© 2015 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
Okay, let's get it out there right up front; I'm a dog lover! However, there definitely are some breeds I avoid. Some years ago, I read an interesting article that claimed, "Children are for people who can't have dogs!" Now I've cited that quote many times, but when most people hear it they actually think the direct opposite; that is, having a pet is a consolation prize for not having a child. So when I meet someone walking a well-behaved and friendly dog, I share that quote. One woman replied, "I have some of each." And when I asked, "Which do you prefer?", she replied, "Some days the dogs, others the kids." C'est la vie!
Friends of mine bought a house from a family that had two cats: IC (Inside Cat) and OC (Outside Cat). Now IC was used to the family, so it moved out with them, whereas OC was used to the house and surrounds, and he stayed with the new owners. OC and I became friends, so much so that I made him an Honorary Dog, so we could hang out together.
While I do discuss my time as a canine companion, for the most part, this essay is about my experiences with various kinds of animals, both friendly and wild. Note that for my formative years, I lived in a rural part of South Australia. For the past 35 years, I've lived in Northern Virginia, USA.
Farm and Working Animals
My earliest memories of being around animals was at age 4. We had milk cows, pigs, and a henhouse. Nearby was a patch of lucerne (US: alfalfa) that was grown to feed these animals. A tall building housed a pigeon loft, and I remember someone opening the door high up to let the birds out to feed. That door was closed again at night. I'm pretty sure that we kept them for food, as I recall eating pigeon meat in soup.
At age 7, we moved to a 4,000-acre farm. At any time, we probably had 500–1,500 sheep, and these needed regular attention, especially in summer when blowflies would strike them by laying eggs in wet and manure-stained skin around their rear end. For this reason, lambs had their tails cut off quite short within days of birth. And apart from annual shearing for the wool, sheep were crutched, which involved clipping the wool from around their hindquarters. I remember helping with the shearing, sweeping up the fleeces from the floor, packing them into large bales, and filling and emptying yards of sheep using our sheep dog Ringa, a male Border Collie. The shearing stand was an engine driven by petrol (US: gasoline) that powered two stations, one per shearer. Mom delivered morning and afternoon tea to the shed, and everyone drank hot tea even in the hot weather! It was backbreaking work with a good shearer shearing 200 sheep per day at a rate of £10 ($20) per 100 sheep, which was good money in the '60s. The wool was sorted on a large table and then pressed in a bale using a mechanical ratchet with long metal handles.
Another sheep-related activity was treatment with chemicals to get rid of critters on their skin. Traditionally, this was done by running them through and down into a sheep dip, a deep channel filled with chemical-laced water through which they had to swim. This was known as dipping, and the sheep dogs were usually thrown in as well. Later, the same affect was achieved using spray guns mounted over, under, and around a pen of sheep.
At times, we had 4–8 cows that we milked by hand each morning and night. I only milked in the afternoons and, as my cow, Peggy, stood still pretty much anywhere without having to be tethered, I milked her out in the yard. I recall our having an engine-powered milking machine at some stage. Now after the morning milking, the cows were let out to graze all day in pasture, so each afternoon I had to fetch them with the dog. That often involved walking a couple of miles. Once the cows were milked, the cream had to be removed by a separator, a hand-turned machine made by Alfa-Laval that was very intricate. After each use it had to be completely broken down and sterilized, and that task took as least as long as the separating itself. We used the milk in the house and any excess was fed to the pigs.
Another chore I recall having was feeding the chooks (Aussie slang for hens) and collecting their eggs. From time to time, we raised new broods of chickens—that arrived on the train as day-olds in a cardboard box with air holes— under a heated device called a brooder. Hens that got behind in their laying duties finished up in the cooking pot.
Near the henhouse, there was a pen with a small cement-lined pond in which we sometimes kept ducks.
At various times, we had one or more farm cats, which lived in the outbuildings where they had to fend for themselves. Occasionally, we fed them a saucer of milk.
Each time I've seen an episode of the popular TV series All Creatures Great and Small, I've been amused at how the farmers call in a vet for all kinds of domestic-animal situations. As best as I can recall, in all the years we had animals and birds, not once was calling in a vet or taking an animal to a vet ever considered an option. Farmers simply expected to care for their livestock themselves.
At age 12, we moved again, to a place where we had more than 200 pigs at any time, many of which we bred. My job after school each weekday was to feed them buckets of crushed grain. I also had to clean the cement water troughs. All the sties had straw roofs and dirt floors, and in the summer, it got quite hot. At the hottest, we had sprinklers in some of the pens to help the pigs cool down. I found pigs to be very intelligent and I liked working with them. [To this day, when I'm at a farm or livestock show, I always reach into the pigpen and give one a scratch on the ears, head, and back, just to hear that contented grunt.]
Wildlife, Game, and Hunting
A huge property neighboring our farm provided a great habitat for wildlife, and whenever these animals could get through or over the fence separating that property from ours, they did. After all, we had juicy cereal crops to eat! The two large kinds of animals that did this were kangaroos and emus.
As emus are diurnal, they are rarely seen out at night. Often, they moved in large groups and with their large size and very strong legs, they could knock down a large swath of cereal crop as they waded through a paddock. Of course, chasing them through a crop made the damage even worse. When we could get up close to them by chasing them in an open paddock in a ute, short for utility vehicle (US: coupe utility, such as the Chevrolet El Camino), we killed them with a 12-guage shotgun. Back home, we fed them raw to the pigs, which loved them. However, due to the presence of parasites in and on the meat, we had to remove the bones and feathers from the pigsties within a few days.
While kangaroos were sometimes seen during the day, they seemed to be more common at night. Most years, rabbits were also plentiful, and I earned non-trivial pocket money by trapping them. Occasionally, we saw a hare or a fox.
Hunting was done at night, from the back of a ute, with a spotlight powered from the ute's 12-volt battery. This was known as spotlighting. It was best done on nights without a moon. The idea was to drive around looking for kangaroos, rabbits, hares, or foxes. If a kangaroo was spotted and it sat still and it was no more than a hundred yards or so away, the ute was stopped and the shooter used a high-powered rifle. Oftentimes it was a .303 army-surplus gun that could be bought quite cheaply (for less cost than a box of bullets, actually). [In previous times, people used to have one of a number of breeds of hunting dogs, which chased down kangaroos.] Foxes were chased and shot with a shotgun, which required us to get quite close; likewise for hares. In the case of rabbits, when they stopped, a shooter used a .22 rifle and shot into the ground very near the rabbit's head. This would temporarily deafen the rabbit so that a runner in the dark could come in from the side to grab the rabbit and wring its neck. By not shooting the rabbit directly, there was no damage to the carcass, which was essential if it was to be eaten or sold. The rule was that once a shooter had shot, they never shot again unless the runner called them to do so. That way, the runner was not in danger of being shot (which could easily happen when a trigger-happy guest was invited to join the hunting party). I very much appreciated this rule, as I was most often the runner.
Chasing a fox or hare involved very quick changes of direction, and driving fast in loops and circles. My Dad, who drove the ute, had the uncanny ability to know where he was in the paddock even on the darkest night, as it was important to know where the fast-moving ute was in relation to fences and rabbit burrows.
When we killed kangaroos, we took them home where we cooked them in one or more oil drums around which was burned a fire of mallee-tree stumps. The pigs loved the resulting kangaroo soup/stew. Occasionally, we ate a kangaroo steak, which was fried in a pan along with bay leaves. [At that time, kangaroo meat was declared unfit for human consumption, and when hunted for sale, was used in pet food. Many years later, it was offered for sale to humans in butcher shops.]
Occasionally, we'd see a wedge-tail eagle, and even one of their nests. They had a huge wingspan and were capable of carrying off a newborn lamb, as were foxes.
There was no shortage of birds, the most common being crows, magpies, and galahs, the latter being a large pink and grey parrot. [Apparently, at one time, someone considered them rather stupid, and the term galah entered the vernacular in that context, as in, "He's a bloody galah!"] Because they could be taught to talk, it was not uncommon to find galahs as pets. Another, but more beautiful, cockatoo was the Major Mitchell. Except in certain years (possibly wet ones), these were far less common.
I remember one year that we had a budgie [short for budgerigar (US: parakeet)] plague. And although budgies sold in pet shops came in a variety of colors, these wild ones were always green and yellow.
Birds in the area nested in open or closed nests made in trees, or in the hollows of tree brunches and trunks. The Murray Magpie made an open mud nest on a tree branch, and it was not unusual to see emu feathers embedded in the mud. Birds from the kingfisher family lived in burrows, usually near bodies of water. One particular member of that family is the kookaburra, also known as the laughing jackass. [If you watch old movies set in the jungle, you will often hear kookaburra calls despite the fact that those birds don't live in such places. It just makes for an impressive noise.]
A rare bird was the Mallee fowl, which made a nest on the ground and buried its eggs. I don't believe I ever saw such a bird in the wild, but I did see several nests, which had grown very large over many years of use.
Although we had a dog and some cats when I was a farm boy, they were working animals who liked some occasional personal attention on the side. At that time, many people kept caged birds and Mom had a budgie, which we taught to say a few words.
It wasn't until I lived in the US and my son, Scott, was about four that we talked about getting a pet. Neighbors had recently gotten a corn snake, and Scott liked holding that, but when he proposed getting one himself, his mother stated something like, "Over my dead body!" As a result, he was heard complaining to our next-door neighbor, Joe, "The problem with Mothers is they won't let you have a snake!"
Eventually, when we went to the pet shop to look at birds, this particular green and yellow budgie escaped and flew around the shop. My son thought the bird had spirit, so decided to buy that one and to call him Frisky. Once Frisky got used to us handling him, we let him fly around the house, and only caged him at nights. One day, we stood his cage outdoors—with him in it—to take in some sunshine and fresh air. Unfortunately, a cat took interest in him and knocked over the cage, causing one of the wire doors to slide open. Just after I heard the crash, I looked up to see Frisky perched on the edge of the door ready to fly out. We left the open cage outside should he find his way home, but even though we saw him flying around outside later that day, he never did return.
After a break from pets, once again I took my son to the pet store telling him that he could have any sort of animal that would fit in the birdcage we currently had. We came home with two mice, which he called Alice and Jasmine. The idea was that with two females, they could groom and amuse each other, and there wouldn't be any babies. Using wood, I build some stairs and several levels in the cage, and all was well, but only for a short while, when babies appeared. Apparently, one of the females was pregnant when we bought her. Fortunately, the pet shop agreed to take the babies, so we were back to our original plan. Every now and then, we'd take them out of the cage and let them run around, mostly inside mazes we built with blocks on a table. However, as they got older, they slowed way down and could no longer get up the stairs in their cage. Eventually, they developed growths and died, but not before my son had asked my wife to check with the veterinary clinic to see if anything could be done. "Yes", the exotic animal specialist told her, "We could perform surgery at a cost of $125, but their normal lifespan was short anyway." They both died soon after.
Some years later, we got a blue and white budgie, but as it liked to bite people, we gave it away, along with the cage.
My Dog-Walking Experience
Several years ago, I moved out to the countryside to a house less than a mile from the county animal shelter. As I was thinking about some volunteer possibilities, I visited the shelter. I was very impressed, and during my extensive travels abroad, have stayed in a number of accommodations that were nowhere near as nice as those animals had, I kid you not! So I submitted an application and signed up for an orientation session. That included an overview of the animal control process, the goals of the shelter, and a discussion of animals having to be destroyed under certain circumstances.
Being a long-time dog lover, I signed up to become a canine companion, and after a short time with a supervisor, I was on my own. I agreed to spend at least two hours per week walking and socializing with dogs. One goal was to get some regular exercise, but I also had a romantic idea of spending time with interesting dogs, which, unfortunately, turned out to not often be the case. The (fairly obvious) reason most dogs are in a shelter is that they are unwanted, and very often undisciplined and unloved as a result. As such, most dogs I walked had no attractive personality, the thing I most wanted. Occasionally, I'd walk one that showed some promise.
Once, a dog so wonderful arrived that I loved spending time with it, so much so that the staff suggested I adopt it. I proposed that I do that but keep it at the shelter, so when I was traveling, there would be someone to feed and walk it. Apparently, that wasn't an option, although I was all for it! Soon after, that dog was adopted, but after a few weeks, it was back again. When I inquired as to why, I was told, "The family had two cats, and they didn't get along with the dog." To me, the solution was obvious, keep the dog and get rid of the cats!
I dutifully walked dogs for two hours each week I was in town, and did extra to make up for those weeks I was away. I have to say that walking in the cold, rain, ice and snow, especially up steep and slippery paths, didn't help my enthusiasm, and after six months, I stopped.
Book, Cartoon, and Comic Strip Animals
My first recollection of storybook animals was in a large book containing many stories about Yogi Bear and his pal Boo Boo. [Fifty-five years later, I still have that book.] I also had a steady supply of Disney comics starring Donald Duck and his many friends and relatives. However, I must say that there were a lot of nieces and nephews, and uncles and aunts, but no actual parents!
When it came to reading to my son, my favorite characters were the Berenstain Bears. However, I often quizzed him as to why Mother Bear always seemed to wear the same old dress. And where did the bears get money?
We were also great fans of Winnie the Pooh and Paddington Bear. In the latter case, many years ago, I took the family to London, England, where we went to Paddington Station. There was a very large Paddington bear in a glass case, along with his suitcase that had a label saying "From Darkest Peru" with a note from Aunt Lucy. [Since that station's renovation, there is no longer a permanent Paddington Bear exhibit, but traces of him can still be found.]
Now another very popular character—but my least favorite—is Curious George. In almost every story, this monkey made a mess, broke something, or otherwise got into more than a little bit of trouble, yet every time the Man in the Yellow Hat forgave him without there being any consequences to bad behavior.
Through a kids' book club, we bought a series of Bugg Books, about many different insects that lived in the land of Morethansmall. The stories told and lessons learned were very well done, but the thing I found most interesting was that each book contained two stories. One story went up to the middle of the book. Then you simply went to the back of the book, turned it upside down, and started reading the second story to the middle. There were two front covers and no back ones!
When it comes to animals in print cartoons, Fred Bassett was probably the first I came across. Later, Footrot Flats entertained me, as did Garfield and Odie when I came to the US.
And when it comes to animated animals, Wiley Coyote and Foghorn Leghorn have gotten my attention, as did Tom and Jerry.
By far the most intelligent cartoon animal I can recall is the dog Gromit from Wallace and Gromit. Creator Nick Park also did a great job with the full-length movie Chicken Run.
TV and Screen Animals
Some of the first animals I saw on black and white TV included Lassie and Rin Tin Tin. (Did I mention that I was a dog lover?) I also enjoyed Mr. Ed the talking horse and Francis the Talking Mule. Later came Australia's own Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, followed by Flipper the dolphin and Fred the cockatoo from the TV series Baretta.
Having been raised in rural Australia, where kangaroos and emus were commonplace and not so interesting, once I moved to the US, I became fascinated with deer and squirrels, as they seemed rather exotic. It all depends on one's idea of normal.
Although I was a canine companion at the county animal shelter, my secret desire was to become a critter cuddler; that is, to take care of small animals like gerbils, rats, snakes, and such.
Over time, I've completely lost interest in seeing caged animals or birds, especially in commercial chicken and pig farms. And I'm even unhappy when I see pet birds or zoo animals in small cages, especially those pacing up and back all day. It seems to me that such critters really must suffer from mental health problems.