Nowadays, many young couples prefer, initially, to get a pet instead of having a baby, in the belief that any involvement with them can be a preparation for bringing up a child in the future. Also, people find it important for children to have the company of at least one pet, as they are supposed not only to give fun, but also offer several developmental benefits. My four sisters and myself were not deprived of those benefits in our childhood; we certainly can’t claim to be short of experience with pets. We lived in a quiet town, in the countryside of the State of Sao Paulo in Brazil, in a big house with a huge walled garden. My parents are now in advanced age, whilst we, the five daughters, have all moved. Nowadays I am in England, as I married an Englishman, but along with my sisters, we have been keeping close contact with our parents through telephone and regular visits.
My dad loved birds and ever since I can remember he had a huge quantity of caged birds (sorry, bird lovers, but they were and still are in cages). In that environment, my happiness when I was around five years old came not only through my toys, but also the 12 tortoises in our garden; I used to feed all of them with many of the tropical fruits that grew there such as oranges, guavas, Barbados cherry (acerola), Brazilian grapes (jabuticaba), persimmon fruits, sugar apple, passion fruit, mango, bananas, figs, limes and red grapes.
Although I attended a normal state school, making friends was never one of my priorities in life, so I enjoyed the company of those pets, especially when my younger sister and myself received two white fluffy rabbits. Hers had a red collar and mine had a blue one. As we used to feed them every day with carrots and lettuce (also from the garden) and we became very responsible and serious about their upbringing, which created in us a sense of discipline. But after some months, those rabbits mysteriously disappeared; first my sister’s and after that, mine. Perhaps my parents didn’t want them anymore…
Some time went by and my dad started buying cockerels and some hens, totalling more than 50 chickens, all of them loose in our garden. I was about six years old when the fierce cockerels arrived and I was terrified by their wings and movements towards me. As I panicked every time I had to go into the garden, having developed a phobia of wings and my father decided to lock all the cockerels in big cages. Therefore, we had a whole wall covered in locked cages, everything in the open air.
My dislike of wings didn’t stop me helping my parents when my father decided to invest further in his birds after giving up completely on cockerels. In those days, he built three rooms in our garden, each one with cages from top to bottom on all walls, plus bigger cages on the floor. Additionally, he also had three more big cages in the open air, for his budgerigars and cockatiels. I am not exaggerating when I say that probably he had about 600 birds in our garden, even though I don’t have the pictures to prove it. But I remember waking up early in the morning, still in my pyjamas and going with my parents and sisters to feed the birds, which used to make me feel necessary and important. For obvious reasons, we never had cats.
One morning, my mother went alone to feed the birds, when she saw the outdoor sand moving. It was a place where there was strong sunshine all day long. To her wonderful surprise, three baby tortoises were coming out from their eggs. So, she dug in the sand aiming to help more babies to emerge, finding two more eggs totally spoiled. Can you imagine the excitement for us children, to have those baby tortoises being born in our garden? So, I started to carry with me my doll in my arms and the babies in my pockets, without imagining that one day I would be encouraging my shy English children to touch those animals when we visit parks in Brazil: “Come on, darlings, you can cuddle them: they are completely harmless.”
Shortly after, my father reduced the number of birds to only one room, since he had found a new furry entertainment – dogs. He built a big kennel in our garden, with four rooms and an appropriate kitchen. There were a string of different dogs there, including Boxers, Dobermans, Airedales, Fox Terriers (straight and curly haired) and later on, Rottweilers and even a harlequin Great Dane. I was about eight years old in those days and so I had a lot of fun playing with them, more often than not giving them some of my sweet biscuits and cakes. Needless to say they loved all of us, even when we had 33 dogs at once, whose names we couldn’t possibly learn. As that place was big enough, there was no need to take our pedigree dogs for a walk elsewhere.
Along with the dogs, we once received a present from neighbours who were moving to a distant town: a parrot, called Loro. He was the cutest bird I had ever seen, having the colours of the Brazilian flag, in green, yellow and blue. Knowing us by our names and pronouncing them like a child, he succeeded in changing my opinion about wings; I loved him. The name he most screamed was my mother’s, especially when he was hungry; “Loro wants cake.” By sharing cakes and coffee, he became like a family member. Things used to get funnier when I asked him permission to scratch his “head lice”; he nodded his head, trusting me entirely and I didn’t only make cuddles on his head, actually on his whole back.
Our pets gave us infinite hours of outdoor play, mainly our favourite ones; the dogs, but the one that most marked our lives wasn’t a pedigree one. He was a stray dog coming from the streets, with a red collar, so hungry and thirsty that he melted my mother’s heart from the beginning (not a difficult achievement). So, thinking he was a puppy, she gave him some milk in a saucer for the first three days of turning up on our door step and as he started to wag his tail every time he spotted her, she said to him: “If you want to stay here, that’s okay with us.” Without waiting for a second invitation, he quickly jumped inside our house.
We waited for three months, keeping his collar on, in case an angry owner would turn up and scream that we had stolen his pooch, but nobody claimed him, so we decided that the ‘adoption process’ was done, we just didn’t know in which order that adoption had taken place; who had adopted whom? Anyway, we took him to a vet, as he clearly had a skin disease, causing him some itching problems. At the vet’s, we found out his true age; he was about two years old, so he was no puppy. We treated him for that disease and he showed us he also belonged to the streets, as he used to go off for a whole week at a time, always coming back. In Brazil, many abandoned dogs find their food inside the litter bins on the roads, so our recently adopted dog was popularly known as being a “litter scavenger”. But one day he presented symptoms of distemper, which can be a killer for dogs.
Back again to the vet, she asked us if he had been vaccinated and we guessed that probably not. She said as well: ” Your dog may be very peaceful, but in my opinion he is finished.” Her prescription for medicines was long and very expensive, but my mother gave us the money for the chemist and we spent nearly £300 on medicines, for a dog whose value was under £100. How my father complained about the “waste of money”… but in the long run, it was one of his best investments in life; the dog got better and lived with us for 20 more years. So, we gave him the name ‘Highlander’, after the film released in 1986, as he seemed to be immortal after also surviving one assault and one shooting (everybody has enemies).
In the beginning of 2004, my family was following a Brazilian tradition for the New Year, giving some change to all the children who knocked at our door to wish us Seasons Greetings. So, as our gate was opened for the children in the first hours of that year, our Highlander disappeared in the darkness and was never found. He was 22 years old, completely blind and had a new skin problem. The vet had suggested us to put him down, which we had refused categorically.
My father could afford that huge garden full of fruit trees and amazing number of pets, as he also could afford maids to help us. One of them not only helped with the pets, she actually brought us up like a second mother, having worked for my parents for nearly 50 years. She is now 93 years old and as having had a strong presence in our childhood, these days we visit her regularly in a nursing home. It is not my intention to dismiss my mother’s huge support and help through all those years. In fact, without her, nothing could have been possible; she has a unique inner beauty, full of infinite patience, tolerance and understanding, while being delicate like a crystal. She never complained about all the hard work that that the “astonishing number of pets” naturally brought. On the contrary, she was there every day, feeding them, cleaning the place and mainly standing by my father.
I’ve never had a pet since I left my parents’ home for university when I was 17 years old. I think I’d just had enough, except for a fish tank that my husband and I got three years ago for our children here in England, giving them some fun when lighting the tank and feeding the fishes. They are having a very different childhood from mine, as they were born in Internet times, but the spirit of a child is the same for everybody. They say very often they want to go to Brazil and I ask: “What for?” Their answer: “To play in Grandma’s garden.”
The guavas, persimmon and sugar apples trees have gone. Some of the animals that I used to play and laugh a lot with are no longer allowed in our homes by the Brazilian Law, which is a shame. Nowadays, our garden is covered with perpetually blooming Australian trees, known in Brazil as being “the hummingbird tree”. Needless to say our new visitors are currently those little birds, that come there every day and seem never to get tired of kissing the flower trees. All the times I go there, I enjoy watching them (somehow, from an active tree climber in my childhood I became like a passive bird watcher in my middle age), as they give me inner peace. Our Highlander has never come back, but as we know he is an immortal, maybe one day he may turn up on our doorstep again. Not that I want to put words into other people’s mouths, but I easily can guess what my mother would say to him: “Our lives have changed completely. Now my husband is very sick and I am his full time nurse. However, if you want to stay here, that’s okay with us.”
My husband and I often joke about the day our kids are going to leave us to set out on their own path in this world. When that day comes, we would rather get a dog instead of looking for human warmth. It has been proved that the act of stroking a dog can calm one’s breathing down and taking pets into care homes can provide positive results, as they improve moods and depression. Besides, later in life dog-owners were found to be up to a decade younger fitness-wise than people who don’t own one.
Giving our wonderful pets plenty of tender care contributed to making me the person I am now. Even though I could never learn from them the necessary malice to face this untrustworthy world, I learned from our four-legged friends a life lesson every time I used to come back home from school feeling upset for not having performed in a test in the way I wanted. Regardless of my bad mood, the dogs were always there, wagging their tails for me and in doing so, they taught me that even when a friend fails us, it doesn’t mean we can’t do our best for that friend. We constantly had their unconditional love in a garden where it was always summer and nowadays, although so far from that place, the past joys and benefits of our pets’ company are still making summer in my heart.