Children and animals and how they lived happily ever after

BY MITALI PAREKH

pets and kids

All creatures wise and wonderful

I was asked a question recently that I didn’t know how to answer. We were discussing my other profession; I am also a canine behaviourist. “So you don’t believe that animals are animals and they will attack you without reason?,” said the lady at Yoga class. “How do you teach them when they don’t know you. Don’t they bite ?”

The only thing I could stutter was, “Your child doesn’t know her teachers when she first goes to school, but they manage to teach her over time, don’t they? We are animals too, and like us, they respond within a framework to stimulus.”

It was a dry answer. I might as well have tried to explain time through colours.

I am childless by choice; I don’t believe all my children need to come out of my uterus or within my specie. It is not an adventure I am compelled to go on, but it’s a destination I visit often. Not in a 2-hour a week way, but a three-day Mimi (toddler-speak for Maami, or aunt)  bonanza featuring bathing, feeding, poop-cleaning, bed-time and once, a vaccination trip with song and dance.

My pay-off for this specialised child-care? I will introduce your child to safe animals. I say safe, because if the animal (cat, dog, pig, and goat) is not used to the high-pitched sounds and jerky movements made by a child, it may react out of fear, scarring the child forever.

I do this more for the animals than the children. I don’t need to galvanise a new generation of animal lovers. I wish for a supplementary army of the future, that may not want to cuddle a pig, but recognises it as a living being with a need for space, respect, food and the ecosystem. I want the children to see how much work living with an animal is so that they don’t bring one home and then abandon it when it nips them while teething. And that’s why when friends with children suggest meeting up, I suggest dog parks (Powai), restaurants with dogs (Gostana), farms with inter-specie harmony (Japalouppe Equesterian Centre) or my home with two cats (Sister and Kranti).

A child born without a natural affinity towards animals, might learn to respect them, after frequent exposure. A child without affinity and exposure, may not cultivate empathy — and will order the watchman to put the puppies or kittens born in the building into a gunny bag and into a creek. (S)he will believe animals are unpredictable, violent beings and not familiars, friends and children whom we can communicate with.

As a childless person, I can be smug in these theories. And it is what I bring to the table as a member of the village that raises the child. We live in isolated nuclear families and I am grateful that instead of each of us getting a child of our own, some of us are sharing theirs. And as proxy moms, we are trusted to impart our set of values too.

My three-year-old niece is not naturally drawn to all animals, but she is fascinated by The Girls (my cats). In her interaction with them, she is able to work out her fears and hesitations by externalisation — she explains to Kranti why she must take medicine or face injections. She was exposed to the idea of surgery when they were spayed. She loves to reverse roles and tell them to finish their food, to feed them and tell them they are being naughty.

of pets and kids

Kranti and Sister


When I interrupt our playtime to go train a dog, I tell her I am going to teach a puppy to be polite, so that (s)he grows up to be a good girl or boy like her. I am hinting that she does not command all of my time and attention. I think it does a child good to know that they are not the most important thing in a supplementary adult’s life. That love and duty can (and must) extend beyond family, species and bloodline.

K now has a sense of responsibility towards The Girls — she’ll officiously say that *she* must come with me to Pune to take care of them. She tries to kiss them and when she can’t, will ask me to do so. She’ll subject Kranti to a medical examination with the stethoscope and give her an injection the thigh. She teaches her parents how to approach The Girls. “Don’t be afraid,” she told her father, “She won’t do aneeee theeeng. Juss do two-finger touch on her head and back. Not her stomach. She doesn’t like it.”

She is understanding personalities and individual need for space. That Sister (my older cat, named by K) likes to be left alone. That Mischka, a brattish labrador, doesn’t like to share toys. That it’s scary to have a face in your face (she stares at the cats a little too closely). These are lessons she would learn from siblings and playmates, but she is learning that they apply to animals too.

And she has tasted loss. July (again, named by K) our tom cat, walked away in February. She would greet him with, “Hiiiiii my sweetheart.” or “Hiiiii mah sweetu dahling.” She still asks, “Mimi, where’s July?” and I have to tell her he went for a walk and hasn’t come back. The answer doesn’t  bother her on the surface, but her workings are subterranean and I don’t know how this has affected her.

Instead of zoos and tonga rides where she would meet exploited animals in artificial settings, we set up opportunities for her to see them in their element. She has seen Zohra the Rottweiler mother, Floyd the goat (her favourite animal on the farm) and Odin the horse take a dust bath.

We now pretend to be horses; I am Odin and she’s Benji (the pony she rode once at Japalouppe) and we take dust baths together on fresh sheets. Sometimes I, Mini the pig, snort at her; she’s a white kitty who will meow at me and ask for a scratch behind the ear or say petulantly when I leave for Pune, “But, you have to take care of this kitty, mimi.”

I recently introduced her to our neighbourhood vagrant Ghanshyam. “He reminds me of a handsome prince,” she said. If she sees a Disney prince in a big boned Labrador caked in muck, my work is done.

About the author:

Mitali Parekh is an editorial mercenary who lives in Mumbai and Pune (but mostly in your animal’s heart). Apart from writing a weekly column Pet Puja for Mumbai and Pune Mirror, she is also a canine behaviourist and a street fashion goddess.

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Review: The Boy Who Drew Cats

The boy who drew catsIn the last two years, Re has been through a rainbow drawing phase and then a castle drawing phase and a butterfly drawing phase and is currently stuck at a ball-gown drawing phase, no less. In each of these phases, I saw a rather unhealthy obsession with getting the details right and repeating the process as if on loop. So when a book called The Boy Who Drew Cats landed on my lap, I realised the timing couldn’t have been better.

Published by Karadi Tales (Price Rs 150), this is a delightful little story retold from the Japanese by Anushka Ravishankar and intricately illustrated with watercolors and ink on rice paper by Christine Kastl.

It had me at cat. For those who know me, you know my obsession with cats and their absolute grace and felicity. I could have been Akiro, the boy in the story who loves drawing cats, except I suck at drawing and would take even less chances with a creature I am in awe of. But I can so foresee Re doing it.

Akiro is a little boy who draws cats. Okay, let me correct that. He draws only cats. On mud, in his rice, on rice-paper, on any surface he can gain access to. His aim is to find the perfect cat, which us cat people know does not exist, but Akiro’s parents don’t and they are worried for him. They send him off to become a priest, but Akiro spends all his time drawing cats on the temple wall. The rest of the story is about his fascinating journey through the world, with his cat drawings as constant companions and how he eventually becomes rich and famous drawing cats all over the world.

If you are a cat person, buy two. If not, buy one and gift it to a cat person.

 

 

To Nadia, with love

Nadia died on the morning of 3rd December 2013.

She was not my first pet. But for the first time, I am going to allow myself to grieve openly about a pet, because I think I owe it to her. We have all grown up on various notions of how stoicism is the way to go when we are bereaved, and how we must not allow ourselves to break down each time love scars us. Time heals everything, we were told.

For as long as I can remember, cats had always been a part of our life, although we had seldom officially ‘adopted’ them. They had given birth on our feet, in our cupboards and balconies, they have nursed their babies, they have died in battle, they have died in infancy, they have been kidnapped, run over, bitten by snakes, died in our laps. Each time we lost a pet, we cried silently, or didn’t speak for days, our parents pretended to be brave, we went on about our lives and we thought we had healed. But all it took was one memory, one visual reference that reminded us of the one that left us, and the bandage would come off a very painful wound and emotions would come gushing.

So I am sorry, Tipu, Simba, Kimi, Kallu, Chinky, Pushpi, Kuttu, Vinci, Brownie, and various yet-to-be-named kittens who died and found a place in various patches of land that made for our habitat and turned into chikoo or lemon trees or rose bushes as my father deemed fit at the time. Before long, we had forgotten who was the chikoo and who was the rose.

So I have been spending the last few days visiting every memory, every picture, every place that reminds me of Nadia and finally I found the coherence it needs to write a blog-post about her. Because I don’t want to get over her. Because I don’t think I can.

Black magic woman

Black magic woman

Nadia was my first black cat. She is also the first pet I have cremated. It is the first time I collected the ashes of a pet, and labelled it. So it stays, even if memory goes away.

Nadia is also special because she represents my transition from woman to mother. She came into my life just a month before I found out I was pregnant. She was home in an instant.

I am home!

I am home!

It was a new thing for the husband, as he was never allowed to have a pet in his life. He didn’t know then that cats don’t do toys. Neither do they do as told.

I need to be challenged. Can you do better than this?

I need to be challenged. Can you do better than this?

But Nadia felt sorry for him and decided to adopt his favorite place.

Now we are talking

Now we are talking

She soon realised that she had to get on my good side too, hence:

Just in case you thought I was an alcoholic

Just in case you thought I was an alcoholic

A month later, I found out I was pregnant, and we decided to get Nadia a playmate, just in case she felt left out. We got home Bravo, a three-legged piece of art. It was the best decision we ever made, much against public advice.

Okay, this one was a good move. And he also follows instructions

Okay, this one was a good move. And he also follows instructions

Of course we never thought it would go so well.

Good to have someone your size to cuddle with

Good to have someone your size to cuddle with

And sometimes we were jealous too. What about us, we thought?

You know, I don't really care what you think.

You know, I don’t really care what you think.

Soon, Re arrived, and they were a threesome.

Oh look, another playmate!

Oh look, another playmate!

Of course, Nadia also took on additional responsibility, so I could get some sleep. I can never thank her enough for all those free baby-sitting hours.

I kinda like him, so happy to be nanny.

I kinda like him, so happy to be nanny.

But then, she was always rewarded.

Perks of the job

Perks of the job

Well, sometimes in ways she didn’t quite approve of, but always took in her stride.

I'm letting it go for now

I’m letting it go for now

When she wanted to hide, she blended with the landscape, so no one would bother her. Except me of course.

Plus they have good taste

I must say they have good taste

Sometimes she even took to my least favorite spot, just so I would stay away.

She got this desk to write her book. Have never seen her here though. Humans!

She got this desk to write her book. Have never seen her here though. Humans!

Nights were of course, reserved for he-who-must-turn-into-a-potato

He, of course is really committed to his passion.

He, of course is really committed to his passion.

Sometimes, she rewarded him too. She gave the best pedicures, and chances were, if you were a man, you had a better chance earning them. We actually thought of turning it into a business model, but then thought she might like to pick her candidates.

I like rewarding people who burn the midnight oil. Never mind what they are doing.

I like rewarding people who burn the midnight oil. Never mind what they are doing.

He-who-must-be-guarded soon turned out to be a good playmate. Sometimes getting into forbidden territory too.

He seems to have started early. May be he will finish the book faster than his mother.

He seems to have started early. May be he will finish the book faster than his mother.

But then as long as she got her fair share of sun-play, she was happy to play along.

I like boys who get their hands dirty.

I like boys who get their hands dirty.

Plus she liked people who broke the rules.

Or who do food well.

Or who do food well.

Never mind if sometimes she had to take no for an answer

Never mind if I don't get to open their Christmas presents.

What? I don’t get to open Christmas presents?

Plus there was also places she could get to where he couldn’t.

When it gets too much, there is always the outdoors.

When it gets too much, there is always the outdoors.

She had her weaknesses. Yellow melons. Tomatoes. Yoghurt.

Hahaha, the sabziwala didn't even notice!

Hahaha, the sabziwala didn’t even notice!

They should pay me for endorsing this!

They should pay me for endorsing this!

And she always managed her alone-time. A very valuable life-lesson for me. When you want it, go get it.

She doesn't get 'leave me alone', does she?

She doesn’t get ‘leave me alone’, does she?

Sometime last year, a suitable boy made an appearance. She knew she couldn’t make babies, but what was wrong with a little window fling? Especially when it was always in her territory?

So he is well-scrubbed. And not loud. Worth dating!

So he is well-scrubbed. And not loud. Worth dating!

He of course started playing hard to get. Like most idiotic men.

Will he? Won't he?

Will he? Won’t he?

And soon it was Christmas again and he was ‘so last year’.

Wake me up when Christmas is over!

Wake me up when Christmas is over!

She had the art of creating space out of nothing. A lot of space.

Okay, I have put on weight. So has everyone else in this house.

Okay, I have put on weight. So has everyone else in this house.

She even endured Re’s stories on loop. Although she knew that Bravo, being the more mushy, clingy one would always get Re’s attention more.

Now we'll have to endure his stories every day.

Now we’ll have to endure his stories every day.

And sometime last month, she stopped eating. And started throwing up. And there began an unending journey to the vet’s clinic. She didn’t like it one bit, but she did everything she could to not make it harder for us.

I wouldn't have agreed to this, but I rather like Michelle, the doctor.

I wouldn’t have agreed to this, but I rather like Michelle, the doctor.

Her kidneys were badly damaged. She had numbers on her report card that would put any school kid to shame. All values far exceeded anything that was deemed normal. And then one day, she told me, “Enough of this. Leave me alone.” And I did. She left for cat heaven early next morning. She had a full house at her farewell.

Thank you guys for standing by me. But when you gotta go, you gotta go.

Thank you guys for standing by me. But when you gotta go, you gotta go.

The next morning, her boyfriend reappeared. I told him it was too late.

An ode to a cat I forgot to hug. And now I never can.

Sometime last year, going to school became easier. There was no resistance from Re, no stress in the mornings about getting him ready, and making it on time for the bus.

The reason was a cat named Harry.

We first spotted him sitting atop a sack of potatoes, just outside the sabziwala at the stop the school bus would pick up Re from.

 

harry sackVery soon, Re and Harry became friends. He woke up every morning, eager to go to school, as he had to ‘check what Harry was doing’. Or where was he sitting today. Bidding Harry goodbye before boarding the school bus became a ritual.

harry 1harry 2And just like that, a cat made my life a wee bit easier. It had happened before too, and I can’t be grateful enough.

There were other animals, Sheroo and Sher Khan, who added more drama to our morning ritual, but Harry always remained special. Harry was Re’s friend, he named him, he called out to him, Harry always responded. For once, I was just a passive observer. Re and Harry had a relationship that needed no intervention.

And sometime last week, Harry went missing. We didn’t see him one day, and asked the sabziwala. He told us Harry was unwell, and a kind girl who loved animals had taken him to the doctor. Every day after that, Re and I would get ready, and make a dash for the bus stop, earlier than usual, hoping to see Harry. He wasn’t there. On day five, I knew something was wrong; the sabziwala told me Harry was in hospital with a kidney failure. He had no number for the girl who took him, so all I could do was wait for more news and pray that all would be well in the end. Today, he finally told me that Harry didn’t make it.

I was shattered. Re still wanted to know why Harry didn’t come to play, but by now, he had made friends with Sheroo and Sher Khan. I decided not to bring him up and waited till Re boarded the bus to cry a silent cry.  I should have hugged Harry. I so should have. But for now, all I can do is write a little ode:

RIP, Harry.
You made potatoes look so cool.
You made the morning bus a ritual to look forward to, as Re and I would gaze at your beauty endlessly and wonder what you were thinking.
You lent gravitas to vegetables, as you picked a favorite everyday. The Sabziwala misses you too.
You gave new meaning to the “truth about cats and dogs”. Sheroo (dog) and Sher Khan (dog) have lost anchor without your disdainful gaze at them every morning.
Did I tell you how beautiful you were? But then, you already knew it, you rascal.
Go, have fun with the angels. Send some pixie dust our way too.
Next time, I will always remember to hug the thing I love when it’s in front of me.