Sunday, 17 May 2009

Keep Away! You Animal!

Just when I thought I’d managed to reach the end of my children's youth without a pet, I am under pressure once again. It’s my friend and studio partner Raffaella's fault. She has just taken delivery of a black pug called The N.O.T.O.R.I.O.U.S  P.U.G aka Pugsy Smalls.
Our studios are not short of dogs: we have a Labrador, a curly white thing with no apparent face and three dachshunds called Roger, Archie & Mr Binky Bobbles, but the arrival of the pug puppy, so tiny it is dwarfed by Roger et al that it has made everyone go a little mad.

We have had a couple of run-ins with pets before. We kept crickets, which sounded nice but ate each other and forty were reduced to four grotesque titans who would have chomped off one of my children’s feet if I hadn’t sent them on their way.
We had a crab. Well, the children thought it was a pet, but I cooked it and then had to make up a ridiculous story about how it had escaped over the garden fence and then had to stick to it for years.
We had a kitten called Sputnik, who was psycho. Sputnik means traveller, so that’s what he did, all the way to a St. Alban’s where he was inducted into a home of feline delinquency.
Finally, we had Peabody, a divine puppy sold to us as a Jack Russell, but swiftly displayed elements of spaniel? Alsatian? Pointer? All three? Poor Peabody threw up every single time he went in the car. It got so bad he started heaving when I picked up the car keys, so Peabody went on holiday to a country dwelling family, and there he stayed.
My abiding problem is that husbandry is not my strong suit and thoughts of another responsibility gives me the horrors. There’s the suspect personal hygiene, the unwritten rules of street etiquette, the restaurant bans, the problems of foreign travel; and that’s just the childcare.

Growing up in Scotland, dogs were not pets; they were combat personnel. The animal world was a Venn diagram of vermin and food, with hares and rabbits in the overlap. With rabbits being both food & vermin it was only after hectic lobbying that we were finally allowed to keep a rabbit. We named it Michele and she lived in the garage where my father kept his E-type jaguar, except one day, when she travelled thirty miles under the bonnet. She was only discovered when a garage attendant checking the oil pulled out a slightly singed stowaway by her ears. Cars went on to feature strongly; leitmotifs in our pets' lives. My mother ran over two of her own dogs; my aunt three. [Whisper it softly, but Pugsy Smalls is a replacement for the late, lamented Pearl; flattened under her mistress's wheels.]

My first adult experience of pet care was only custodial, but it was not a success. Looking after a friend's canary housed in a beautiful but rather bare cage, I decided to enrich its little life with a mirror and a darling bell on the end of a ribbon. Next morning, I came downstairs to find my charge hanging upside down, leg tangled in the unfamiliar ribbon, head babnging against the mirror. A moving ceremony in a neighbour's garden using an empty fag packet as a catafalque was followed by a shallow burial amongst the onions and an anxious wait for the friend's return.

There was a polite pause before I involved myself again and by this time I was living in Africa with my husband, Willie. Friends leaving the country asked us to adopt their Norfolk terrier, Snuff. What they failed to mention was that Snuff had had a parting tryst with a dachshund - or possibly a ground squirrel - on her way from their house to ours.  As she grew larger, Willie diagnosed a phantom pregnancy and so sure of this was he that when she went into labour, he became convinced it was rabies; I had to beg him not to club her to death.  
Snuff was joined by Lobster, Lemon and Hogweed, but they all eventually fell prey to scorpions, snakes and baboons thanks to an absurd abbreviation in the leg department.

Next, we bought two camels. Of all the animals I have owned these [apart from Hogweed] were my favorite. From their sad, haughty eyes, to their kettledrum feet, I adored them. They were called Makende [Balls] and Billa [Without] and we bought them in a town in northern Kenya, intending to walk them hundreds of miles on a safari down to the coast, where we lived. It was wild, lawless country near Somalia, where the border was just a word and the Shifta [bandits] did their shopping using guns instead of currency.  The land was flat, but with few views - like an endless, annoying orchard - and even though the camels were taller than the surrounding  vegetation, they would vanish within twenty feet of wandering away from us.

Every evening, before we could think about cooking, we would have to find enough wood for three fires: one for us, and one each for the camels, who knelt over them warming their necks.
If we were too tired, or couldn't find enough fuel and ended up building one fire for us and a single fire for them, they shoved each other endlessly and the night would be punctuated with bad tempered groans. If we built only one fire for all of us - then we who would get the shoving.
I left the safari early and after I had gone, Willie was attacked by an army squadron who could not believe anyone would voluntarily walk through this area and arrested him as a spy [another story for later]. Willie was slung in jail and the soldiers took Billa and Makende 'into custody', which meant roast meat and biltong for a couple of weeks.

These experiences of lynching, flattening and roasting have all contributed to profound reservations.
And what if pets could vet their potential owners?
Don't all bark at once....