from John WS Bradshaw
from John WS Bradshaw

So I am three days into the reading of Module 1.

I am freaked out by the mention of the Drosophila fly in a paper on Behavioural Genetics. I had hoped to go to my grave never seeing that word in print once more. I am taken right back to those Genetics lectures given by Professor Bradley. You know; the steep lecture theatre beside Bush Court, where half closing your eyes and navigating the steps gives you vertigo. Where swivelling desks are the bane of the left-handed. He, like a swollen bumble bee, buzzing behind the lectern, us, up the back behind our hands, giggling, not paying attention, as usual. Mesmerised and dulled by the tone of his voice, we drift off. What is it about lecture theatres that makes sleep so inevitable? We are studying vet science. We are in third year, trying our best to scrape by. Third year – where study becomes mud that must be waded through. We are eager to get our hands on scalpels. Search out ovaries through a cow’s rectal wall. What do we want to know about fruit flies?

There are words here that are vaguely familiar.

Alleles, genotype, heterozygous, homozygous, hybridisation, phenotype, pleiotropy… Who are you kidding? Did you ever know their definitions? Not knowing their precise meaning gives them even more power to alarm. If it were poetry perhaps they could be beautiful. Instead they vibrate with science. I need to look them up and add them to the glossary. To the dictionary then. The maroon-covered Merck Veterinary Dictionary. These words are now taking up space inside my brain. They jostle for position. I ache for more diagrams, more visuals, even the words could be prettier. The stories. Where are the stories? Surely genetics is the best narrative of all. And then comes the story of the cat. During medieval times she is considered cursed and the companion of witches. Seen in the street at night it was best to kill her or maim her, knowing she was likely to be a witch in disguise.

What I learn; the cat is genetically more resistant than the dog to large variations in shape and size. Its manipulation has been less malleable. They have been domesticated for a shorter period, but even with more time, they seem unlikely to become as varied a species as Canis familiaris. It is as if they have kept a bit of themselves secret from us. Always a little bit wild. When the pupil of a cat is fully open she has nocturnal vision equal to that of a bat or a badger. To think that Chinese peasants used the size of a cat’s pupil to tell the time. I look at a diagram of the cat’s superior collicus in its mid brain – an area that processes and integrates sensory information. It is all about its face and fore paws. The fact that you’ve known since childhood that a cat uses her whiskers like eyes and that her paws are stealth weapons. Some things are easy to learn. You see them.

Some things; like the fact that sled dogs always keep one foot on the ground and that that foot happens to be a sweat-free foot, selected for through breeding the best sled dogs, since it is less likely to collect ice as the dog runs, just stay with me. And that dogs who have single or double flights in their gaits, like greyhounds, would be unable to pull a sled, and instead would be struck off-balance, as all four feet leave the ground when they run. And to be a good sled dog you need to be able to poop and pee and run all at the same time. These things stick in my brain.

Some things; like the fact that in domesticating the dog we have designed a creature that needs us and depends on us and wants our company. Like a plasticine model we have pushed it into whatever shape we have desired. We have selected it for tameness (a reduction in flight distance) and in doing so we have reduced its brain size, changed the shape of its face and ears and tail, increased its vocalisation, made its sexual cycles shorter and kept it in a permanent juvenile state. Even the skulls of the largest dogs are no bigger than that of a four-month-old wolf. When we have issues with our dogs it is often a misinterpretation of the qualities we have designed them for. For instance the Border Collie who chases cars, the Blue Heeler who bites the ankles of children, the terrier who digs up the rose beds and the dog who pines for his master while he is away from home. We have asked Lassie for loyalty and boy have we got it.

Conference Hotel

I wait for the lift. Already sensing it is one of those hotels where lifts move as if in slow motion. You hear it reaching the floor, shuddering in its shaft. You wait for it to stop completely before it opens its silver mouth. Like a yawn. It wouldn’t really matter except that there is a man coming towards me, unsteadily. For him the ground is heaving. He asks me, “Where is the bucket room?” He asks other people as they leave the lift. I pretend I can’t see or smell him. Like dealing with a dog I don’t trust. No eye contact. Never works for drunken people though. He has an empty glass in his hand. Is he looking for ice, or somewhere to vomit?

I enter the lift with a woman and say, “He’s wasted.” Like I am an expert, or I just need to say something to show her I am not with him, that I don’t approve. “Yeah,” she says but not with judgement or condemnation. Just resignation that this is what it’s like around here. Doesn’t bother her in the least.

Everyone here is a little bit on the edge. Like they can’t quite afford the shabby hotel that is definitely overpriced. Like they have to pack in as much drinking before the sun rises. An islander guy with thick muscular calves and a tattoo creeping up his neck asks the receptionist what time she finishes. He wants her number so he can text her and get her to join them after. “Maybe we can hook up.” She gives him a slip of paper and I wonder if she has really written her number down. Is this the way people meet these days?  This Hooking Up business doesn’t sound warm and fuzzy. The opposite of slow. It’s metallic, sharp, easily detached, easily addicted, locked onto too.

I go to breakfast at the dining room. There is a buffet under lamps. The food is shining. All you can eat. Breakfast included. They ask me for my room number. Am I with the poultry symposium? No Behaviour. Animal Behaviour.  But in my head, “What I really like is watching people.” A table of four poultry men in pressed slacks talk about the industry, production numbers, layers, meat birds while I crunch on cornflakes. Someone mentions a troubled teenager but then its back to feed rations and vitamin supplementation. Standing after breakfast, hands smooth down slacks, wipe away toast crumbs. Folders under arms.  Back in front of the buffet a woman says, “it’s good isn’t it?” I smile one of those I don’t think so smiles and she looks back at me disappointed, looking for collusion over stale Danishes. But I can’t stomach silver bainmarie trays of fatty bacon and congealed scrambled egg. Sad rockmelon and even sadder watermelon slices.

It is not a five minute stroll through the gardens of Sydney University, as advertised in the hotel brochure. Being in a wheelchair it was never going to be. It was further, and the terrain typical Sydney – foot high kerbs, for all that rain, and slab foot paths lifted and cracked by tree roots protesting their life beneath the dirt. I am anxious, not knowing the way, and forever fearful at coming across an insurmountable kerb. Perhaps I will have to take to the street with its roaring buses? But for now I am on the footpath, Parrammatta Road beside me, like a fast flowing, thundering river of rubber and diesel. Down hill for a bit, I overtake a man walking briskly with a briefcase. I think being in front of him is good as the road begins an incline. If something impossible is around the next bend then he will be behind me to offer assistance. I rehearse the asking of it as I hear his footsteps and then I am over taken.

Now in the grounds of the University I can slow down, veer onto the road if I must, since cars drive slow within the gates. There are hills to climb. It is humid. I will arrive sweaty.

At the Law Building, where the conference will be held, there are steps, but I trust it is an accessible building, since I have checked repeatedly, and I have been told it is.  An organiser sees me and rushes over to show me the way. Back around, and down this lift, and up this ramp. The lecture theatre is very large and very steep but there are a couple of wheelchair spots at the back that have no seats but  still have little lonesome swing desks, canopying the carpet. The lecturer wants everyone to move to the front and waits for them to oblige. “So we don’t have to strain our necks. You can’t believe how difficult it is to lecture to the back,” she says. So I am left all alone in the final row, like a stubborn child.

On my phone I get a text message from Graham saying Mum has had a period of unconsciousness. It lasted for fifteen minutes, but she is talking and “back” now. Meanwhile the American expert is talking about feeding dogs pate to stop them fretting over storm noise in Florida. “That’s all it takes sometimes,” she says “Black Forest Ham.” And I see pens scribbling.  Anxiety issues in dogs. Solution Black Forest Ham. She solves everything with food treats and Prozac. She thinks Cesar Milan is an abuser of dogs. She is too polite, too American, to swear at the mention of him, but clearly she hates the man. American Behaviourists Most Wanted.

As the conference rolls on, panini after panini, mini eclair after mini eclair, lecturer after lecturer, my respect and indeed my love for Cesar and his methods is eroded by the experts. It’s like discovering the scout master is a paedophile.  They call Cesar’s technique flooding and it is never a good idea.

Out of the lecture theatre I can get away from the icy grip of the air conditioner and suck in the warm moist air of Sydney.  I can see another text.  Mother is fine. Parrots busy themselves at the destruction of nearby trees. A couple of vets have come outdoors to smoke. They hide themselves off in corners, down steps. I wonder if they too lament the loss of love for Cesar.

You can gauge how shabby a hotel is from its corridors and from the walls in its corridors. These corridors are musty and grimy. My nostrils detect the sour odour of vomit. The walls are scratched and stained – how do you spill a drink, or anything, ten feet up a wall, I wonder, as I view something brown near the ceiling? The air smells of smoke despite the rules. No pictures hang. Perhaps they would get nicked.

Late at night noise drifts up from the pool below. I have my window open to avoid using the air conditioner that ends up making the room too cold. I can hear laughing. At night the sounds of people partying by the pool echoes and throbs. Perhaps the bucket man has found some shoeless friends.  At the window I see planes crossing a darkening sky. I can see a tower block of apartments and real lives going on within them. Not just Hotel lives of making a cup of tea and watching TV from your bed. With curtains and blinds open, and lights coming on, the filmic people move about, making dinner, reading the paper, packing a school bag. I wait and watch. Wishing to see an argument, a thrown saucepan lid. Something.