We have been looking after sick animals for as long as I can remember. At one point in Weston - before we went to Portugal, so it must have been ‘83 or ‘84 - we found a seagull with a broken wing on the beach one evening as we were walking the dog. Jenny - the dog - was running around ‘chasing’ gulls, which really meant racing towards them at full tilt to make them scatter in a cloud of feathers and cawing. But this one gull didn’t move, and Jenny was clearly perplexed by the way it just sat there. We christened it Gertie and took it home, nursing it for several weeks. Gertie became like an exotic pet of sorts; we’d shut the dog inside the house and take it out into the garden, and let it potter around. As its wing healed, catching it to take it back indoors for the night became increasingly tricky. One evening it managed to hop over the wall onto the road, which was luckily quiet, and Les had to run after it trying to catch it before it got into trouble. Half way up the hill it managed to get airborne, and we were all sad but thrilled to see it go. I have a memory of the house opposite in the sunset, and a seagull stood on the chimney - my mother swore it was Gertie come to say good-bye.
After we came back from Portugal the was a dehydrated rook we looked after for a while, and lived in the outside toilet that we had. There was nothing else wrong with the fellow, but the summer had been unbearably hot, and the bird had clearly had a difficult time. To begin with it didn’t move around much when we went to in feed it, as it simply didn’t have the energy, but it soon built up strength and made it clear that it wanted its freedom.
And we acquired a kitten that was being tormented by some kids when my mother sent me out to take it off them, saying that it was ours. It turned out to be a real sweetie, and used to fall asleep in the hood of my dressing-gown. There’s a photo somewhere.
My mother acquired another cat when they saw a white thing motionless by the side of the road. On examination the found that the cat had got its head stuck in a tin can, which they pried off. Since then I’ve always crushed any empty tin cans…
But there's always a darker side.
Up in Cumbria, one of the cats went missing and I found her in the field next door, dead from rat poison, as far as we could tell.
And one evening I was out with a few friends - we were heading off to a pub to play pool or something - and the guys in the car in front hit a rabbit (or was it a hare?). I demanded we stop, and got out to look for the animal. Its back legs were broken, and a couple of us stood wondering what to do. The guys in the first car came back, joking about hitting a rabbit, until they saw how earnest I was becoming. Because by that point I was looking for the heaviest stone I could find…
I don’t know if that was the ‘right’ thing to do, just as I don’t know whether killing the nestling yesterday was the ‘right’ thing. I couldn’t leave either there to simply suffer and die slowly. I suppose I’m writing this now because of the doubt, although at the time I could see no other way out. But yesterday I knew that, if I did what I felt to be necessary, I would be haunted by that act for years to come, just as I can’t forget the evening of 15 years ago when I killed a rabbit with a stone. In the end, the best I can say is that even if I did the ‘wrong’ thing, I didn’t do it lightly.