As an animal lover, I’ll tell anyone that I adore France’s relaxed attitude towards pets. Dogs in restaurants and cafes don’t bother me anymore, and I’m now an expert at dodging canine fecal matter left in surprisingly busy paths (believe me, you only step in that shit once, you’d think the owners were having a joke).
Which is why I’m keen to share a particular tendency amongst France’s homeless population. Les SDF (Sans Domicile Fixe) or homeless will often keep multiple dogs as pets. I found it bizarre at first, I’m fiercely protective of my pets: how can they let their companions trott around them all day, no leash, no collar, throughout the city, around cars, pedestrians?
But these dogs are not possessions in even the slightest sense. The few SDF who have spoken to me say, give a dog love and it will give everything back, they are invaluable companions. Francis, an older homeless man living in Montpellier, explains that they are the intended definition of man’s best friend.
Francis and I struck up a conversation early during my stay here, while I waited at my university tram stop. Charismatic, loud and a bit of a flirt, Francis presents me with a constant barrage of questions every time he sees me approach the tram stop, La Belle Australienne! Aside from his constant desire for cigarettes and drink, I’ve only been able to siphon a meagre amount of personal information from Francis: he is 42, comes from Alsace in northern France and seems to have worked in agriculture. He also dearly adores his black labrador “Susie”.
Susie has matted fur, gluey eyes and is very cautious of me. When pressed, Francis explained that he prefers that Susie be uncomfortable around strangers. Susie is primarily his closest companion. Often those alone living on the streets have ended up there, because of a break down of trust or love somewhere in their lives. I imagine Susie’s loyalty is as much a comfort, as her warm body is on a cold night- another reason for her importance, Francis explains.
She also presents another vital facilitator in Francis’ existence- protection. Ever aware and cautious, Susie is capable of defending Francis should he be robbed or attacked while his guard is down. She is a fully grown black labrador (Sirius Black-like in appearance; I wouldn’t like to meet her in a dark alley). Francis implies that this has happened before, while he was sleeping rough. It doesn’t happen often but it does allow him peace of mind when sleeping somewhere unfamiliar.
Finally, having a dog significantly lowers your chance of getting in trouble with police. In France, if you are being arrested, the police are obligated to also incarcerate any minors or pets you may have with you. The police are therefore less likely to apprehend an SDF who has a canine companion.
Susie’s milky, weeping eyes fix on Francis’ as he mumbles warm words of love to her. A dog’s loyalty is truly priceless.
The nights are getting colder. Even here in Montpellier winter is coming and these dogs are ever important to their owner’s well beings. It seems so primal, to keep a dog for such base and instinctual purposes, but I think that living homeless can strip you life back to those bare essentials and for me thats a terrifying reality.