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Shifting Sands

Posts tagged pets

Tabby cat

In 1977 Mum, my sisters and I lived in a cute duplex house in the Perth suburb of Maylands.  It was a great place to live, near the river and close to our primary school. Mum decorated the house in the fashion of the day with orange carpet and purple wallpaper, although it may have been the other way around. One afternoon Mum gave us packets of flower seeds and instructed us to plant them. In a few weeks the front garden was a riot of old fashioned flowers like stocks, nasturtiums and sweet peas. We spent hours playing fashion shows in the garden with our Barbie dolls, the flowers making a glamorous backdrop to the festivities.

Our happiness was complete when Mum let us have a kitten. He was a pretty tabby with big green eyes and lovely tiger stripes. I am sure we gave him a cute name like Tiger or Fluffy but he was soon re-christened Killer because he killed things. A lot of things. Barely a day passed without our finding a clump of lifeless feathers, a lizard’s head or the backside of a mouse lying on the doorstep. We found Killer’s habit distressing but in 1970’s Australia, cats and dogs lived outside, not in the house. Micro chipping and enclosed cat runs were in the more environmentally aware future.

One afternoon we came home from school to catch Killer in the act, with a small yellow bird clamped in his jaws. We grabbed him and managed to rescue the bird, which wasn’t hurt but couldn’t fly away. This bird was different to his usual victims and we guessed he had snatched it from our neighbor’s aviary. After a quick conference we decided not to turn KIller in to the neighbors, which meant we had to keep our new bird a secret from Mum, who would have made us return it. Besides, we had always wanted a canary.

My sister (the middle one) remembered the old birdcage rusting away in the disused chicken run. Before long we had the canary safely in the cage and hidden in the back garden with a generous supply of Jody’s budgie food. We may have been too liberal with the food because in a matter of days the canary had grown to an astonishing size. He was almost busting out of the cage. Reluctantly we confessed to Mum, who came to evaluate the situation and informed us, with much hilarity, that our “canary” was actually one of our neighbor’s chickens. Sadly we returned our battery hen to the bemused neighbors.

A few weeks after this incident Killer’s murderous activities came to a sad end. We woke one winter morning and realized he was missing. Four days passed and still no Killer. On the fifth day Mum opened the front door and found Killer huddled on the step. He was obviously very sick or injured. Mum scooped him up and ran up the road to get help. My last glimpse of Killer was his tiger tail dangling under Mum’s arm. I knew I would never see him again.

How did my mother handle this turn of events? She told us Killer was fine and had gone on a holiday. My sisters (aged five and six) accepted this, especially after Mum reassured them Killer had telephoned her. He was having a wonderful time. As the oldest child, I was more skeptical because we didn’t have a phone. Over the next few months, Mum kept to her story and by the time it dawned on us Killer wasn’t returning from scuba diving in the Maldives we were used to his absence and eventually forgot about him.

Current parenting advice is to be honest with children about what I have dubbed the “three D’s” –divorce, disease and death. In this post GFC world, parents could add debt to the dreaded trio. Discussions about death and the possibility of an afterlife (dogs go to heaven- the jury is out on cats) can be shaped to fit the family’s spiritual beliefs. My husband attempted this with my stepdaughter (who was four) following the death of Thumper, the guinea pig. After a formal funeral and burial complete with heartfelt prayers and a pop-stick cross they returned to the house for a solemn afternoon. The silent contemplation of life’s mysteries was broken by my stepdaughter wanting to know when she could go and get Thumper, as she wanted to play with him.

Mum’s desire to protect us wasn’t unusual. A surprising number of our friends had destructive dogs that went to live on a farm, kindly arranged by the vet. Children learn the harsh realities of life soon enough. My mother evaluated our lives and decided the death of a cherished pet was something we didn’t need to be dealing with. I never did find out what happened to Killer (karma, I suspect) but I like to think of him on his eternal holiday, chasing mice. I just hope he has enough credit on his phone.

English: Muga Silkworms in a Som tree

English: Muga Silkworms in a Som tree (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 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.