We never had a cat or a dog when I was growing up. We had a free-range gerbil called Kevin, who lived behind the kitchen units and whose short but exciting life came to an end when my father trod on him. "He ran under my foot" was how my dad put it.
So when we moved to our scruffy farmhouse I at last had the freedom to get some proper animals involved in our lives. The first additions were Milly and Mandy, two tortoiseshell cats, now aged 5. These two sisters have suffered an enormous amount of abuse from our children over the years. They have been hurled from a first-ﬂoor window. They have had their tails cruelly pulled. Milly on one occasion was suspended in midair by her tail. They have been squashed, sat on, chased. But what is wonderful is how little they have retaliated. Animals seem to sense when their attacker is a mere child and is not posing a serious threat, so they don't scratch or bite. Only once or twice have the cats given the children a little warning snap of the teeth, when they have been pushed beyond endurance. Indeed, I have often found myself willing the animals to make a more decisive attack, in order to end the teasing and teach the children a lesson.
It's true, though, that the cats produce some pretty dreadful smells. Finding sloppy cat turds under my desk in the morning is not a pleasant way to start the day. And sometimes we simply cannot find the source of the stink. I have been known to ascend into apocalyptic rages when discovering cat messes around the house. "They're coming into have a shit!" I scream. We throw them out at every opportunity, with the result that they mew piteously at my study window in the morning until I take pity on them and let them in, whereupon they pad slowly across the floor and settle themselves in front of the fire for a daylong snooze.
So the cats certainly have their downsides. But they have many good qualities. The first is their talent for hunting. We've not seen a mouse or rat in the house since the day they arrived. They catch other things, too, of course. Many dead robins have been left on the front doormat. And decapitated frogs. They also torture and kill lizards. We once found a dead long-eared bat in a barn, and countless shrews have been eaten or killed and abandoned. Once I spotted Mandy beneath the car eating a wild bunny. When we drove off, there was nothing left of the creature but a fluffy white tail. But where the cats have really helped us has been with the children. Delilah in particular loves them very much. She takes Milly to bed and carries her around with her like a living doll. Delilah has a sentimental streak, and she says of herself: "I care for all animals. Not just nice ones. Even rats." She cried when I showed her a rat that I had killed with my air rifle.
There is a lot of love between Delilah and the cats, and it's a joy to witness. It goes without saying that children enjoy looking after animals, feeding them, giving them water, and stroking them. And the cats provide much amusement; the children particularly like to watch the cats play and hunt. Dusk seems to be the time when they come out to frolic, and they dash at amazing speeds across the yard and silently leap up trees with great agility and grace. Finally, on the subject of cats, I would add that they are very beautiful creatures to have around the house. Our two are like moving cushions and arrange themselves in the most amazing shapes on sofas and chairs.
Now on to bunnies. Our first rabbit was christened Rosie Blossom Brownpatch. ("Because she has a brown patch," Delilah said.) We loved her. She was a house bunny. She lived in the kitchen, and she was friendly and charming. It's true that she ate the curtains, but she was a clean bunny and provided a lot of fun and games. And Delilah especially adored her. But then it all went wrong. Ask Delilah what happened and she will say: "Mummy killed her." Mummy did indeed drive over Rosie's back leg when the rabbit was playing in the yard. The vet said it would cost a fortune to fix up, so we decided to go for the cheaper option, which was to have the bunny put down.
Well, that was very sad. We'd loved that bunny. We all cried, except for Arthur, who coldly suggested that we get another one. So we did buy a new rabbit, and this one was called Lizzie Molly Flower Fast Bunny. ("Because she is a very fast bunny," Delilah said.) She was sweet but just not in the same league as Rosie Blossom. So when she decided she wanted to live outdoors we let her go. Then began two glorious years. Our neighbor's white bunny, Felicity, was also living outside. The two rabbits became friends and lived somewhere in the barns. It was a wonderful sight to drive down our lane and see one white and one black-and-white bunny dashing in all directions in that zigzag path that rabbits take. Each evening both rabbits would come and mill about in the yard with all the other animals, so we would be treated to the delightful spectacle of the pony, the chickens, the rabbits and the cats all eating and playing together.
Our farmer was amazed that the bunnies survived in the semiwild as long as they did. But after two years of this fantastic menagerie, both rabbits vanished within a couple of days of each other. Whether they were taken by the fox—which had just dispatched all the chickens—or by the buzzard I had seen circling around, or whether they had gone deeper into the wild with the big jack rabbit we'd spotted once or twice hanging around in the yard, we'll never know. I hope they are living somewhere nearby in a cozy warren. But inside or outside a rabbit is a very good pet: comical, pretty, cute, and a good size for little ones. "Of all animals rabbits are those that boys are most fond of," says Cobbett.
If an animal is both useful and beautiful, then it is a welcome addition to the idle parent's household, because it saves money and gives the children a diversion, and also a feel for the care of animals. The noble pig fulfills all these criteria. We bought two young pigs in early June last year and fed them twice a day on scraps, nettles, apples, and brought-in food. It was very enjoyable to scratch them and watch their doings. Then we had them killed at home (although we have since found out that this is—absurdly—illegal) and spent two weeks processing them. The children now know exactly where their pork and bacon comes from. Although I have to admit that this morning, over his bacon, Henry started asking me some awkward questions:
"Is this our pig?"
"Why did we kill them?"
"To eat them."
"I didn't want to kill them."