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.

Empty Nest


The Robinia is still recovering from the storm. The edges of its fragile leaves are brown and bruised. It is not how it usually looks in summer. It is autumnal, bedraggled.

The Willy Wag tail nest is still there. Stoic and strongly harnessed to its branch. But it is empty. No longer do the busy little black and white birds make their way, back and forth, with bounty from the grass.

Where do Willy Wag tails go to grieve?


Mrs. W is in her seventies. She wears a polycotton blue and white floral print dress for her visit to the vet. It is a happy dress. Benny is her Jack Russell terrier with a long history of heart disease. We have battled his belly, which grows rigid and tight with oedemtaous fluid, but the belly has won. The skin is drawn tight over the gourd-like abdomen. She keeps a measure on the size of his belly with her dressmaking tape. Today it measures 60cm. I think of Elizabeth Taylor playing Scarlett O’Hara and her less than 20-inch waist.

I can tell by the quiver in her voice. The way she holds him into her chest, that she has come to say goodbye. The medication is no longer working. His heart sounds like a working washing machine. She tells me he is not eating and he looks at her as if to say, help me, I’ve had enough.

Is she anthropomorphising? Yes. No doubt. So what. He is her only close companion these days. He is human to her.

We decide that, yes, Benny has had enough and together we will be saying goodbye to him today.

I imagine her at home, before the visit, before she has rung for the appointment. She has had to build up to this. She has tried all the foods she is not supposed to feed him, to see if he will eat. Streaky bacon. She has doubled his diuretics. She has decided to ring and then waited another day. She has sat and watched him through the night. She has dialed the number and then hung up before the phone has answered. She has driven past with him in the car and even into the car park, but turned about again and gone home. He follows her around the house, into the bathroom. She sleeps with her hand on his chest, feeling it madly vibrate beneath her palm. She has prayed that he will drift off in his sleep. She wonders how big his abdomen can get. How much can one little dog belly hold? Can it pop like a overinflated balloon?

I sedate him, and while the medication takes effect, Mrs W tells me about her old mum who recently passed away. Her mum was in a coma for days, being given morphine and not able to communicate, but, before she died she opened her eyes and looked around. She saw her daughter there and then turned her head towards the window and in the light that beamed through her daughter was convinced that her mother saw someone waiting for her. She had a wonderful, not-often-seen, smile on her face. The daughter believed it was her brother – the boy who had died of peritonitis when he was a three-year-old infant. It gave her enormous comfort to think of her mother, who had grieved all her life for her son, as reuniting with him. She then went on to tell me the story of the boy’s illness and his death. She had been five years old. She had a memory of her mother dressing the child to take him to hospital on what would be his final visit. Before this, her memory was one of his seesawing illness and her anxious parents. She remembered her mother’s tears as she reassured the boy that he would be made well.  But the small boy cried that if he went to hospital he would never come back. She promised him that he would get better. And as I am expressing my sympathy for her dear old mum and how terrible it must have been for her to lose a child she tells me that yes it is unfathomable. She says it is 2 years, 4 months and 3 days ago that, at the age of thirty six, her daughter took her own life.

Benny is feeling the effects of his sedation. His head is lowered. We both touch him. Unison of strokes. She has his head cradled in her cupped hands. She will never be ready to let him go. Wrapped up in him now is all the loss in the world. She is weeping across him. She is weeping for her mother, her brother and her daughter. She is feeling an ever enlarging whole of empty pushing its way out through her chest. Fat droplets of tears are running across her face. Blue tissues turn wet and soggy in her hand.

Now she tells me about Benny. How he came to her from a home where the children teased him and he was never allowed inside. She said he didn’t know how to play when she got him. He only knew how to hide. She asked if it was her fault that his heart was the way it was.

I held her hand and we let Benny go.

We both wondered aloud, whom Benny was off to join in the light. She thought of a previous old dog, that Benny had known, one that knew how to fetch tennis balls. He would be waiting and ready to teach him to play.

Mrs. W goes home. She takes Benny’s collar and lead. They have his smell. The lead is impregnated with his white hair. She will pick them up and holding them will remember him. His tight bellied waddle following her about the house.

What will you be when you grow up?

I am contemplating this. I am still finding my own path. It seems I want to be many things. Story-teller, for one. Of course there are some dreams that I must simply accept are out of my reach. I don’t pine for them any longer. Acceptance is a good thing too. I will never be a dancer, a zoo vet or a stage actress. I no longer contemplate my curtain call bow or my darting of an elephant.

When I was six there was no bigger joy than the sight of a creature. Any creature, save a rodent. I was in love with my chocolate Dachshund. It started out skinny, smooth and wriggly. Sam was lithe and athletic. When he grew old he had foul teeth and dreadful skin. I now know it was probably Idiopathic Seborrhoea, for which there is no cure, but back then, as a teenager, I researched what I could, to find a remedy for the greasy flakiness that afflicted him, and which banned him from the good rooms of the house. “That dog smells,” and indeed he did. But somehow it did not bother me. I still hankered to have him sleep with me and play with him on my bed. Bathing was the only thing that worked, and so I did it religiously, fervently, determinedly. If I could have cured the dog through diligent shampooing I would have.

Despite his smelliness, which made most people push him away, I still wanted to be near him. I felt an incredible bond with this dog whom I’d been given as a six-year-old. He was mine. He was ill-behaved in so many ways. He was, to a right-minded dog owner, somewhat unlovable. He was ferocious, through his lack of socialisation with any other dogs. Walking him, I needed to be on my guard, because if he spotted another canine he went berserk, straining at the leash and threatening to attack. He once fought a Rough coated Collie; hidden beneath the flowing Lassie coat of the large dog he hung on, till they could be prised apart. This was to be one of his last casual saunters around the block.

My parents solution to the problem was that I shouldn’t walk him, and so he became a yard dog, confined to his quarter acre and the rear of the house. He noisily patrolled his fence line and it was a brave or careless intruder to venture beyond the side gate. He could bite. And still, I loved him.

My love for him was the seed. It morphed into veterinary science where the love of dogs becomes worn down and whittles away. For day in day out the love of dogs is tested by unruly, boisterous beings. They are deformed and inbred. They are badly trained or not at all. They are child substitutes or are, in fact, human. They are scared witless or fearful enough to bite. They are held down, and they piss and poop on you, petrified. They are noisy and smelly and, of course, sick, and sometimes dying. Sick dogs come with stressed owners. Owners who want answers, like people do when their cars have broken down. A new battery?

But despite all this, I cannot be without a dog. I need to commune with another species to be at peace. I need his soulful head to come to rest on my body. I need his eyes. What is it that being close to another species gives us as humans? It is, surely, incalculable, the way we are nourished by their presence. It is too magical to be able to be measured. Does it happen on a cellular level?

Because I am thinking of more study in veterinary science, it makes me question what my path is. I want to keep learning but am fearful of being mediocre, of just scraping through. Not trying might be the surest way not to fail. But still I have enrolled, because it is something I keep coming back to. The love. I am sure it is corny and inanely wet, to go on like this. I can feel the finger-in-the-mouth-nausea rising in the vets who will read this. Get over it. You are not six anymore. Still wanting to cuddle and hold?  That’s your motivation? Yes. I just like to be around animals. Especially ones not sick. I like to watch healthy dogs eat at the rate of knots. I like to watch fit dogs run and cavort. I like to watch tired dogs (and dogs not tired at all) sleep. I like to watch dogs dream of chasing cats or baling up the postman.

And then I want to write about what it is like to feel the dog’s coat beneath your fingertips. I want to write about watching the dog that’s been a companion for years die, as a viscous green liquid is injected into his vein. Nora Ephron, screen writer and director, said that every house where teenagers reside needs a dog, so at least there was one being pleased to see you when you came home. Greeting is what they have perfected. Joy too. Random silliness. We all need, yearn for that unrestrained love. Given so freely, truly with no strings attached (except, let’s be realistic; maybe feed me, walk me, pay my vet bills).

And then I think of Jasper and how his future might unfold. I keep a look out for him, at what he likes to do now, knowing that a seed might be trying to find its earth. His soil is teaming with life it seems. One day a soccer star, the next an AFL legend, a Wimbledon finalist. The next he is writing stories of an evil meat lover’s Pizza slice, AKA Mr. Pizza, and a humongous battle between chef and inanimate food. He is a master of the sound effects of explosions and gun-fire of all kinds. He is drawing cartoons of skate boarders taking to the skies. He hates dinner table talk of vomiting and diarrhoea, or any procedures of any kind on animals. He has an intense and burning love for his own dog, but he’s not moved to cuddle all things covered in fur. Rightly, he seems to know that loving his own dog does not necessarily destine him to veterinary science. He abides school, only just. If anything he appears to be a story-teller and so that could take many forms. But perhaps that’s what we all are, just trying to find the tale in which to tell our story…


Interspecies Love

I love my dog. Really. But I ask a lot of him for his species. We unfairly expect dogs to understand our intentions when our method of communicating is so different from theirs. I ask that he accept my adoring eye contact. I often hug him. I cuddle him as if he is a baby. These are not things that dogs, in general, as a species, appreciate. I talk to him like he can understand language; nuanced and particular. We show our teeth when we are happy, the exact opposite of what they do.

For a dog eye contact can be threatening. Between dogs, direct staring can be an invitation to fight. So look away from a dog that is feeling uncomfortable in your presence. Dogs prefer to greet one another side on, and sniff out each other’s rear ends. A dog that barges, head first into another’s space, is asking for trouble. Rude begets rude.

A wagging tail has been taught to children to signal a happy dog. But really a wagging tail is merely an invitation to engage. You need to assess the type of wag. The only truly safe wag is the windmill, whole bum wag; the one where the dog might be attempting to hula hoop, if he knew what such a thing was. The stiff tip wag of the upright tail can mean a fight is on its way. Beware the dog that approaches, ears forward, with the tail erect, like it has been stiffened by wire.

A teddy bear face invites the human to grasp the dog by the cheeks and bring it in close. Kiss it even. Our dog has grown up with our very forward advances. He has been well-socialised to endure the human embrace. What concessions does he make to his own comfort to accommodate our need to smother?

But children don’t often see such teddy bear-faced dogs as from another species. To them they are just like us, but fur-coated and made for canoodling. No one has taught them to stand back and see if the dog comes to them. Instead they rush up, arms flapping, squealing like prey and heading for the face. They fling arms around shoulders and over heads. Pat pat pat. No wonder so many are bitten. It is surprising that more are not. Just as we teach children at school the dangers of strangers and how to cross the road, perhaps we need to instruct on how to approach, or rather how not to approach, a species we have so surrounded ourselves with. I suspect that there is more likelihood of danger from a tethered dog than the chance of abduction from a stranger and yet we seem to let our children go on blissfully unaware of how to safely greet and engage with dogs. Instead we expect our canines to know our intentions are innocent and just submit to our embrace. We have unfairly asked so much of them….

A Youtube clip of a cat and Boston terrier – interspecies love

Will We Survive?

from sea breezeAs Perth suffers a record heat wave we hunker in our stone cottage. The sun is beating down on its walls and its tin roof would most definitely fry an egg. In the morning, before it has reached 35, we go to the dog beach. All shapes run up and down the black sand track that is the the wet shore line. Some have ridiculously short legs so their chests make contact with sand. Others have long slender stiletto legs, tiptoeing through the foam. The ocean is delicious. Salty and cool. We stay in till we have chilled right through. A bikini clad woman, rakishly thin but with fake bososms like soft balls, walks up and down the beach.

Then back home to a dark house. The blinds are down and all the rooms darkened the way my mother taught me to. Graham has hung a shade cloth out the back and even covered the east facing lounge window with a blue beach towel to stop the assault of the morning sun. But when the nights offer no relief it is hard to keep the house cool. Slowly the thermometer climbs so that indoors, at its worse, it is 32 degrees. Overhead fans stay on day and night. No cooking can be done. Even boiling the kettle seems foolish. I sit in a wet shirt by the fan.

The dog knows the coolest spot in the house; choosing to lie in the hallway on the jarrah boards. He barely moves all day.

It is Australia Day and people in other parts of the country are having outdoor BBQs and picnics. But Perth people are hiding in doors, out of the sun, if they have any sense. Some drunks persist under the heavy shade of the peppermints on the park, their beer as hot and yellow as horse piss.

The tennis and the cricket are on. Sharapova is making her characteristic high pitched I’m-having-an-orgasm wooooh as she hits each ball. Unbearable. Back to the cricket.

We are once again contemplating air conditioning. We had it when Jasper was a baby and I was seriously addicted. It made the heat outside so much worse. I became trapped in the range of my air conditioner. Unable to leave its side. I might as well have been tethered to it. Since it died a few years ago it is just an ugly non functional thing on the wall. A reminder of the once refrigerated air that flowed from it. It’s motor outside is the base from which wasps have built a nest.

So we hold off. We want to be able to go without. We want to do our bit to conserve energy. There is always the movies where I know I will be cold, be forced to slide on the cardigan I have brought with me for just this chilly feeling.


Poor Poodles

A poodle faces its owner, squinting. She sprays its hairdo which stands a foot-tall upon its head – stiff like whipped meringue. How must the hound feel about the assault of fumes when it owns such a clever and distinguishing nose? For a creature whose world is made up of all it smells it must be an anathema. No wonder others are barking at it, with its pompom bracelets and its heavily cushioned hips. Some say the poodle clip has its origins in shedding water from the coat, as well as keeping the joints and chest warm while out retrieving water fowl, but one wonders how much river water these poodles see. Likely the only water is luke warm in a tub from a soft shower rose in a tiled bathroom.

Then the highly coiffured poodles with their continental clips take to the ring to prance around with proud owners. A man in a grey suit strides out, as exuberant and purposeful as the poodle he leads. He is intent on his poodle’s movements, taking his eyes off where he is going, watching his dog, and so catches his foot on a protruding wheel of a table. He tumbles head over heel, dragging his dog down with him. Like a sponge ball the poodle rolls and bounces, a powder-puff of white. On his feet as quickly as he was down, the man continues on around the ring and at the end of the display scoops the large dog into his arms and carries it, like a cradled child, to a table to be examined. He runs his hands over it, like a man reading braille.

Drug Deals

Drug deals go on outside our house on the park by the community pool’s fence. It is out in the open really. It is not clandestine. The guys wear baseball caps; one even has it backwards. They have the requisite baggy pants, the crutch of which is around the knees. Like babies whose nappies are sodden and heavy, they walk with an awkward swagger.  It is sunny and clear and the air has a fresh washed-down smell to it. Or no smell. No sheep ship.

Lately the local paper has complained of the drug’s trade escalation and some locals have died due to the high purity of the stuff on the streets. I am reticent to let Jasper take the lane way home after tennis, in case he comes across a drug deal. It used to be the homeless and the drunken who made us take the long way. Now it is the pushers with the puffy shoes and the oversized trousers. Yesterday hail came down and shred the Golden Robinia of its spring leaves, peppering the footpath with yellow.

It is time for school pick up so I drive to the school near the ocean. I take the dog so he can exercise his nose. Three foot high cliffs of sea weed border the shore. Winter storms have dumped it here, to stagnate and smell. To dogs it is heaven sent. And perhaps heaven-scented. The waves carve out caverns making shipwrecked hulls of the grey mounds. Bees are busy about the dunes, their legs bulging with the burden of Yellow Dandelions.

Four Chinese girls sit on the kerbside by the beach. One hands the others a Kleenex baby wipe each to rid their feet of the soft white beach sand that you or I would neither notice or care about.

We return home and the drug dealer’s oval is awash with after school sport. Criss crossing it are high school students and a pair stop midway to kiss. They stand facing one another and she puts her hands on his shoulders as if to steady herself and to secure him to the spot. The pony-tailed girl is a couple of inches taller than the boy. He breaks off the kiss. He spins her around by yanking on her rucksack and they collapse together on the grass. She leans over him to kiss him again. Look Mum sex on the oval, says Jasper.

about sniffing from “Inside of a Dog” by Alexandra Horowitz

“Given our tendency to find so many smells disgusting, we should all celebrate that our olfactory system adapts to an odor in the environment: over time if we stay in one place, the intensity of every smell diminishes until we don’t notice it  at all. The first smell of coffee brewing in the morning: fantastic …and gone in a few minutes. The first smell of something rotting under the porch: nauseating… and gone in a few minutes. The sniffing method of dogs enables them to avoid habituation to the olfactory topography of the world: they are continually refreshing the scent in their nose, as though shifting their gaze to get another look.”

It has been estimated that a Beagle’s sense of smell may be millions of times more sensitive than ours.

“We might notice if our coffee’s been sweetened with a teaspoon of sugar: a dog can detect a teaspoon of sugar diluted in a million gallons of water: two Olympic sized pools full.”