Whenever anyone asks me how I ended up writing so frequently about our relationship with animals, I generally point them in the direction of this Guardian article, written way back in 2007 under one of my pseudonyms, Augustus Brown. All the clues are there.
I was seven when a large sow taught me one of the more valuable, if painful, lessons of my young life: pigs really don’t appreciate being ridden, rodeo-style. My moment of enlightenment came one Sunday afternoon, in a muddy pasture on the smallholding where I grew up. Filled with that blend of bravado and brainlessness that only boys of that age possess, I decided to climb on board the fattest of our half dozen or so porkers and “break it in”. (I’m fairly certain the idea had been planted by watching a bunch of leathered cowboys taming a steer, earlier that day on Bonanza.)
No sooner had I grasped her leather harness and clambered on board her broad, bristly back, than the sow had shaken off the indolence that had defined her personality since she’d arrived with us and begun performing a passable imitation of a bucking bronco. I held on for all of three seconds before being catapulted, head first, into the mud. The physical bruises faded soon enough; the scars this delivered to my boyhood pride took longer to heal.
Scientists probably don’t have catastrophic interactions like this in mind when they talk about the benefits of having animals around. Their arguments tend to focus more on the advantages dogs, cats and hamsters bring in terms of stress-release and proto-parenting, teaching children responsibility and environmental awareness. I have no doubt there is merit in all their assertions. But, it struck me recently, the curious incidents that filled my childhood may offer one or two extra, unheralded arguments in favour of spending our lives close to animals.
When I was 11 or so, for instance, my father and I found a fox cub injured in the woods nearby and brought it home. We nursed it on bottled milk for a few weeks. We converted an old sideboard into his home, even gave him a name, Carlo. No one was more enthusiastic about our new charge than my father, who was fired by memories of his own childhood when he too had reared a stray cub. I remember sensing that our shared responsibility for this poor creature had somehow brought us closer.
One morning I woke up to discover the fox had battered its way through the side of his home and fled. He was gone but he hadn’t forgotten. A week later an already more mature-looking Carlo reappeared in a roadside hedge near the entrance to our lane. Rather idiotically, I assumed he’d come back to say thanks. So, unbelievably, did my father. When he kneeled down to stroke the fox, Carlo bit him so hard he almost severed a finger. I’d never seen so much blood. The memory has been locked away ever since, a piece of family lore. Naturally, neither my father nor I has ever trusted a fox since.
In the rural community in which I grew up, animals were part of the daily fabric, especially to my large circle of uncles, many of whom were steeped in the more arcane traditions of country life. One was an accomplished poacher who taught me how to tickle trout. It’s a skill I have yet to practice in the Thames tributary that now runs by my home, but you never know when it might come in handy.
Another farming uncle taught me how to spot a sheep that was ready to spontaneously combust. (Hint: if a ewe has been stuck, lying on its side, suffering from “bloat” for several hours and the temperatures are in the 90s, don’t light a match anywhere nearby.) Yet another showed me how to read the weather-forecasting skills of cattle and birds. In truth, this was less impressive. It being west Wales, the only weather they tended to predict was rain, which didn’t really put them in the Nostradamus class.
The most useless trick a relative passed on to me, undoubtedly, was how to hypnotise a chicken. To my amazement, I saw that by tucking the bird’s head under its wings then moving it around slowly in a cyclical fashion, it froze rigid, as if in suspended animation. Unsurprisingly, the beauty of that particular party piece lay in its comedy value. The mere mention of it was enough to reduce the most miserable aunt to laughter. That’s another important facet animals bring to family life, of course, as the producers of You’ve Been Framed have known for decades.
I’ve spent the bulk of the past 30 years in London, far removed from the rural world in which I was raised. (In reality, it has almost disappeared. Few of the older generation remain and almost all of the old traditions have died away, too.) As a consequence of this, my two young children, Thomas and Gabriella, have missed out on the kind of first-hand animal encounters I took for granted. There have been, of course, memorable moments at zoos and rescue centres, bird parks and nature reserves. Like every other urban family, we’ve driven round Longleat with baboons attached to the windscreen wipers and wondered at John Aspinall’s gorillas at Howlett’s in Kent. On holiday in Brazil, we even shared our home with iguanas, macaws and macaque monkeys. The joy these experiences bring the children almost always makes me regret their transience. I feel sad the only foxes they encounter are city scavengers. I often wish they too could do something as daft as learning the art of chicken hypnotism.
This all changed a few months ago, however. It was then that animals – and the simple, sometimes silly pleasures they bestow upon family life – made a small, very small, comeback.
As parents, my wife and I had been resistant to the children’s pleas for a cat or dog for a blend of practical and medical reasons. Our home was too confining for a decent-sized dog (and I see no point in having any other). A cat – or any other furry creature – would almost certainly have exacerbated the mild asthma our son, Thomas, occasionally suffered. (Irony of ironies, his first bout was probably triggered by straw mites, encountered during an otherwise brilliant visit to a Devon farm during lambing.) With the latter problem seemingly fading with age, however, our arguments had begun to seem ever more facile.
Then, a year or so ago, I began writing a book on curious animal facts, an assemblage of all the strange things science has taught us about the subjects my country uncles probably knew instinctively. (Cows may not be able to detect rain but, it seems, sharks are capable of detecting bad weather with unerring accuracy.) As talk of how fish communicate by breaking wind (the bright spark that discovered their bubble language named it Fast Repetitive Tick, or FRT) and how mice serenade each other with ultrasonic song flashed across the breakfast table, the children detected the final semblance of their parent’s anti-animal resistance melting away. They seized the opportunity with ruthless efficiency. Our home now echoes to the twittering of a four-month-old budgie called Georgie.
Already Georgie is providing the more mundane and obvious benefits those scientists like to talk about. He is a shared responsibility, a warming, unchallenging presence that defuses the stresses of domestic life, a source of entertainment and education. (Did you know budgies are among the most monogamous of all birds? It’s partly to do with the fact that females take vicious revenge on a straying male. If he lived in the wild, Georgie would be a hopeless cuckold.)
But he is also beginning to fulfil the role the cows and chickens, foxes and fish played in my country childhood. For a start he generates laughs to rival those produced by talk of hypnotised chickens. You had to be there, of course, but for us the memories of the comic manner in which he fell off his newly installed swing during his first week can produce laughter so violent we fear the children may spontaneously combust.
The little bird’s positive influence on the children is already clear. Their Sunday mornings are dedicated to clearing out and cleaning the cage. The budgie’s bath times are conducted with diligence and good sense. Pocket money was put aside for a range of Christmas presents for him. He is handled with care and respect. Provided the children keep up their excellent attitude towards the tweating newcomer, other birds – and, who knows, a guinea pig – may follow.
I haven’t quite recreated the strange animal-filled landscape of my youth. But I do feel somehow re-connected to the pleasures that a constant, non-human presence can bring. In my more fanciful moments I dream of transforming our home into a place where all manner of animals lie in wait, each of them with a memorable, preferably danger-laced, lesson to deliver Thomas and Gabriella. My wife often accuses me of turning the house into a pigsty. Perhaps we could go the whole hog and stick one or two in the garden.
· Why Pandas Do Handstands, and Other Curious Truths About Animals by Augustus Brown is published by Bantam Press. For a signed copy, comment below or send a message via the contacts page. Or order at Amazon.co.uk here https://amzn.to/2AZ0fHX