It’s a cruel trick of the calendar that the minute it’s “officially” summer, the days start getting shorter. Even though this happens every year, it can still be dismaying anew the moment you realize night is falling just a tad bit sooner than it did last week. It’s the sun’s big tease: you enjoy all this daylight, do you? Don’t get used to it. Australia needs me too.
I’ve been thinking lately about this idea of things we love despite knowing they’ll all too soon be gone. (I’m great at parties. Having too much fun? Let’s discuss loss and misery!) I don’t actually relish thinking grim thoughts all the time, but I also have a hard time avoiding it. The trick is in the balance, something I strive for but don’t always achieve; more often there’s the face I show the public and the one I bash into my pillow at night when I can’t sleep for all the suckiness in the world. Sometimes, as happened recently, the two faces come perilously close to merging at the worst time.
So the daughter of our friends wanted to ask K if he knew of any volunteer opportunities for kids during the summer that involved working with animals. Unfortunately most such opportunities require volunteers to be at least high-school age, and she’s quite a bit younger than that. K suggested she might volunteer here, at our place, helping to care for our small menagerie. In truth we don’t have that many more “pets” than most rural people do, and the ones we have are not all that unusual; it’s just that K’s being a zoo vet makes our friends tend to ask questions like how big will the lemur habitat be and will the wombats get along with the capybara. At last count we had a half dozen chickens, two turtles, and two macaws. Up until a couple weeks ago, there was also a dog.
This seemed sufficiently intriguing for our friends’ daughter, so last weekend K and I showed her around and described her volunteer duties. I wasn’t sure how this would go; it was quite possible that any desire she had to pursue a career relating to animals would vanish once she started having to scoop poop and plunge her hand into a big bag of dried mealworms. That being the case, she might then turn her attention from K to me and focus on her career as a novelist. We’ve pretty much got the monopoly on cool jobs, as far as our friends’ kids are concerned, as many of them have expressed an interest in working with animals and nearly all of them, certainly all the girls, want to write novels. At least a couple wanted to combine the two areas and write novels about animals. At the moment, though, animals alone were front and center.
To her credit, she did not mind the yuckier aspects of animal care. She eagerly hunted for rotting pieces of wood that might be filled with tasty crawly things for the turtles. “I don’t care if I get my hands dirty,” she asserted, picking up a food dish caked with crud, “just as long as I can wash them later.”
Some of the activities we had lined up were not only unglamorous but decidedly dull, involving wrapping small pellets in scraps of paper to be hidden around the macaws’ room for them to seek out as foraging. Take a pellet, put it in the center of a square of paper, and twist the ends of the paper closed. Now do that another ninety-nine times. I probably wouldn’t have made her do this except her parents insisted she was there to volunteer, not to play, and as such she needed to be useful. She did offer to help us work on our fixer-upper, which would totally be useful, but that might be going a bit too far.
And it wasn’t all drudgery either. We had not yet managed to differentiate between our six hens, so one of her activities was to observe them and see if she could tell them apart, as well as to log their behaviors and get them used to being handled by people. This last item, I cautioned her, might take time; they were not at all aggressive and would not peck at her, but they were not used to being touched and so would likely be skittish at first. These tasks she took on with admirable persistence. She would crouch and slowly bring her hand toward a chicken, not getting discouraged if it darted away, simply waiting a bit and trying again.
I was impressed—and uneasy. It occurred to me that there was something a little dishonest in my instructions to her—or, worse, devious. The truth is that one of the reasons we needed them to get used to being handled was because one day they’d be too old to lay eggs anymore and at that point we would have to catch them in as non-stressful a way as possible, end their lives as humanely as we could, and eat them.
Maybe that sounds horrible to you, raising an animal like a pet only to kill and consume it. There’s plenty of justification: practically speaking, they are a potential source of food, and food should not be wasted, especially food that checks off all the ethical-and-local boxes. Far better to know where your food is coming from, and to know that when it was alive it had a good life, than otherwise. What’s more, if I felt just as horrified, I’d be a hypocrite. If I can’t deal with seeing one of our chickens killed (which would be K’s job) and then plucking and gutting and all that (which would be mine, since it’s probably way out of the bounds of what we could have a volunteer do)—if I can’t handle that, as any vegetarian would tell you, I shouldn’t eat animals at all. It would be so easy to dissociate, to say this is an animal and it’s alive; it has nothing to do with breaded and fried patties on a bun or grilled chopped morsels in a taco. But that’s a lie. These are animals and right now they’re alive, but they won’t be some day, and I’ll have to deal with it one way or another.
I wasn’t about to go into all that with a ten-year-old, however, and in truth, there was really only one thing I wanted to say to her as she ran a gentle hand over a feathered back: Don’t get attached. Don’t care for them too much. But that’s foolish advice, because no one would ever listen to it, ever. Many people would argue that no one should listen to it—would insist, instead, that we are supposed to get attached to things, desperately, and love them without reserve, even though doing so risks being absolutely destroyed when they’re gone. I don’t know that I agree completely, at least not right now. Right now, the pain of loss—because up until a couple weeks ago, there was a dog—is such that I wish I could take that advice and stick to it. Don’t get attached. Don’t care too much. Stay distant, reserved. Don’t put yourself in a position where you find yourself holding on to things that you can’t imagine being without—because one day you might be without them.
Of course I’m neither giving nor taking that advice, never have, probably never will. The days are getting shorter, but there’s still a little daylight left to enjoy.