This article was originally published in the Waiheke Weekender
I don’t remember being a pet obsessed child. Early on we had the ubiquitous family cat, a classic ginger tom called Charlie Brown. I had to phone my parents to ask the name of this cat so clearly I wasn’t too attached to Charlie. I also vaguely remember a rabbit which came to an unfortunate end involving a dog. Not even my parents could remember the rabbit’s name.
Later on I did have some mice that were my responsibility. These led to a most traumatic childhood experience. My favourite mouse Ellie died and so I dug a small grave and placed her tenderly in the hole. I gently placed the first sprinkles of soil on top of Ellie’s soft white fur. And then she moved! This gave me a heck of a fright, which I’m not sure I’ve recovered from. Maybe that’s why I haven’t been that keen on pet additions to the family.
Pets are often proclaimed as being a valuable part of childhood. Pets have the potential to teach about responsible ownership, and give a child something to nurture. However given that parents often pick up the slack once the novelty has worn off, I think it might teach children more about how you can always rely on your parents for a food supply, even if it also involves cleaning out poop. Given many animals propensity to have a short life, owning a pet also gives children a safe space to learn about death and grieving. Although we have so many pet cemeteries that I’m in danger of forgetting these sacred spaces and running over them with a lawn mower.
Cats and dogs were ruled out early for my own family due to one of our children’s severe allergies. The first pets I agreed to were goldfish. Not known for their long lives, I was confident the goldfish would not be a long term proposition so I wouldn’t be stuck with them for life. I was right about that, hence the number of pet cemeteries. We thought it was simply a cool trick when the fish swum upside down, but turns out that ‘dropsy’ can be a terminal condition. Another fish went mysteriously missing until we found it dehydrated down the back of the bookshelf. I did end up doing the regular clean out, so once there were no more fish left, the aquarium was cleaned out and put quietly away. No more mention of pets, definitely not from me. However then came a fateful visit to Jules the hairdresser. My daughter was seduced by Jules’s beautiful black cat Hallee Berry who settled her warm soft body onto my daughter’s lap and they both purred contentedly. After that the pet campaign began in earnest.
I tried distraction. I’ve been trying for a long while to convince the children that my laying hens are actually valid family pets. I like my pets to be productive and useful, and chickens have these qualities in abundance. The obvious advantage is a regular supply of freshly laid eggs. Want to know the secret of a perfect poached egg? It just needs to be fresh, none of that vinegar in the water, swirling around to make a vortex (although that is kind of fun), or the worst of all, cooking the egg in cling film. A freshly laid egg will hold the white together perfectly with no effort at all. Of course it means that when the girls take a well deserved break from laying each year, you usually end up reducing your consumption drastically. It is just too painful to have to buy such inferior shop bought eggs. Or maybe this is just true seasonal eating which we should all do more of.
I may be a bit of an obsessed gardener but second to egg production I value the liberal production of poop. Chicken poop is great fertilizer for the garden. Mixed in with old hay, it is liberally spread around my fruit trees. I can’t get enough of it.
Chickens also love their greens. I never have to feel guilty about all my homegrown lettuce and spinach going to seed, as I always have willing consumers on hand. Or the multiple plants of kale which (unfortunately) isn’t going to seed and remains uneaten by the family. The chickens adore it, and I get the satisfaction of seeing all these organic lovingly grown greens being truly appreciated.
The campaign ended with the addition to the family of a mocha coloured bunny called Coco. Coco is lovely, very placid and so far has caused no problems. If the novelty wears off I’m happy to look after Coco. Coco eats her greens, and mows the grass. Coco also has nice round pelleted poop that she thoughtfully does all in the same place, so it’s easy to pick up and distribute around the gardens. Yes Coco can stay even if I turn out to be the main caregiver. Although even Coco turns up her cute twitching nose at kale.