On Lessons We Learn from Pets
The boy, of about nine, maybe ten, was crying. He ran around, face to the sky, searching the trees as the light faded, screaming, ‘Spikey’. His parents, flustered, hapless, helpless, hands on hips, searched the trees too, the huge eucalypts hanging over the little beach village where we stayed last summer. They searched for hours that evening, as the sky darkened and the big trees Spikey was lost among turned to shadows. The next day, flyers appeared everywhere, featuring a photo of Spikey and one word, large and red: LOST. For days afterwards, the boy walked around, looking up, occasionally calling Spikey’s name. We’d see the father in the early evening, as dusk fell, cycling around, looking up. See the Mum driving early in the morning, inching down the road, looking up through the windscreen, or out her rolled-down window. They stayed an extra few days instead of going home as planned. Spikey’s cage sat in the front garden, door open hopefully.
I remember almost every pet I ever owned. My first guinea pig was called Elizabeth and she came with a friend, Tiny. I was confident it was Elizabeth who got out of her cage one night and disappeared somewhere within the confines of our stable, but it might have been Tiny. whichever one it was, remarkably, given the guinea pig’s size and the size of the three-room stable, plus the nooks and crannies that lead to outside, plus snakes and rats and all sorts of other things that might enjoy a small guinea pig, we found her. She was hiding underneath the seat of Dad’s ride-on lawn mower.
I got another couple of guinea pigs not long after, brothers selected from a litter at a local kindergarten fete. I named them Gus and Patrick and they lived in a hutch in the stable that was moved outside during the day so they could graze. One day, we went to the movies to see The Flintstones, and when we came back, my Pa – who was staying with us and often found fixing something no one knew was broken, or patrolling the grounds looking for something to do – had Gus and a story to tell. He had noted our Australian Cattle Dog, Max, staring at something over by the stables. Intrigued, Pa trotted over to see what had happened. What he found was Gus, stuck in the chicken-wire fence alive, but remaining extremely still. Pa clipped him free and took him back to the house. Patrick was long gone – for years my parents told me he must have run into the bush when the hutch was tipped over, while Gus made for the stable-yard. It was an adult realisation Patrick was most probably Max’s lunch.
I owned a hell of a lot of guinea pigs. One Christmas I was given Tabitha, a massively pregnant black and white guinea pig, whose sheer size guaranteed a veritable clutch of incoming pups. It was a hot Christmas and one filled with excitement and great anticipation. She had eight babies – a huge litter by guinea pig standards – and all of them were stillborn. I found them on Boxing Day and after that, whenever one of our other guinea pigs had babies, I always made my sister check. We ended up getting a friend for Tabitha, Ken (who must have been female, in hindsight) who I found on the road leading to the Butterfly Farm on my birthday. The Butterfly Farm, as well as having a hot house full of butterflies, had a bunch of disinterested Australian animals and a thriving semi-wild guinea pig population, the product of a couple of earlier escapees. It was owned by a big, since closed-down nursery, Hargraves Nursery, itself owned by Ken Hargraves. Ken was a baby and had found his way to the dirt road one drove down to reach the Butterfly Farm. We noticed him driving in, and I was worried he’d meet a grisly end. In one of the greatest miracles of my childhood, he appeared in a shoebox after dinner, a last-minute present from Mum and Dad. Ken grew to have strangely long, black hair and he lived with Tabitha until the end.
We had birds, too. Budgies – one of whom, Clare, nearly died in egg-laying – and little finches. Magpies attacked our finches through the cage wire and we found their headless bodies at the bottom of the cage one morning before school, as we trudged past on our way to the car. My dog ate my friend’s baby rabbit she had just been given and brought round to show me. Our sheep had a lamb, and no one knew she was pregnant. Both of them, Molly and Josephine, were killed by neighbourhood dogs while we were away on holidays and our own dogs – who wouldn’t have allowed it – were in the kennel. When Mum lost one of her horses, who was older than us kids, I stood with her trying to calm him as he tried again and again to stand.
With pets come, unavoidably, loss. The absolute earliest experience my very average, very fortunate childhood gave me with loss and grief, was through our pets. I remember when we lost Max to cancer. My parents had had to put him down the same day they herded us onto a plane for a family holiday visiting my auntie and cousins in the USA. He was my father’s absolute favourite being, the only pet ever allowed in Dad’s car. He was the most loyal thing, smart and proud, a watch dog who would sit with us for as long as we pretended to have rolled our ankle and be unable to move (games weresimple back then.) Putting him down broke their heart, and they decided not to tell us before the fourteen-hour flight, but instead in a hotel room when we landed. The grief we all felt was enormous.
A few years before he died, Max ran away. He hated storms and a big one rolled through, chasing him far out of our neighbourhood and onto a road, where he was picked up and driven even farther away. We waited for him to come back after the storm – he always did. But this time he didn’t. We cried and put up signs, refusing to believe this was it, that surely someone had seen him somewhere. A couple of weeks passed. Mum and Dad got a call. Max,it turned out, was living about forty minutes away with a new collar and under a new name. The day Dad drove him home was a triumphant one. Max, for his part, appeared slightly sheepish to have accidentally lived another life for a couple of weeks, and delighted to be home.
I don’t think Spikey the cockatiel ever came home. The bush is a big place for a little bird – it’s more than likely he was killed by a bigger bird. Maybe the little boy knew that and maybe that’s why he shouted Spikey’s name for hours, crying. A mixture of loss and fear that his beloved bird was no longer safe, a sense of utter helplessness that Spikey had to navigate a world too big for him, without his owner. And, of course, the guilt. They are such heavy things for a child – fear, helplessness, guilt – and yet, they carry them. Most extraordinarily, they carry them with utmost love. Because that’s the thing about pets – through them we may learn about loss, but we learn mostly about love.