Yesterday morning, as I observed one cat looking in my bedroom window, one cat waiting to be let out my bedroom door and one dog observing the two cats, I knew exactly what today’s blog would be about…
Both my husband and I were brought up in homes that had more than their fair share of pets. I grew up in the countryside with parents who took in every stray creature that happened to wander in our gate. Although my husband lived in suburban Dublin, somehow his family managed to have a couple of dogs, a couple of cats, quite a few chickens and even some terrapins.
My mother, who had owned one cocker spaniel for her entire 21 years in Germany, married into an Irish family that rescued birds and nurtured them back to health in cardboard boxes in the garage, rescued baby foxes and then released them back into the wild, had five cats when she arrived and a couple of dogs. Adding my mother into the equation only made matters worse... or better, depending on your perspective. On accompanying my Dad to the stately home, Slane Castle, on business one day, she came face to face, literally, with a huge creature that she had never before seen in her life. It turned out that it was an Irish wolfhound and a docile one at that. She was smitten and Dad was instructed to find one. I still recall going to collect the puppy and holding him on my lap during the car journey home. Not only was my mum charmed, the rest of us were too. What do you name an Irish wolfhound? Dad didn’t hesitate for a moment. ‘Cara’! Cara means friend in Irish and for the thirteen years of his life, he was just that, fiercely protective of all of us. No one could come in our gate without being confronted by his towering presence and deep-throated growl. He defended his territory and his family as though his life depended on it. But to us he was a big baby who rolled in the grass and played chase with us around the garden. Word spread about our fierce dog and, when a spate of robberies occurred in our townland in the late 70s, thanks to Cara, our house was untouchable. We felt very safe while our protector stood guard.
My mum used to collect my brother and me from school at lunchtime on Mondays and take us for a treat of burgers and chips in a chipper called Aggie O’Brien’s. Mum would park in a little square across from the chipper and we would run across to get our order. One Monday as my mother parked the car, we saw a small puppy wandering around the carpark, clearly abandoned or lost. Mum was out of the car in a jiffy, the dog was in her arms and off she trotted to the police station, which happened to be just around the corner from the square. No one had reported a dog missing and my mother was dispatched, her details having been taken, to look after the dog until the owner got in touch. Needless to say, that never happened. And so ‘Tubby’ was happily installed as Cara’s partner in crime. The young, female, border collie and the wolfhound became the best of pals surrounded by, at varying stages, between five and nine cats. Several of the original cats had kittens and, as older cats died, the menagerie was naturally replenished by offspring. Then our motley crew of mongrels was joined by a beautiful British shorthair that a friend of my mother’s didn’t want, so of course my mother took him. He turned out to be the most affectionate cat we ever had. Sadly, ‘Buster’ returned home one evening having been very badly injured and with one of his eyes destroyed, possibly by another animal. He lost the eye but became a one-eyed character who wasn’t in the slightest bit affected by his affliction, and we adored him all the more for his spirit in the face of adversity.
Another beautiful Persian cat arrived to our home in a laundry basket from a relative in Dublin who was moving house. The day she arrived, in an effort to try and make the cat feel at home, my mother attempted to remove her from her laundry basket and was viciously attacked, receiving deep scratches from the top to the bottom of her arm and requiring a tetanus shot. My mother dropped the cat in fright and it was last seen disappearing into the garden, never to return. Then there was ‘Schmutz’, another beautiful, long-haired grey male who appeared in my uncle’s garage one day, clearly well-cared for and house-trained. My uncle brought him straight to mum, who of course took him in. She had more success with Schmutz, who was probably the smartest cat we ever had. He could open doors and even the hot press, where he would curl up behind the piles of towels and bedlinen in a little nest he created there and remain hidden all day, appearing out every evening. We were surrounded by cats and kittens and dogs and….
One day Dad arrived home from work and announced that he had got us a pony. ‘Joey’ belonged to an old man who was no longer able to look after him, a client of my Dad’s. To do the old man a favour, Dad agreed to buy the pony. We were thrilled but were too small to ride him. For a while Joey happily grazed in our field but gradually my parents realised that he required a little more stimulation than we could provide so they loaned him to a local riding school. He remained there where he was very well cared for and happy for many years.
When I was twelve, I returned one evening in December from a friend’s birthday party to be told that there was a surprise in the field adjoining our garden. I heard 'Barney', the donkey, before I saw him, hee-hawing to attract attention, as we approached the fence that separated garden from field. He was a great character who happily befriended the cows in the neighbouring fields and was as low maintenance as an animal can be, merely requiring to have his hooves trimmed every so often. You would spy his dark brown shape among the herd of cattle far off in the distant corner of a field, holler his name and he’d leave his friends and trot down to the fence for a carrot or apple. However, he rarely hung around the periphery of the garden for long. For Barney, far off hills were greener. Only very occasionally he’d tire of bovine company and would call us from the fence with his comical hee-haw.
But mammals were not the only pets that graced our home. For years my brother and I longed for a tortoise but my parents refused to buy one from a pet shop, believing that importing or breeding reptiles was cruel. However, one year, as luck would have it, German friends of my parents were returning to Germany and needed to find a home for their pet tortoise. They didn’t need to look too far. ‘Timmy’ arrived and provided great entertainment for us and for the dogs and cats. But after about a year, Timmy retreated into his shell for the winter and didn’t emerge in spring. My mother took him to the vet. Sitting in the waiting room with the tortoise on her knees, she was the subject of some interest from the rather more pedestrian dog and cat owners, all enquiring what the problem was with the tortoise. She diagnosed that he had gone into hibernation too early. The vet diagnosed it a little differently as he took one look at the shell, turned it on its head and tipped out a mass of bones. My mother was mortified. Returning minus Timmy through the waiting room, she was asked how the tortoise was. “They are keeping him in for observation” she lied and ran.
Two terrapins, the first which was donated by another family friend, didn’t fare too much better, despite my mother creating a veritable terrapins paradise in a large tank. ‘Qed’ arrived first and we felt he needed a friend so we got another male, or so we thought, ‘Fred’! We were alarmed to find Qed on top of Fred one day, doing what terrapins do. “Sunbathing”, announced my father. Fred clearly couldn’t cope with the exertion because he/she didn’t survive long after that and Qed died not much later, probably of boredom. We weren’t great with reptiles.
My parents clearly thought they would have more success with chickens and in fairness, the six pullets fared somewhat better than the reptiles, lasting around five years until someone left the gate of the chicken run open and let's just say the chickens couldn't run as fast as Tubby, our dog.
Then someone offered my parents a hive of bees and my mother had a brief flirtation with bee-keeping until the entire hive swarmed one summer, never to be seen again.
So, apart from a short dalliance with three canaries when I lived in an apartment and was out at work all day, I’ve preferred to stick with cats and dogs. My and my husband's first home together was a little small for the size of dog we wanted so we got ‘Willow’, the cat. She was exactly what you expect a cat to be…smart, independent, shrewd and affectionate on her terms. When we returned home every evening after work, Willow would be waiting for us at the gate. She was a loyal and tolerant tabby who put up with a house move, the arrival of three children, another cat and dog. Cats are generally pretty adaptable creatures.
Our eldest daughter picked our second cat, Jessie, out of a litter of scruffy, mite-infested kittens of all colours, shapes and sizes, after a cat rescue agency directed us to an old lady who had kittens. Jessie turned into a beauty, a long-haired tortoiseshell, who played second fiddle to Willow for seven years and was relatively timid and unassertive. However, when Willow died, Jessie came into her own, assuming the role of lady of the manor with an attitude to suit, a veritable queen bee and quite the character. We felt she needed company and got a male cat, George, from the local animal rescue centre. Jessie wasn’t impressed and promptly banished him from her territory. Being a young, male cat, George couldn’t have cared less and was quite content to exit the garden every morning, cleverly sitting in the front hedge watching and listening for traffic until the coast was clear and then darting across the main road, returning only to be fed and then disappearing again for the night.
At some stage during all of this, our daughters decided that we needed a dog. My husband had very fixed views on this. It wasn’t happening. He loved dogs and had grown up with them but felt that it was just one animal too many in our small house. He also wasn’t convinced that we’d all row in with the walking and other commitments that came with owning a dog. But one man hasn’t much of a chance against a determined woman, and no chance whatsoever against four!!! So, one Saturday we inveigled him to go for a drive to a dog rescue centre, just for a look! We were shown lots of dogs but there were only a couple that the owner of the centre felt would suit a family with young children and limited space. My husband almost got us in the car home without committing when I spied a dog in an enclosure at the very end of a pathway, that we hadn’t been shown. The owner was reluctant as the dog had only just arrived a few days previously. We approached and the dog pressed up against the door of the enclosure and looked sadly at us. The owner suggested we take her for a walk. She wriggled and jiggled and got extremely excited when she saw a cat but it was clear that she was overjoyed to be out with us and we felt terrible having to put her back. Two weeks later we returned and ‘Alice’ came home with us. She ate her basket, she ate our carpet, she tried to encourage the cats to play chase but they stood their ground and she immediately skulked away, embarrassed. She nipped my husband’s leg as he was playing chase with her in the park one day and he instinctively walloped her on the backside. She was suitably contrite and he felt awful. Since then, he has been her master. She adores him more than she does the rest of us. She will respond to him immediately. When he leaves the house, she waits at the window for him to return and lavishes him with affection when he comes in the door. And, of course, the feeling is entirely mutual. If she eats the cat’s food (which she regularly does when she thinks no one is looking), I only have to mention my husband’s name and she goes off in search of him to apologise, slinking towards him on her hunkers, looking very sheepish.
She can’t bear to be on her own. Wherever we are, she is. If I’m in the kitchen she sits on the window seat. If I go to the bathroom, she follows and waits outside the door. She is of course obsessed with those she perceives to have treats for her. My father was a particular favourite because he regularly sneaked her treats under the table so he got the warmest of welcomes when he arrived at our door and she would glue herself to his side for the duration of his visit, hopeful of a biscuit or an errant piece of meat from his dinner plate. She is also a very good judge of character and fiercely protective. She never barks, ever. And that’s a godsend because there is nothing that neighbours find more irritating than a dog than barks incessantly. And she knows from our reactions which visitors to our house are welcome. She is very distrustful of certain people and we can tell when an unwanted visitor is at our gate because she stands rigidly on the window seat, staring at the gate and emits a low, threatening growl. I know that she will never allow any person of ill-repute near us without a fight. She will protect her family at all costs.
Jessie, our beautiful cat, died almost two years ago. She had become blind although she was still sprightly and tempestuous. But then one morning we arrived into the kitchen and found her unconscious on the floor. We had to put her to sleep. The house wasn’t the same without her formidable character. George was rarely there, still disappearing first thing in the morning and returning after his adventures late in the evening. My husband was having none of our daughters pleas to get another cat and although I was initially supportive, my father became seriously ill at the time and I had enough on my plate. Eventually, however, I came around to the view that a kitten would be a welcome distraction so the girls and I hatched a plan. My youngest had hockey practise on Saturday mornings and generally my husband would bring her, and I’d have a lie-in. We agreed that I would volunteer to do the hockey run and from there we would go and view a kitten. I had always hankered after another British shorthair having adored my beloved one-eyed Buster and my eldest daughter had found someone who had kittens. It was all arranged. We even sneaked the cat box from the cupboard under the stairs. Once we had the little chocolate brown bundle of fluff in our arms, there was no way we were leaving without her. My husband opened the door to greet us on our return from hockey and couldn’t stop laughing when he saw the cat box. He said he had known there was a plan underway when I volunteered to get up at the crack of dawn on a Saturday. And his suspicions were confirmed when he noticed that the under stairs cupboard door was ajar and the cat box was missing. 'Mildred' quickly became Millie, the tiny bear that kept us all distracted and charmed during the final weeks of my Dad’s life, who later kept us sane during lockdown, and has provided us with endless amusement and joy for a year and a half. The day she arrived, we brought her into my Dad in his hospice room. She was, and still is, the most curious creature who generally doesn't stay still for even a minute and can’t stand being held, but yet she lay on Dad's bed and remained perfectly still while he petted her. Dad loved animals and having a small, fluffy kitten in his hospice room brought him so much comfort and joy that day. Just two weeks later, only days before he died when he was very confused and barely knew us, he asked “how is the little cat?” My mother and I thought he was recalling one of their old cats and we started listing off names. “No, the little cat”, he insisted. And then in a rare moment of clarity added “Millie”!
Animals have that power. They get under your skin, into your heart, they surprise you with their neediness one minute and independence the next, they love fiercely. I am always amused by people who say they will never have a dog and then are convinced by a child or partner to get one. Within weeks you can see that the dog has that very person who most resisted them wrapped around their finger. I laughed a few years ago when a friend pulled up in her car outside my house to drop something off and I witnessed her husband sitting in the passenger seat with a small dog on his lap, stroking it lovingly. For years the family had tried to persuade him to allow them to get a dog and he was completely resistant to the idea, having never had a pet in his life, yet here he was, a slave to a small, white bundle of curls.
I can’t imagine being without animals. They teach tolerance, they teach you to how to care for something and, above all, they offer companionship. A couple of months before my Dad died, a tabby cat arrived at my parent’s house. Assuming she was someone’s cat for she was well groomed and looked well fed, they didn’t encourage her, but for days she was always outside their door miaowing and waiting patiently. Eventually they left food for her and then let her into the house. Before long she was curled up on a chair in the living room. We now believe that she belonged to a lady in a neighbouring house who died around that time. Either way, the cat moved in and has been an enormous comfort to my mum since Dad passed away. She is the most demonstrative cat I have ever come across, nuzzling my mum as she tries to read a book, sitting beside her as she eats her meals. You would almost say that she embodies the spirit of my Dad. Animals are uncanny. They seem to know what their humans need and provide it.
As I write, Millie is ringing a little bell that we have suspended from the handle of our bedroom door that opens out into our back garden. About a year ago, she discovered that she could alert us by getting on her hind legs and reaching up to ring the bell. At first, she did this when she wanted to be let outside but then gradually she started doing it to tell us that she wanted to be fed too. She’d ring it and dart to her food bowl and wait. Unfortunately, having a clever cat that loves her food has its drawbacks because Millie doesn’t seem to appreciate that we need to sleep sometimes and aren’t at her beck and call 24/7! And on that note...