There were no pets when I was growing up. My parents deflected the pleas from my sister and myself for a dog or a cat by saying that children grew too attached to pets and were upset when they died. It was typical of their attitude of avoiding all the realities of life – and they were not honest. In fact they didn’t want the mess, the bother and the expense.
They were right in a way. Over the years Jean and I and our children have had numerous pets – dogs, cats, a rabbit, guinea pigs and a sheep – and a tangle of incidents and emotions. A rabbit we brought up from Gippsland to Fitzroy in Melbourne charmed everyone by behaving more or less like a cat before running away and no doubt ending up in a cooking pot.
Our first major cat was a striped tabby we wanted to call Tiger. Our daughter Sofya objected and we outflanked her by calling the cat Richmond, which she accepted. (AFL followers will understand our quiet satisfaction.) Richmond was an adventurous cat who died under the wheels of a car on Leichhardt Street, Glebe. Great distress all round but it wasn’t long before she was replaced.
Established with three daughters in Glebe, we acquired a border collie/kelpie cross. Sofya, still with naming rights, dubbed him Jiminy Cricket but he lived his life as Jim. Jim was a dog in a million – placid, companionable, utterly tolerant of the children’s sometimes rough treatment. He formed a friendship with a milk-bar owner in Glebe Point Road and would stray there from time to time, occasionally falling into the hands of the dog-catcher and causing us a fine and a trip to the pound.
When we moved to Coledale in the Illawarra, a long iron from the water, Jim was in his element. A great beach lover, he’d chase seagulls until he dropped. Seagulls 10 000+ : Jim nil. I was a jogger and Jim would run one oval lap with me and then lie sceptically under a tree.
Back in Sydney, Jim was torn to pieces by a rampant bull terrier, a breed of dog I will detest to my dying day. We wept along with the children but now Jim stories are part of the family lexicon – how he ran wild briefly with a pack of dogs on the escarpment slopes, how he ate all the Easter eggs hidden in the garden. Jim loved a car ride and sometimes, when he importuned her, Jean would put him in the car on the back seat and leave him for an hour or so with the window half down. He’d sleep and wake up convinced he’d been for a drive.
In Coledale we bought a sheep to keep the grass down on the biggish block. We named her L-a-a-r-r-y and she was amiable and educational. The kids were fascinated to see her shorn. Unhappily, the Illawarra was subject to earth tremors at the time and Larry in fright pulled her stake from the ground and then was nowhere to be found. Jean thought she saw her in a nearby paddock but one sheep looks much like another.
And so it went on. We had an eccentric cat named Toby who took to living inside a rug draped over a deck rail. When we lived on a Moreton Bay island Toby spent a lot of time in the drains and suffered a fatal snakebite.
Jim was eventually replaced by Pancho, an Alsatian/kelpie cross. A formidable-looking dog, he was gentleness itself with the children. We took him, puzzled, from Sydney to the Illawarra, from there to Queensland and Byron Bay and back to Sydney and the Illawarra. City or country, it was all the same to Pancho. Like Jim, he was an unsuccessful scourge of the seagull but an indefatigable chaser of sticks into the surf.
In old dog age Pancho eventually became haplessly arthritic and nearly blind and Jean and I were present when the vet put him peaceably down. Like the narrator of ‘Old Shep’ we cried so we scarcely could see.
So my parents were correct; pets mean mess, bother, expense and heartbreak, but the experiences we have with them and the stories we tell of them enrich our lives.