YOU WILL think it is my imagination, but I truly believe that animals have gotten wind of the animal-rights movement and are behaving differently. I see much more assertiveness in my small corner of the world.
My first inkling that so-called dumb creatures take in certain human trends came from the female cardinal. Not so long ago, in pre-feminist times, when her old man came to feed she hung around the edges, cheeping piteously. The gorgeous oaf would gorge himself, with an occasional pause to glare at her if her lament intruded. Nowadays I see her careening about on her own, no longer a nervous supplicant. She has the devil-may-care air of a female looking for a singles bar. I suspect an open marriage.
But I have other signs. I am not, first of all, talking about dogs. They are far too good-hearted and tactful to suggest that master or mistress should change in any way, except maybe to be a bit swifter in throwing sticks. Dogs, bless them, operate on the premise that human beings are fragile and require incessant applications of affection and reassurance. The random lick of the hand, the furry chin draped over the instep are calculated to let the shaky owner know that a friend is by.
Nor do I speak of cats, who invented animal rights at about the time of Cleopatra. They see humans as meal-tickets or ear-scratchers, nothing more; the idea of love is laughable. Yet people dote on them, seek out their disdain and their downright rejection. I myself feel that the department in charge of making people feel small and stupid is one of the few that works perfectly, and it doesn't need any help from the animal kingdom. But others love the cold stare and the snubs which the cat so freely disposes.
To me the difference between cats and dogs is the difference between Paris and Rome. Paris is judgmental; Rome is warm and accepting. Yet people persist in going to Paris when they could go to Rome.
No, what I am talking about are the animals who frequent my backyard. Let me amend that: I mean the ones I see by day. There is a kind of motorcyle gang of raccoons who take over in the middle of the night and leave fierce toothmarks in the birdseed container.
The squirrels have appointed a scraggly grey member to drive me crazy. He almost succeeded until Hammacher-Schlemmer sent me a squirrel-proof bird feeder, one with such small perches that only sparrows can use it -- but that's another story. This squirrel, who has the diffidence of Saddam Hussein and the humility of Marion Barry, has been seeking revenge ever since. This year, he has picked up an ally. A chipmunk, which my neighbor found "adorable" until I pointed out its resemblance to the squirrel, has come into my life, although I think he thinks it is the other way around. Anyway, he was constructing a Metro system in a bed I had chosen for an herb garden. Round holes were drilled at intervals. The trail disappeared under the deck.
Mornings, when both of us were on our way to work and we met at what was obviously his construction site, he would glare at me. I planted the basil anyway. It was farmer Ward Sinclair's finest, and it flourished. But one day I saw a great rustling among the leaves. The chipmunk and the squirrel were together, plainly plotting. The squirrel was planning to heist the basil crop, I knew. I am sure he has a stolen Cuisinart somewhere and is planning to corner the pesto market. But the chipmunk?
I soon found out. Nearby, I had planted impatiens around a small evergreen. The ones on the right prospered. But on the left, there was mysterious blight. The plants were prostrate; sometimes they disappeared. I replanted twice. Same outcome. I finally figured it out. I could have the basil patch, but he had to have something in return. Plainly, I had blundered into the chipmunks' dance hall, or their bingo parlor, or their bowling alley. My presence would not be tolerated.
On a recent Sunday afternoon I encountered more evidence of the new militancy. A couple of butterflies were working the phlox. They were handsome fellows, black with gold borders and brilliant blue dots. As I was observing them with appreciation, one of them buzzed me. Whizzed by within an inch of my nose. Was I intruding?
I turned around to walk away and one of them flew like a little helicopter over my head. And then that butterfly jostled me. I can't say how, exactly, but I felt as if I were in the Manhattan subway with a disgruntled New Yorker who gave me a shove, not strong enough to knock me down, but enough to let me know whose turf I was on.
I rest my case.
Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.