Most women raising three young girls in a rented house wouldn’t be thrilled by the prospect of large scale pet ownership but my mother is made of much sterner stuff. She firmly believed all children should have pets and so by 1979 we had housed every link in the food chain: silkworms, a budgie, a cat and a dog. They all got along with only the occasional moth falling victim to the ever – vigilant cat, aptly named Killer. Jody the budgie (who largely rejected cage life) survived by the cunning and speed expected in a bird whose Kamilaroi name, betcherrygah, means, nice to eat.
Children don’t seem to keep silkworms now but we raised hundreds of them. I can’t recall where we got them, probably from a teacher, as most of our school friends had silkworms as well. Silkworms are extinct in the wild and have lost the ability to fly, making them completely helpless to predators. Even more bizarrely, they only eat mulberry leaves, although they will eat a variety of orange leaf as well. The worms lived in shoeboxes and we rode our bikes to the school grounds or the river every week to get mulberry leaves, along with hordes of other children. It was a pleasant, communal affair and much fun could be had on the park’s lethal flying fox when leaf – picking duties were over. Silkworms will grow as much as you feed them so ours were huge, well over the expected size of three inches.
Most people wouldn’t think of the silkworm as an interactive pet for children. The purpose of raising silkworms was probably to teach us about the miracle of life as viewed through the 28 day life cycle of an insect; egg, larva, pupa, adult. It was however, also tremendous fun to balance two silkworms on your face so they looked like huge green boogers and then to casually wander into the living room. This was even more satisfying if Mum happened to have one of her more cultured, childfree friends visiting. Further evidence I was never going to be a scientist could be found in the other attentions lavished on my unlucky worms. Weekends were spent making them little beds out of matchboxes (which they spurned), party hats (again, spurned) and taking them on excursions to the park (for fresh air).
Despite my determined anthropomorphism, they thrived and developed into handsome moths, who then mated and laid eggs, providing us with new silkworms. We heard horrifying rumours that some children put their cocoons in hot water, killing the pupa, and using the silk to make tassels for bookmarks. No such fate was going to befall our beloved pets. It was particularly tragic, therefore, when they all perished in the great Mortein accident of 1978. Our months of sericulture were over.
A few weeks later, I was delighted to find a colony of bright yellow spitfire caterpillars (future wasps) living in the back garden. I wasted no time in scooping them up, installing them in a shoebox and making them a set of matchbox beds. Within hours I was covered in painful red welts and Mum had to take me to the hospital. Reluctantly I let my new pets return to the wild and started a course of sleep inducing antihistamines that would have knocked out a cow. Despite my early experiences with silk worms, I don’t like the idea of other insects or spiders as pets. I have no desire to own a hissing cockroach, stick insect or tarantula (not terribly venomous, apparently). My ideal pet is a monkey, one I can train to iron and wash dishes.