16 Sep 2013

Here be marmots!

On our trip to Kärnten the other week, we drove up past the Großglockner, the highest mountain in Austria. We didn’t actually see the thing, since it was wreathed in clouds, but there was some other cool stuff to see. There were marmots!

Now, we’ve seen marmots before. They’re pretty common in the mountains here, way up above the treeline. They live in among the rock piles up there and eat the little alpine plants. And Winnie loves them. And hates them.

The problem is that marmots are just too clever for a little dog like Winnie. They live in among the rocks, where it’s hard to run and chase them. And they always have a sentry marmot. This little guy (or girl) stands upright by their hole and keeps an eye out for danger while the other marmots forage further from their holes. For marmots, danger usually comes in the shape of Death From Above, meaning big hungry birds. That means that the sentry is pretty alert. As soon as the sentry spots something dangerous, he or she squeaks a warning call and all the other marmots run back to their holes. Because the sentry stays right by its hole, it can escape from danger even after it’s warned all its marmot friends. Clever...

And the sentry recognises crazy marmot-chasing dogs as “danger”. Which means that there’s an infuriating, exciting squeaking going on all the time when you’re in marmot country, and the silly humans won’t let you loose to chase it! (The humans aren’t so silly: I don’t really fancy carrying 20 kg of dog down the mountain if she breaks her legs in the rocks. Plus, she would stress the marmots, which we don’t want.)

Marmot viewers, viewing marmots

But what if there was another way? What if someone had built marmot viewing platforms along the side of the road right above a place where there are dozens of them? How exciting would that be? Huh? HUH? Answer: really quite exciting, actually. Really very exciting indeed. Exciting enough that certain little dogs might find themselves fixated and trembling from their noses to the tips of their tails, not moving a muscle (apart from the trembling) for ten minutes at a time. There are marmots! And they aren’t running away! And I’m allowed to stare at them as much as I want! I like this holiday!

Winnie’s behaviour around other animals is interesting to watch. She does get insanely excited and wants wants WANTS to chase things. But when she gets close enough to other animals to interact with them, she backs off, looking a little bit embarrassed, as if to say “I wasn’t really chasing you. Oh no. Just heading for this oh-so-interesting sniff just here. That’s what I was running for. Er. Hello? Would you be my friend?”. We often ask ourselves what she would do if she got close to a deer or a marmot or something else. She’s cautious around horses and cows (too big to play with!), scared of sheep (she got zapped by an electric fence once next to a sheep field), indifferent to goats (non-scarey sheep?), but deer, cats, marmots, birds, squirrels, mice and any other little thing she finds is super exciting.

Reclining marmot, from afar

We do have a couple of data points that would indicate that she wouldn’t be aggressive to the animals she chases (although chasing without any aggression is stressful enough for some animals–they don’t know that she’s friendly). We’ve had cats visit us from time to time, and while she gets very excited, Winnie keeps a little bit of distance. Once the cat gets up to move somewhere else, Winnie will pounce on the place where the cat was sitting to do some mad sniffing, but she doesn’t do anything to the cat. She also discovered a hedgehog in our garden once and just sniffed it and came to find us, rather than rolling it into a ball and using it as a plaything. I’d like to think she’d behave in a similar way to other animals of a comparable size. Smaller things, mice and little birds, I don’t know about. They’re too close in size to toys to be really safe...