When I was a child, my parents allowed me to keep all sorts of animals as pets. My dad used to make me special cages in which to keep the caterpillars I found. I would feed these caterpillars on carefully collected leaves from the shrub or tree on which I’d found them on, and wait anxiously to see what sort of butterfly or moth would emerge. I had guinea pigs and rabbits, gerbils and lizards. I had a very long-suffering snow white cat named Pinkle, who had to endure damaged animals wandering around “her” house until they were fit enough to be released. My mother had a rule which I never transgressed. She said that I could keep any pet within reason, but the first time she found it in an unclean environment and without fresh food and water, it would have to go. I cleaned and fed religiously – none of my pets was going anywhere!!
One of my favourite creatures was a young fruit bat that a friend found and gave to me. This bat was too young to feed itself and was a long way from being able to fly. I named him Sir Lancelot Gudge (children have such funny imaginations, don’t they?). It was fascinating feeding this young animal, and to feel him scurrying around my shoulders. Teaching him to fly was quite a mission – I would throw him off my shoulder and he would zoom in a tight circle and clamp himself back on to my shoulder again. A boomerang couldn’t have done better. However sometimes he’d get a bit confused and land up in the wrong spot, and I’d have to inveigle one of my brothers to drag a ladder out so that I could reclaim him. Eventually Sir Lancelot got the message and one night flew off into the darkness and never returned. I hope he had a happy life.
I had many aviaries full of birds, both purchased and rescued. Cockatiels, red rumps, bourkes, finches, and singing quail, etc. gave me endless hours of pleasure. They reproduced at an amazing rate, and dad used to drive me to the pet shop so that I could swap the extra birds for food to feed the remaining ones. People constantly brought in birds that had fallen out of nests and needed hand rearing, or that they’d found with a broken leg or damaged wing. I’d fix them up as best I could and then off they’d go back into the wild. A lot of them chose to use our garden as nesting areas, and so the same semi-tame birds could be seen year after year. Some of the doves (not the brightest of creatures) would even fly down when I was feeding Pinkle and peck at her food whilst she was trying to eat it. Poor cat – what she had to endure. She never did kill one of the tame birds, which will always surprise me.
As I grew up I became bolder in my choice of pets. Living in Durban we had our fair share of snakes, and these I used to catch and try and identify. Mom soon cottoned on to this and asked to be included in the catching expeditions. I initially believed that I’d swung her around to share my interest in all things animal, and only as I grew older did I realise it was in an attempt to try and prevent me from getting bitten. She always insisted that we take my slithery captures to the local snake park and hand them in. It was then I discovered that some snakes eat eggs!! Well I had lots of eggs from all the aviary birds. Soon I was supplying the snake park with eggs for their egg eaters, and became a regular sight there on a Saturday morning. I became besotted with a pair of girdle tailed lizards, or sungazers. Eventually I managed to persuade the snake park manager to swap me these lizards for a constant supply of eggs.
I kept my lizards at the bottom one of the aviaries. It took quite some preparation as lizards dig, so first I had to bury some chicken mesh beneath the aviary to prevent my treasures from burrowing out. They became very tame, and would soon come when I called to take meal worms and other bugs from off my palm.
Possibly the strangest of all the pets I had as a young child (I was about 10 years old then) was my Whip Scorpion. These are not really scorpions, but spiders. They are very flat and can scurry through the thinnest of apertures. Their two foremost legs have been modified into long whip-like antennae, which the insect uses to test the ground before it, as well as a form of defence. When agitated, whip scorpions will flail the air in front of them with their whips, which can look very menacing indeed. Wilhelmina (for so she was named) lived in a forty-gallon drum on a bed of rotting vegetation, and had the most beautiful whips of about 5 cms long. She became so tame that if I tapped the side of the drum, she would scurry up to the rim and delicately accept a small slug or some other tasty morsel from my hand. She stayed in that drum until it rusted away. There was no lid, and she could have left at any time, but being a canny spider, she knew which side her bread was buttered on. I was enormously proud of Wilhelmina and remember time and time again taking my little school friends to meet her. I was constantly disappointed when my friends would run screaming as I lifted my precious pet carefully out of her drum to show them.
It took me many years to learn that not all people like the variety that life has to offer us, and feel that the world would be a better place without the creepy crawlies that I so enjoyed. I will be forever grateful for my family’s forbearance at letting me keep such a variety of strange and wonderful creatures. My mother for helping me catch the various snakes and creepy-crawlies, my father for making the cages and helping build the aviaries to contain them. And to my brothers for not minding too much when one of my birds flew into the engine they were trying to fix. What an incredibly interesting childhood I was privileged to have.