Today, I’d like to talk about the animals of Belgium. For all intents and purposes, I am not an animal person. I was never a member of 4H or the FFA, nor did I fly to Australia to save Koalas from fires. I am not a horse girl. However, the fauna of urban Europe does not get enough credit. Animals deserve our respect and admiration. In this blog post, you will hear about several of my favorite creatures in Belgium.
Cats were sacred in ancient Egypt and they are sacred in my heart. Nonetheless, this is an affair of passion. Humans often forget that beauty isn’t skin-deep, whereas for cats, the operative term is tin-deep, i.e. cat food cans. Cats transcend culture, and they are excellent conversation starters.
Yet in Belgium, I’ve felt a bit of culture shock. For starters, the French word for cat is le chat. In Dutch it is de kat. Belgian cats are round and stocky, their coats spongy and well insulated. Both strays and house-cats are standoffish. On the other hand, American cats are either as lazy as melting pads of butter, or in peak physical condition. I miss how American cats acknowledge my presence. As much as I’d like to share the Fulbright experience with my family’s own cats, I fear they aren’t ready for the culture shock.
I stayed with a Belgian professor’s family one weekend and got to know their year-old Border Collie, Billie. Billie speaks French and was learning the command Assis!, meaning Sit! Herding coursed through her veins; not only did she run ten miles with me in the morning but also had the energy to run circles around other dogs later in the day. Unlike American canines, most Belgian dogs don’t think to invite me into their pack, though we still hold each other in mutual respect.
I’m most excited to tell you about birds.
To gloss over aeons of evolution, Belgian birds resemble our fabulous executive director, Ms. Erica Lutes. Birds speak with conviction and enthusiasm and aren’t afraid to repeat themselves. Birds are always on the move and know each and every leaf, branch, and pillar of Belgian society. Finally, birds are frequent flyers.
This section has four parts: Parakeets of Brussels; Pigeons; Geese; and Corvids.
PARAKEETS OF BRUSSELS
You might be surprised to learn that there are wild parakeets in Brussels. I first noticed them visiting the city’s Parc du Cinquantenaire. Walking through a grove of trees, I heard a piercing “Caw! Caw!” from above and looked up to find a flock of bright green birds darting among the canopy.
How did tropical birds arrive in cold and gloomy Brussels? According to Le Vif, they descend from a flock released from the Heizel Zoo in 1974. (If you love something, let it go.) The combination of Brussels’ urban heat island and lack of predators has allowed the population to grow to 12,000 by 2014, and has placed a strain on the city’s ecosystem. To be perfectly honest, this re-make of Birds! is a bit more thrilling than the original Alfred Hitchcock production. Just make sure to hide your popcorn.
Pigeons need no further mention.
There is a small lake in my town of Louvain-la-Neuve. A flock of geese roost around it and block the running path.
This is my favorite sub-species, which includes the Crows and Magpies of Belgium. We know that Sigmund Freud theorized the division of the psyche into the super-ego, the ego , and the id. But we’ve forgotten that this trinity originally included the corv-id, apartof ourselves that meddles with shiny objects, screams inappropriately, and takes flight at the slightest frustration.
We know how smart crows are: how they use tools, remember faces, hold grudges. They certainly live here in Belgium. Yet the real start of the show, bestown with the plush of a penguin and the wings of an angel, is the European Magpie. You might know them as the black and white screeching birds in Tin-Tin. Magpies can recognize themselves in the mirror, whereas many people hardly see themselves in their own actions. They are industrious, tirelessly looking for bugs and nuts to cache; others, like me, are too nutty to last the winter.
On the topic of farm animals, I’d like to bring up a recent Belgian cultural revelation: the restoration of the St. Bavo’s cathedral altarpiece in Ghent. I’ve not yet seen it, pre- or post-restoration, but according to a January 22, 2020, article by the BBC, the restoration of the Van Eyck altarpiece, “the first major oil painting to gain global fame,” has revealed something unexpected and unsettling. In the center panel, entitled “the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” researchers uncovered the lamb’s original unsettlingly human gaze, beneath a more recent – and wholly well-intentioned – layer of paint. I’m grateful for the chance to be in Belgium while history plays out in the present, if that makes sense. When you do make it to Ghent, please remember the “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” is no less a gateway to the Flemish masters as to darker parts of the soul.
On a more down-to-earth level, I live in the Walloon university town of Louvain-la-Neuve. On the outskirts of the town are goats, sheep, chickens, ducks, and horses. The whole set-up resembles an informal petting-zoo, a testament to Belgium’s agrarian history. To be precise, this is more of a recent phenomenon, regionally speaking.In the first century after Belgium’s modern founding, it was the northern region of Flanders which was better known for its peasant-farmers.Wallonia was the seat of the Belgian industrial revolution, with its sillon industriel, ‘industrial valley,’ stretching from Tournai to Liege. (Liege is famous for its waffles, whose own sillons are forged in iron. But they are hardly farm animals.)
This has been just a brief overview of the fauna of Belgium. I hope this has given you a new perspective on the feathered and furry friends of this unique country. Happy trails!
Michael Skidmore is a 2019-2020 Fulbright grantee to Belgium, where he will serve as an English Teaching Assistant at the Université catholique de Louvain. He is interested in the different linguistic communities which comprise Belgium, as well as how language and culture facilitate communication — particularly in situations like humor. He studied physics and French at the University of Oregon Clark Honors College. He intends to work on international scientific literacy and outreach at UC Louvain. Since graduation, he has worked in a second-grade classroom and volunteered with the local high school debate program in his hometown of Ashland, Oregon.
Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State.