Four dogs, three cats, two snakes, a tortoise: What 30 years of pets have taught me about life
Here’s what you need to know: snakes will escape and a tortoise offers only lessons in estate planning…
No, I said to my wife, “we should not get a cat.” Every family needs at least one member who is prepared to present the case for not getting a pet. I accepted the post early on.
A cat may seem like a good idea, I told my wife, but it would ultimately be an encumbrance, a dragging anchor on our lives. We already have a mortgage for that. Let’s just pretend the mortgage is a cat.
“No,” I said a few years later, “we should not get a dog. Dogs shed hair and chew up your property. And also, we already have a cat.”
My objections went unheeded, and I became a reluctant pet owner many times over. At certain points over the last 30 years our house has resembled a menagerie, with representatives from almost every class of vertebrate: mammals, fish, birds, reptiles.
Of course there are good reasons to keep pets. They’re a repository for spare worry. They make fine companions, as long as you don’t mind a friend who throws up on your stair carpet a couple of times a month. And if you get a kick out of apologising to strangers, you will never be short of reasons.
It’s often suggested that getting a pet will inculcate responsibility in your children, which is like saying that getting a vacuum cleaner will teach your kids cleanliness. All the lessons of pet ownership will be learned by you, all of them the hard way.
Once you have pets, life without them seems unimaginable. And then they die. And then you can’t imagine replacing them, because life without a pet is so carefree. But you do replace them. And then those ones die. It’s the Circle of Life, on fast forward.
My earliest memory of a pet is probably my earliest memory, no more than a blur, glimpsed through the bars of my crib: an enormous black dog runs into my bedroom, eats the magnetic letters off my easel and runs out again
My father first encountered this dog, a stray, while it was foraging for shellfish along the edge of the salt marsh behind our house. The dog was cracking mussels open in its jaws, which my father thought demonstrated remarkable intelligence. He figured a smart dog would be a good dog. He was wrong.
The dog was uncontrollable, and he also bit people. This inevitably led to an incident that resulted in him having to be put down. My father would never talk about that day, not even years later. There were no photos to remember our first dog by, just the toothmarks on my magnetic alphabet.
His main legacy was my mother’s strong objection to the idea of another dog. She did consent to a pair of ducklings one Easter, only to insist they be set free on a pond once they got big. We visited them sometimes, but we could never tell which ones were ours.
It was five years before my father brought home another dog, a starving mongrel that jumped into his car as he was leaving his dental practice. My mother said it could stay for one night. It stayed for 16 years.
The early 1970s was a very good time to be a dog. Daphne got let out in the morning and often would not return until late afternoon, perhaps dragging the rotting head of a large tuna collected from the boatyards at low tide. She was a good dog, with bad breath.
Towards the end Daphne was blind, deaf and unable to climb stairs. But even then she went out on winter mornings to walk clockwise around the house.
“She likes to pace,” my father would say, carrying her out and depositing her into the groove she’d worn in the snow.
I was away at college when my parents finally had Daphne put down, and was unprepared for the flood of sadness that accompanied the news. I figured my one significant relationship with an animal had been and gone. I wasn’t going to go through that again.
In 1998, on the day of my wife’s mother’s funeral, my father-in-law arrived with a cardboard box under his arm. My wife thought it might be some heirloom – a memento from the time when her parents were still married – but when she looked in the box there was only a sleeping tortoise inside.
“I can’t keep him,” my father-in-law said. “He’s destroying my garden.”
This tortoise was originally given to my wife when she was eight years old. He subsequently escaped and was found in a field – a mile away and a year later – by a local farmer who had narrowly missed him with his combine harvester.
By mutual agreement the tortoise lived with the farmer’s sheepdogs for 20 years, but the farm had recently been sold and the tortoise returned. At that point my wife and I had been married for six years, and no one had ever said a word to me about a f**king tortoise.
Pet ownership rose sharply over lockdown, but as pandemic gave way to recession, lots of people started worrying that their new pets would be too expensive to keep – the Dogs Trust has seen record inquiries about rehoming animals. And pets are expensive – the average annual spend for dog owners is around £2,000, about 7% of the average UK salary.
But a 50-year-old tortoise is virtually free to run. In the summer he lives outside, and he spends most of the winter in a corner of the kitchen mostly not moving. He eats grass, weeds, salad and a bit of fruit. He’s been to the vet once, for a check-up. It turns out he’s female.
Among other things, pets are meant to educate your children about death, but a tortoise only offers lessons in estate planning. They can easily live for over a century, so you have to make arrangements for their care, post-you. I suspect the main cause of death for tortoises in the wild is going upside down while
nobody is around.
I’ve found ours on his back half a dozen times in the 25 years he’s been my responsibility. I turn him over and he goes on his way. As long as there is someone around to do this for him, he may never die.
I consider myself a dog person rather than a cat person. To me a cat is only notionally a domesticated animal, while dogs are possibly more domesticated than humans. My dog gets impatient with me if I don’t go to bed on time. A cat’s idea of a domestic routine is murdering something and leaving it on your pillow.
But the arrival of the tortoise weakened my resolve. When my wife suggested we get a cat a year later, I didn’t object. She procured one and named it Lupin.
Lupin was a joy, but Lupin died. He’d been missing for three days when he was found at the foot of next door’s garden steps, stiff as a salt cod and flat on the underside, the breeze lifting his fur as my wife held him up. He’d clearly been hit by a car and was trying to make his way home.
Something in me snapped that day. I decided we shouldn’t get any more pets. I, for one, didn’t need further lessons about death from the animal kingdom.
No one listened to me. After Lupin we got Kipper, who wasn’t a joy – he was disagreeable, and he bit. Kipper came inside to eat, and to claw at our toddler children, but the rest of the time he kept himself to himself. At the time I sort of liked the idea of a cat you couldn’t really get attached to.
When Kipper got hit by a car, he made it back home. Twice. Each time he recovered, but these experiences did nothing for his temperament. When he went missing for a third time, I’m ashamed to say I sort of hoped he’d never come back. He never did. After waiting long enough – a year, maybe – to exclude the possibility of Kipper’s dramatic return, we adopted a grey kitten called James.
James had no tail. When people asked about his deformity, my wife said, “I told them I didn’t want the tail.” But really he was the last of a litter, and a breech birth. He had to be pulled out by the tail, which promptly fell off.
Unlike Kipper, James was extremely patient; you could carry him around like a draught excluder. He was also timid, which kept him from exploring the surrounding roads. In spite of the unappealing stub he had in place of a tail, everyone loved James, even me. Then after two years James went missing, and I thought my heart would break.
I went to the park and put up posters designed by a 10-year-old, with rainbow letters that cast a deep retreating shadow. They said: “LOST – James the small grey cat with NO tail is missing (sad face)”. Against my advice, he also put the word REWARD in huge capitals.
When you put up missing pet posters with the word REWARD on them, you are frequently interrupted in your work by strangers who claim to have seen your cat not half an hour ago.
Either that or they just want to give you a hard time for sticking a drawing pin into a tree. None of the sightings panned out. It was time, I told myself, to move on.
Then, 12 days after he went missing, my wife took a call from a mysterious number. “We have James, the small grey cat with no tail,” a voice said. It sounded like the start of a ransom demand, but it turned out James had spent all 12 days trapped in a half-built basement extension two doors down. Stupid cat.
In 1999 my wife let it be known that she had been visiting dog shelters. At that point we had three children under five and Kipper and the tortoise, so I let it be known that I wasn’t remotely lonely.
Twenty years ago there were only about 6m dogs in the UK, compared with 13m today. Dog owners were just as entitled then as they are now, but the world was much less accommodating. These days you can take your dog to the cinema; back then, they were hardly allowed anywhere. I feared a dog would cramp my style.
A week later my wife took me to an animal shelter to see a skinny puppy – white with brown spots – called Big Mac. All my objections evaporated; once seen, this dog was impossible to leave behind. We took her home and changed her name to Bridey. For the next 10 years I walked a full circuit of the local park twice a day, every day. Between walks the dog would sit directly behind my desk chair, staring at my back, waiting for the next outing.
I have never seen the point of paying someone to walk your dog for you; it’s like paying someone to ride your bicycle around. I understand that people are busy, but surely walking the dog is largely the point of having the dog. Having said that, whenever I encountered a dog walker leading six dogs on a rainy December morning, I would think: he’s getting £100 for this, and I’m just getting wet. Who is the real idiot here?
From the beginning Bridey was eerily obedient, and fiercely protective. Instead of taking my three sons to the park to play football, I could send them off with the dog in my place, knowing she would be at least as vigilant as I was, and much better in goal. I had all the dog I needed in my life.
In 2010 my wife started hatching plans to get a second dog. “We already have a dog,” I said. “It’s for him, really,” she said, pointing to our youngest child, who was 10. “It would basically be my dog,” he said. “Why can’t we just make that dog his dog?” I said, pointing to the dog.
I was really worried that walking two dogs would make me look like some kind of enthusiast. But there was a bigger problem: the new dog – a jack russell cross – did not take to me the way the old dog had. It seemed to sense my resentment; it obeyed my commands in front of people, and ignored them when we were alone. It left turds in my shoes. When my wife went away for a week, the new dog grew listless and developed a skin complaint.
The idea that the new dog was allergic to me gained some currency in the park, where my sudden elevation to double dog owner attracted new levels of scrutiny, just as I had feared it would. “She’s probably stressed from being left alone with you,” another dog owner said, while the dog scratched. “But I’m fun to be with,” I told her. The woman stared at me. “I don’t think you’re supposed to say that sort of thing about yourself,” she said.
As a result of this dynamic, I was gradually relieved of my dog-walking duties. My wife took over, and became popular in the park, where I was merely tolerated. That was 10 years ago, and I still find it galling. Over time, however, the new dog and I reached an accommodation. I came to understand its neuroses, and even to admire its bald duplicity. As I write this I am looking across the garden from my office into the kitchen, where the dog is standing on the table licking the butter. I’ve decided not to say anything, and just use different butter.
I don’t enjoy sharing indoor spaces with birds, accidentally or on purpose, but Ray the budgie was an exception. He liked being with people, and made eye contact in a rakish, raised-eyebrow kind of way. My wife loved Ray. He sat on her shoulder as she typed at her desk and sang softly in her ear. But Ray died of unknown causes after about a year – he was just lying at the bottom of his cage one morning, feet in the air – and we decided there could never be another. I remember him as Ray, a drop of golden sun, but my wife insists he was blue.
Chances are, at some point in your life, a child will talk you into getting an exotic pet, something cold-eyed and difficult to cuddle – a giant spider, or a knobbly lizard, or an emotionally inaccessible snake. Resistance is probably futile, but definitely worth a try. A snake – even a small corn snake – requires a lot of expensive kit. It will need a tank, a heating pad and wood shavings to hide under. You have to feed them a steady supply of small, dead, defrosted mice. I made it a condition of snake-having that I would never have to perform this duty, but I ended up doing it regularly.
Sometimes, to tempt the snake, you have to scissor the mouse in half first. Good times. Here’s what you need to know about snakes: they will escape. You spend a small fortune providing them with an ideal environment, and they reward you by leaving it to live in your walls or among your folded towels. Long after you’ve given them up for dead, they turn up.
Mr Rogers the snake was found at the bottom of the big Lego box, and later inside a stereo speaker. His erstwhile companion Mrs Hammerstein (originally a house guest left with us by another family, although the name suggested they always meant for us to adopt it) disappeared for three weeks and was discovered, by me, lying beneath the loose stair runner I was repairing. My heart briefly stopped.
Small mammals and fish
Over the years we’ve also had our share of furry things in cages; shy desert rodents with fat cheeks and a resting heart rate of 600 beats per minute. I do not understand the attraction, but if you really want to teach small children about death, any of these will do the job. Hamsters in particular succumb regularly, with an average lifespan of 18 to 36 months.
We’ve had goldfish that lived longer than that, including an improbably sturdy example who used to leap out of his tank and land on the kitchen floor on a regular basis. It was hard to tell how long he’d been lying there when you came across him, but if you popped him back into the water he quickly revived – until the time he landed in the gap between two sofa cushions, and wasn’t found for a month. RIP, Bluey Fin.
Just before Christmas 2015 Bridey had some kind of fit and collapsed in the park. I carried her back home, and although she got better over the next few hours, she got steadily worse over the next two weeks. During that period I talked to other dog owners about the end-of-life decisions they’d made. Some claimed any dog with an appetite was a happy dog, but most people said that, in hindsight, they’d left it too late.
In early January we took Bridey to the vet and held her while the injection was administered. It was a peaceful end, but when I walked out of that room leaving her there on the floor, I understood my dad’s silence when we put down our first pet, all those years ago. I have shed a few quiet tears while writing this and remembering all the dead pets; not so much for Pepper the hamster, but certainly for James the cat, who died a little over a year ago, aged 16. He spent much of his later life following me around the house, making increasingly tortured noises, as if in a bid to guess my name, the better to hold me accountable for his needs. “Bren,” he would say. “I’m not Bren,” I would say. “Roald,” he would say. “Muiread.” “No and no,” I would say.
When my wife talked about getting a new cat after James, I made my case against it. It’s too soon, I said. We need time to experience all the hidden advantages of not having a cat, and that could take a year, because some of those advantages might be seasonal. I knew that she would get one anyway, and she knew that, deep down, I was fine with that.
(Article source: The Guardian)