wintering barnacle geese, a glorious vision of bio-abundance.

Wild geese are shot for sport, though the geese probably have another term for it. The conservation problems with wildfowling are not really about the numbers killed: they are more about disturbance. A shoot sends thousands of birds — often non-quarry species — flying around burning up energy when they need to be on the ground stockpiling it, a process that leads to exhaustion and death.

The affair of Grumpy Gertie tells us humans how confused we are about our fellow animals. The history of human-goose relationships tells us more of the same thing. So it’s time to come out of the closet on one question: I must confess I rather admire Canada geese. Sure, they’re noisy and filthy and polluting and far too efficient at breeding. But who isn’t?

Garden Fence
‘You’ll never guess what I heard the oligarchs next door say…’
Written bySimon Barnes

The History of the World in 100 Animals by Simon Barnes is published by Simon and Schuster.

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