Wild things, I think I love you

Keeping animals can be tough. Every now and then we get a plaintive note through our door asking "Have you seen our missing cat? She is slight of build, dark brown all over, with large green eyes and big ears." Everyone in the house starts blubbing there and then. It's not surprising that the water table in our village is rising so that the long-forgotten winter bournes flood the post office and lift the Tarmac off the road once again.

Animals know how to get to people, and whole communities revolve around them.

We've had to have two horses put down in less than 12 months. It's horrible. The only consolation is that we now think Mr Watson the knackerman is a very nice knackerman indeed and the cost of taking away and cremating the remains, and returning the ashes in a neat cardboard box, is only 160 quid.

Compare that with the price for granny and you can tell that Mr Watson's talents could be more widely employed. And you get a plot in perpetuity under one of our oaks, with the best view in Hampshire. That's a whole lot better than 10 years in the council's garden of remembrance and an entry in the Book of Gloom.

Down our way this business of - shall we say disposal - is reaching crisis point. After all, we're not far from Bournemouth. It has become comme il faut with the sailing fraternity to be buried at sea off The Needles, at the western end of the Isle of Wight. All yachties dream of being sewn into a hammock, the final stitch being, as tradition demands, through the nose, and with a cannonball at one's feet. Then it's the slide down the grating - "and we commend his body to the deep" - while tears trickle down mahogany-tanned and bewhiskered cheeks. Except the holidaymakers at Ventnor and Sandown are beginning to complain when Uncle Fred is washed up again on the beach. You can't get the cannonballs these days.

Anyway, back to Tibbs or Molly or Theucidides or whoever it is who is lost this week. You see, being slight of build, brown all over and somewhat peculiar of countenance doesn't wash with the local predators. There are wild things in the woods hereabout. A year off from hunting, ramblers and the All-Wheel-Drive Club while the countryside was closed for business by foot-and-mouth gave our native fauna the chance for a field day. In all that peace and quiet there was nothing to do but procreate. You know how it is. Now the place is boiling over with foxes and badgers and weasels and stoats and other things with sharp teeth and no scruples, as well as cuddly deer and bunny rabbits which confine themselves to destroying my roses.

It just isn't safe for Tibbs and Molly and Theucidides to go out. Often they come back damaged and morose, but sometimes they just don't come back.

I'm afraid the only solution to all this is to out-Herod Herod. Our cats are called Meg and Mog. Their loathing and disdain for all human beings know no bounds. Why I brought them home as cuddly furballs to live at my expense completely eludes me now. But they do have the virtue of murdering anything that crosses their path. Get up on a sunny morning, put your nose outside the back door and you will be met by Golgotha. Dead things everywhere. Half-eaten rabbits, with only that white bobtail and the spleen left. Sundry rats and mice culled from the stables. The odd bluetit to earn a scolding, to which Meg and Mog are utterly impervious. Ever tried to smack a cat?

In short, while they may well go missing one of these days, the chances are that waiting for attention outside the back door will be a badly-damaged fox, waving a white flag. That, at least, will be of some consolation.

All this has caused me to re-evaluate small animal courses at agricultural colleges. In the days before the Office for Standards in Education took over the young persons, our merry band of FE inspectors used to regard these courses with a certain snide amusement. Your roughty-toughty agricultural inspector was at home with milk yields, colic and spavin. I was never clear when they talked, lip curled, about "cuddly furry animal"

courses, whether they were referring to the hamsters or the rather wide-eyed young women who were training to look after them. Both tended to sit there mute and fuzzy-edged when questioned. Both had big brown eyes and a helpless look.

But, of course, this was just a ploy. Deep down they were hard as nails. No snivelling for them when poor Hammy keels over after one turn too many on the treadmill. No recoil at the sight of blood and entrails when Trixie swallows the sharp stick she chased to please her owner.

Remember who was doing the weeping when Rolf Harris's Animal Hospital triumphantly bestrode the airwaves? Rolf. The young woman beside him was patient, dry-eyed and practical. Keeping pets is not for the faint-hearted.

To survive it you need the detachment of the slaughterman and the undertaker.

David Sherlock is chief inspector at the Adult Learning Inspectorate

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