My childhood was full of animals. Dogs, cats, rabbits, ponies, fish, budgies, ferrets, wild throstles, robins, blackbirds and newts, butterflies and bumble bees. I was lucky to have a very big garden to play in, countryside around me, my own shed, and a retired farmer for a granddad who understood me. I would find crowds of red admiral and peacock butterflies on the sedums in the front garden drunk on warm nectar and lift them up on my finger to look at them, help the bumblebees to take off when they crawled out from their nest under the rotten base of the row of sheds, and feed Dewy my pet throstle at the back door.
I liked to get my granddad’s albino ferret that he went rabbiting with out to pet it……. whether he wanted me to or not. The ferret had a name, Bizzie, which was given to him by me but he didn’t answer to it and nobody else called him it. He was known to bite and nobody else other than my granddad would touch him, but he never bit me.
This is more than I can say for my cat Kookie who resisted 16 years of patient attempts to tame her. She had been born in the wild and never forgot it. When she had had enough of you she would just attack to let you know that she was fed up rather than run away and if she was in a bad mood and you walked past the chair that she was sitting in, a paw would lash out to scratch you. This was quite a shock after the first cat I knew, Judy, a real mother cat who spent her days snoozing in a patch of sunlight and rarely left the garden.
I used to go out with my dad, setting minnow traps made from wine bottles in the nearby stream. The water butts around the garden were full of minnows. My dad used them for live bait and I liked to see their tiny mouths gasping at the surface of the water when I fed them. My newt was a short lived pet as while he ate what I gave him I wasn’t sure that he was happy trapped in a fish tank and I was probably right.
My real passions were dogs and horses. I knew the Observers book of dogs off by heart and If I had found out back then that my granddad wanted me to have a pony but my dad was stopping him I would have caused a great deal of trouble. All my granddad ever said to me at the time was “If we’d still had the farm you could have had a pony”. Words which still make me feel that I was born too late. We didn’t have any money but my granddad had worked with shire horses all his life and a horse was not a rich person’s toy to him, it was a way of life. Instead I helped look after two horses belonging to someone else in return for being allowed to ride them and I spent two weeks helping with the beach ponies over in Filey every year, riding my heart out for hours along the beach where I now walk my dogs. I had to be content with that.
When I wasn’t feeding, cleaning out, stroking, walking, talking to, my own animals I was watching them on a grainy black and white television. I was devoted to Zoo Time and Animal Magic, especially the chimps. Animal Magic was just half an hour of sheer charm, with “zookeeper” Johnny Morris giving voices to the zoo animals. My favourite part of Zoo Time was when they proved that a chimp could do something very clever and I developed an unshakable belief that most animals are a great deal cleverer than most people give them credit for. In the fifty or so years since I was a small girl the research has been steadily proving me right.
There was no shortage of fictional animal heroes to cheer on back then, especially horses. Mr Ed (who I have already written about here) was my biggest excitement of the week, and where would the Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers have been without Silver and Trigger? I once sent off a letter asking for a signed photo and when it came back it was signed by Roy Rogers. I was gutted. I had wanted it to be signed by Trigger. They were fabulously glamorous and romantic, a vision of beauty, speed and raw intelligence. My fascination led to hours of prancing in the garden with a stick in my hand and much shooting of cap guns. I whittled a home made ash bow and made arrows from the thin bamboo sticks that should have been holding up my granddads tomatoes. I must have been a dangerous little thing. I also knocked hell out of a metal rocking horse on springs called Flicka. (Yes that was yet another of my favourite horses.) I sat on it for hours at a time, rooted to the spot and staring straight ahead at an ever changing landscape.
I don’t even remember who rode Champion the Wonder Horse. It wasn’t important.
Then there were the dogs. Even now when I hear the theme tune to The Littlest Hobo I well up. I adored that dog. His name was London (he got a starring credit- of course he did) and every week he would comfort and help someone before moving on down the road. I hero worshipped him and felt sorry for him at the same time- a sure recipe for falling in love.
I was an only child and that pattern of spending a lot of time alone and having a closer affinity to animals than I have to many of my own species has never left me. Nor do I want it to. Life in all its forms has sensibility and value and the fact that other forms of life do not always see the world and communicate in a way that makes it easy for us to understand them does not mean that they are of less value than our own species. If you are reading this as a Christian and disagree with me then just remember that you believe that God so loved the world that he sent his only son to die for it- not just human beings. We would all do well to remember that all life is precious, not just our version of it and that we depend on its welfare for our own.