All Creatures Great and Small

It’s time for the first All The Rage of a new autumn, and so here is my bit.

There was an old woman who swallowed a fly.
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly.
Perhaps she’ll die.

I swallowed a fly once, but I survived. The key, I think, is not to panic.

But the old woman in the story overreacted to the initial incident, resulting in a catastrophic escalation of hostilities. This is how the biological arms race played out:

Fly v. Spider v. Bird v. Cat v. Dog v. Goat1 v. Cow v. Horse

Applying the “enemy’s enemy” principle, we can divide the animal combatants into two sides, or teams, as follows:

Team A
Fly
Bird
Dog
Cow

Team B
Spider
Cat
Goat
Horse

The sequential ordering of the teams in the original story puts us in mind of the tradition playground “first pick, second pick” system, though on this occasion we find a curious reversal, wherein the supposed weakest players are selected first, Team A effectively taking the first pick.

It is worth perhaps taking some time to examine in more detail how the two teams line up.

Sometimes a team is only as strong as its weakest player (butterfingered relay sprinters coming to mind) in which case Team A is in for a drubbing. Certain spiders could of course “have” any of the other animals, very much “punching above their weight”. (Equally, the bird that was swallowed to catch the spider would be in for something of a shock if the spider in question turned out to be the South American Goliath Bird Eating Spider.2) In all, it seems safe to conclude that the spider might well turn out to be Team B’s secret weapon, not least taking advantage of its opponent’s tendency to underestimate its power, a scenario endlessly exploited in David Carradine’s popular Kung Fu television series.

Assuming that the bird gets lucky, keeps its head, and overcomes the spider, it would then come up against the cat. Popular wisdom generally presents the cat as a wily and effective protagonist, the only possible problems being represented in the natural-order-overturning cartoons such as Tom and Jerry, or, most pertinently in this case, Sylvester and Tweety Pie. Did the old woman swallow Tweety Pie? It seems unlikely. Notch this one up to Team B.

The Cat versus Dog contest is as old as fictional animal conflict itself, and as hard to call as that between a monkey and robot, depending as it does on so many variables: age, breed of dog, “street” experience of the cat, previous martial arts training, etc. With the evidence presented to them, the Pools Panel award a score draw.

Sending in a goat to catch the dog is a curious strategy, given the dog’s more traditional role as a herder and “worrier” of domestic ruminants. Goats, however, are noted for their willingness to eat anything, and their stomachs are reported to be able to digest almost any organic substance – “ logically this would include dogs. Folklore surrounding the goat is also instructive. The three Billy Goats Gruff first outwit and then defeat in combat the apparently more powerful and aggressive troll, and research indicates that “a common superstition in the Middle Ages was that goats whispered lewd sentences in the ears of the saint”3. Sending in the goat, therefore, while at first sight quixotic, turns out to be a tactical masterstroke. Combining tried and tested butting and kicking skills with stamina, intelligence, the element of surprise and “PsyOps” (in the form of dirty whispering)4, that’s another round to Team B.

In desperation, Team A deploys the cow, an animal less suited to catching a goat it would be difficult to imagine. Unless the cow is planning on mooing the goat into submission, the situation is becoming hopelessly one-sided. If this were boxing, as commentators of all sports (except boxing) are prone to surmise, the referee would have stopped it a long time ago. Team B finishes the job itself though, with the straightforward deployment of the horse, since antiquity the experts’ choice when it comes to the rounding up of cattle.

1 I had no idea that there was a goat until I checked. Where would I be without the Internet? Nothing but a little heap of bones.
2 According to my favourite user-compiled Internet encyclopaedia, the Bird Eater, or Theraphosa blondi, while capable of seriously ruining a bird’s plans for the evening, is “fairly harmless” to humans, despite having a leg span of up to 30cm, and having fangs capable of biting off a human finger. Females have a life span of between 15 and 25 years, but males only 3 to 6, a discrepancy no doubt partly due to the idiosyncratic arachnid female’s attitude to one-night stands.
3 Internet encyclopaedia, ibid.
4 For more information about PsyOps, goats, and all manner of military crazybonk, see The Men Who Stare At Goats by Jon Ronson

Comments

  1. Dogman says:

    This piece is very good. It brought to the surface of my recollection a conversation I heard in Northampton Job Centre (or whatever epithet they ’employed’ to mean ‘Job Centre’ in 1996).

    I was sat on one of the grimy chairs in the ‘waiting’ area, beside a man. He was waiting too. Presently, a woman came across and sat down next to the man. They evidently knew one another, and grunted recognition. The exact conversation (and I remember it syllable-for-syllable) was:

    SHE: ‘right?
    HE: ‘right.
    [pause]
    SHE: How’s dog?
    HE: ‘right.
    [pause]
    SHE: How’s cat?
    HE: ‘right. [pause] Hates dog.

    The conversation I think is one of the all-time greats.